Hong Kong protests: what will Beijing do next?

China’s Communist Party cannot simply deploy brutal force as it has done in the past

October 15, 2019
Carrie Lam, Chief Executive of Hong KPhoto: Vernon Yuen/NurPhoto/PA Images
Carrie Lam, Chief Executive of Hong KPhoto: Vernon Yuen/NurPhoto/PA Images

After more than four months of protests in Hong Kong, which continued defiantly through this month’s celebrations on the mainland of the Chinese Communist Party’s 70th anniversary, authorities in Beijing remain tantalisingly silent about how, or even whether, they plan to restore order to the rebellious city.

China has staged ostentatious displays of military might just across the border and issued stern official threats of retribution. Yet these have neither intimidated protesters nor, so far at least, been followed by action. Some western observers believe Beijing is now just biding its time for a suitable opportunity to march in, lay down the law and crush the increasingly violent and disruptive protests with an iron fist.

There is, however, another, arguably more plausible, possibility. It is that the Chinese authorities are trapped in an awkward dilemma from which they see no easy escape route. From their perspective, all the available options appear to have serious downsides, over both the short and the long term.

China’s Communist Party has never hesitated in the past to employ brutal force to promote its own interests and defend them when they were threatened—in Tibet, in Xinjiang and in Tiananmen Square. But Hong Kong, and the challenges it poses for Beijing, are different from those cases.

In contrast to Tibet and Xinjiang, Hong Kong is an open, advanced and cosmopolitan society and an important international financial and trade hub. Though its economic importance to the mainland is diminishing, it remains a major gateway for China’s inward investments and the platform for many of its corporate share flotations. If Beijing were to crack down hard, it would not only harm its own interests but be exposed to the spotlight of global media.

Beijing may not care too much about provoking condemnations from the west, whose appetite and capacity for effective reprisals appear limited. However, forceful mainland intervention would flagrantly violate a treaty obligation by tearing up the already fraying One country, two systems principle, which guarantees Hong Kong extensive autonomy. That would jeopardise China’s energetic and expensive struggle to expand its influence and cultivate soft power around the world, by sending a clear warning to other countries that it could not be trusted to keep its word and honour international commitments. That would be a big diplomatic own goal.

Unlike Tiananmen Square which, with its neighbouring streets, covers just a few square kilometres, Hong Kong has a surface area of 1,100 sq. km. Much of it is covered with labyrinthine urban streets and tall buildings that would offer a determined resistance movement a rabbit warren of hiding places. Putting and keeping resistance down could call for the indefinite commitment of large numbers of troops and create a permanent cauldron of instability on the mainland’s southern border.

Even if Beijing could suppress the protests, it would then face another, equally serious, problem: how to devise effective and sustainable means of governing a population of 7m people, many of them angry, sullen and resentful. That is a question the Party has never had seriously to confront because it had not thought it needed to.

When Hong Kong was handed over to the mainland in 1997, Beijing assumed it could rely on a structure of governance loosely modelled on the one inherited from the former colony’s British rulers: a chief executive—previously governor—whose chief task traditionally was to hold the ring between rival interests; a tame and compliant Legislative Council; and an elite club of local tycoons who would help keep the population in line.

It has not worked out that way. Instead, Hong Kong’s government has been increasingly paralysed by deadlock between its executive and legislative branches; a succession of weak, mediocre and unpopular chief executives, widely perceived as representing Beijing’s interests rather than those of Hong Kong, has bred disillusionment and contempt for their office; and the tycoons have proved unreliable and politically inept, interested mainly in sucking up to Beijing and feathering their own nests at the expense of their fellow citizens.

The system is now so discredited and mistrusted that it appears beyond repair. Simply replacing the hapless and widely disliked Carrie Lam as chief executive would change little, not least because any candidate deemed acceptable by Beijing—as he or she would need to be—would for that reason be unacceptable to broad swathes of Hong Kong’s population.

The obvious alternatives look no more promising. Introducing democracy, even in a limited form, would be contrary to the most sacred canons of the Communist Party, above all under the highly authoritarian leadership of Xi Jinping, while direct rule by Beijing would risk inflaming anger in Hong Kong even further.

No wonder, then, that mainland authorities appear undecided about what to do. Yet they are under growing pressure to act, for two reasons. One is that the underlying sources of popular unrest in Hong Kong—grievances over stagnating incomes, widening inequality, soaring property prices, deteriorating public services, fear of loss of freedoms and the squashing of Cantonese culture—are not going away. Indeed, they, and the discontent they generate, are becoming steadily more intense.

The other reason is that it may become harder for the Communist Party to resist domestic pressure to act. Xi has striven hard to project a self-image as an invincible strongman leader, while state-controlled media portray Hong Kongers as a bunch of unpatriotic second class citizens, impudently thumbing their noses at the glorious mother country. To be seen to tolerate their insubordinate behaviour much longer could make Xi look weak and threaten him with serious loss of face at home.

If those pressures continue to mount, they may force Beijing’s hand. At some point, its patience may snap and its iron fist come crashing down. But if it does, China’s leaders must surely know that they will incur substantial costs, political as well as economic, that are likely to weigh heavily on them for a long time to come. For a regime that prizes control above all else, the choices ahead look far from simple.

The writer is former Financial Times Asia columnist and commentator based in Hong Kong