China’s Communist Party cannot simply deploy brutal force as it has done in the pastby Guy de Jonquières / October 15, 2019 / Leave a comment
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…