Hong Kong Enters China's Danger Zone
To Beijing, unruly citizens staging sometimes violent demonstrations on behalf of principles barred in the mainland are a great embarrassment and even a threat.
However, Lam’s extradition legislation triggered a political crisis highlighted by the PRC’s chief nightmare: mass popular demonstrations. Her suspension of the bill is believed to have been approved by the Xi government. The CCP is supposed to represent the people, so their demonstrations against the communist mainland are beyond embarrassing. Beijing wanted the protests defused as quickly as possible.
But Xi and CCP cannot so easily ignore the latest violent actions. Officials who I talked to said they saw the violent takeover of the legislative chamber as a serious breakdown in law and order. And retaliation will meet less Hong Kong public resistance if, as in the past, such activities receive as much public criticism as support. Expect the protests to shrink and eventually be suppressed, with force if necessary. And the leaders to face prosecution after a “decent interval,” so to speak.
Indeed, every new raucous round makes a tougher crackdown more likely. Beijing cannot justify democracy slightly abroad but not at home. The regime loses whenever it feels forced to grant concessions in response to public protests. Popular resistance undermines the PRC’s carefully cultivated international image; unruly events disrupt the order so desired and carefully established by the CCP. The Xi government’s greatest fear is the virus spreading to the mainland. Although the regime appears stable, no Chinese leaders want to repeat Tiananmen Square.
Beijing still has good reason to avoid violence, which would further drive the young into more forceful opposition. Coercion in Hong Kong would end any hope of peaceful reunification with Taiwan. Although China views the SAR as a domestic matter, other nations would see the issue in light of the PRC’s international commitments accompanying Hong Kong’s transfer. Moreover, a violent crackdown would enhance already significant concerns over Chinese assertiveness regarding territorial issues in the South China Sea and elsewhere. The PRC’s neighbors likely would accelerate their efforts to constrain Beijing.
Nevertheless, the Xi government clearly is concerned about its own authority and future. There are limits to the challenges to its rule that it is prepared to accept. The demonstrators’ turn toward violence risks crossing a red line. Passion is important in politics, but in a case where the stakes are so great prudence is even more vital.
In the 1980s London avoided playing chicken with the lives of millions of Hong Kongers. That almost certainly was the right decision. Activists today should exercise similar restraint, rather than bet residents’ freedom on radical action. How best to preserve their liberties and for the longest time possible should be given the utmost priority, even if that means taking a more restrained approach when the stakes are lower and avoiding gratuitous offense with little upside.
The West can help, but private criticism is likely to be more effective than public censure. Washington could inform Beijing that sacrificing Hong Kong’s unique attributes would end U.S. trade preferences for the territory. Asian and European states should similarly communicate the price that China would pay for abandoning its official commitments alongside the transfer. The business community should add its voice, warning the Xi government against triggering a commercial exodus from the SAR.
The PRC is becoming a central challenge for American foreign policy. Hong Kong adds yet another complication. Washington must be realistic in recognizing what it can achieve to preserve liberty in the territory, just as the UK was realistic in what it could demand when returning Hong Kong to Beijing. Politics is the art of the possible, especially in such a complicated and sensitive case as Hong Kong.
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan. He is the author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.