On 7 August Yang Jianli and Aaron Rhode published an article on “The American Interest” explaining why Hong Kong can show Xi Jinping that repressing freedom is a no-win proposition.
On August 5, a day of unprecedented strikes and demonstrations, thousands of mostly young Hong Kongers gathered around the offices of the Legislative Council, near Admiralty station on Hong Kong Island. The event, constituting the main body of protestors in Hong Kong on that day, looked nothing like the images of violent clashes one typically finds in international media reports, or in the derisive characterizations made by rulers in Hong Kong and Beijing.
Virtually all the protestors surrounding the Legislative Council wore black T-shirts as an expression of their unity of purpose. Finding places to sit on the ground, they chatted and laughed quietly together, as if on a holiday excursion. They were not there as representatives of a single political or ideological group. Rather, they were there for each other, and for their community, standing up for its spirit and ethos—for the very idea of Hong Kong. For every aggressive protestor one sees on television, pelting police stations with rocks and enduring tear gas and rubber bullets from security forces, there are thousands of peaceful residents of Hong Kong, eager to show their determination to hold on to their most cherished political values in the face of the incremental subordination of their home to the Chinese Communist Party. They belong to a movement that is largely without hierarchical structures, and they do not idolize or defer to leaders. With no clear representation, the amorphous, inclusive mass of protesting citizens can’t negotiate, make demands, or compromise; nor have they been deterred by arrest or the threat of ten-year prison terms for “rioting.” They are the most resilient kind of political movement: a broad, diverse movement animated by deeply shared bonds and common values.
What are those values? Hong Kongers cherish above all the Rule of Law and the basic human rights and freedoms that are the legacy of British common law under colonial rule. What they want more than anything, according to Professor Joseph Cheng, a veteran pro-democracy activist, “is to be left alone.” Hong Kong society is utilitarian and practical in orientation. In recent years, living standards have diminished; housing prices are astronomical, and wages are low and stagnant. One can assume that most of the young people who sat peacefully together on Monday live in cramped quarters with their parents. Nevertheless, they are clearly unmoved by Beijing-backed Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s efforts to divert their attention with dubious promises of improved economic circumstances in return for submission to Beijing’s will. Instead, the dominant sentiment expressed by the demonstrators against Lam is that she “betrayed” Hong Kong—that she sold Hong Kong down the river.
That morning, at her news conference, Lam budged not an inch on any of the demands and concerns the demonstrators have raised—not even on modest steps like an independent investigation into police violence, or the complete withdrawal, rather than suspension, of the extradition bill that sparked the protest movement. Pro-democracy leader Nathan Law, strolling among the assembled young Hong Kongers, dismissed Lam’s remarks as nothing but “the same denials and threats.” She spoke about preserving “order,” but the loss of order is precisely what the people of Hong Kong are protesting about. Order means confidence in the result of one’s actions, and in the reliability of civic institutions. The Rule of Law produces predictable outcomes based on processes governed by transparent principles. By contrast, the mainland legal system is designed to instill fear, not confidence; obedience, not consensus. Politicized and corrupt, its outcomes are arbitrary, aimed at preserving not justice but power. This is the disorder that threatens Hong Kong.
Observing the intense solidarity among the demonstrators on Monday, one of us (Aaron Rhodes) found it easy to understand why emigration is not a popular option. Hong Kongers want to stay together. We have heard directly from activists in Hong Kong, and it has been reported by news media, that some young protesters are so determined that they have written their wills and are prepared to die “for the movement.” With the shelving of the extradition bill, they have tasted a partial victory, and they are ready to go all the way to avoid coming under the yoke of Chinese Communist Party dictatorship.
But on August 5 and 6, both Lam and mainland authorities reinforced their intransigence, closing the door on any possibility of even acknowledging the legitimacy of the people’s concerns. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Hong Kong Garrison released a promotional video depicting security forces opening fire on civilians. The threats have had no impact. A local journalist told us that, despite holding a passport from a Western country, she would never leave Hong Kong. “We will fight until the end.”
Hong Kong’s struggle for a future in freedom has clearly entered a new phase, one where both restraint and resolve are crucial. The protests will continue, and tensions will escalate despite the looming specter of police and military violence.
The movement, too, is merging with growing labor unrest. Cracks are emerging in Hong Kong’s civil service. Upward of 1,000 state employees took part in a demonstration on August 2 after the South China Morning Post reported that more than 600 civil servants from 44 departments had filed a petition protesting the government’s handling of the protests and its unwillingness to establish an independent commission to investigate police responses. Civil servants have threatened to escalate their protest action to work stoppages and strikes by mid-August if the government fails to address their concerns. These grievances not only highlight the divisions within Hong Kong’s government but also threaten to disrupt government services. And depending on the severity of those disruptions, such a development could compel a response from Beijing. The more pillars of Hong Kong’s establishment fall, the more likely that scenario becomes.
Increasing violence will alienate the general population, yet no one can control the most aggressive members of the movement, given that it has no articulated strategy and no means for implementing one. Nevertheless, its millions of supporters share a philosophical approach toward conflict, one that finds expression in an aphorism attributed to martial arts legend Bruce Lee, an iconic figure in Hong Kong. The protests will “be like water finding its way through cracks.” They will not be assertive, but they will find a way, perhaps even flowing into Beijing’s own leadership fissures.
Challenging Xi’s “Kingship”
A major factor driving the massive protests in early June was the fact that the extradition bill would have subjected not just Hong Kongers but also mainland elites living in the province to a judicial system that is openly subordinate to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Both groups had good reason to fear and loathe the legislation. Indeed, the mainland elites would have the most to lose; they have obtained residency in Hong Kong largely for protection from this potential threat. As such, Carrie Lam’s abortive initiative met resistance from just about every quarter of society: ordinary Hong Kongers, members of the Hong Kong establishment, and members of the mainland elite in Hong Kong—none of whom trust the CCP’s politicized and corrupt judiciary.
With the extradition bill now being for all practical purposes dead, and with the protests moving on to other goals, a new dynamic is now at play. The top elite in Hong Kong, no longer seeing continued protests as necessarily consistent with their own interests, are taking a wait-and-see approach, while those in Beijing have made their own calculations.
Wu Qian, spokesman for China’s Defense Ministry, stated clearly in the last week of July that the PLA could legally intervene to help Hong Kong “maintain social order” if requested to do so by the territory’s government. The statement was a transparent effort to frighten protestors into backing down, and to soften their support abroad. The PLA’s counterterrorism drills in Zhenjiang, Guangdong province, which began on July 23, may have been intended as a display of readiness on the part of mainland forces to intervene in Hong Kong.
At the same time, an alternative to political coercion and military repression has emerged out of Beijing, one with broad implications for our assessment of the stability of the vertically oriented, autocratic Xi regime. On July 29, soon after Wu Qian’s threats, the civilian State Council held a press conference on the Hong Kong issue that laid out five principles: resolute support for Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam; a stand against violence and support for Hong Kong police; a call to Hong Kongers to put the disputes behind them and focus on quality of life and economic development; support for the “One Country, Two Systems” principle; and condemnation of foreign interference.
These principles differ from the PLA’s message in important ways. The State Council offered no hints of a takeover of Hong Kong, by either peaceful or violent means, and in fact avoided any talk of violent crackdowns or forceful intervention by Beijing. It is highly likely that this policy is in fact one forged by Premier Li Keqiang, and one that may potentially clash with that of Xi Jinping. Exiled political scientist Professor Yan Jiaqi believes that Li Keqiang, knowing and even wishing that the Hong Kong unrest will eventually bring Xi down, is “striking first to gain the initiative,” preempting a later possible showdown with Xi Jinping on Hong Kong.
It is to be expected that Xi Jinping’s aspirations for absolute rule would not be met with universal acquiescence. In recent years, Xi has tried to refashion China’s politics such that all questions are to be resolved by a single authority (定于一尊), that is, himself, and to make himself a “king,” as President Trump called him once, to Xi’s delight.
To that end, he has purged some of his comrades and over time coerced others, dictating that there can be “no discussing the central committee’s policies in an open manner” (不许妄议中央), thus ensuring that he retains all political initiative. Xi cannot abide by any opposition from within the Party. The result has been the predictable instability of vertical power: Prohibiting open opposition means that anyone, in the final analysis, could be his enemy. To be sure, there is no viable opposition; Xi would do anything to prevent such an opposition from coalescing. But while he has taken control of everything, he alone now owns everything. Problems such as China’s economic downturn, the ongoing trade wars with the United States, a looming financial crisis, and the inefficiency of the Belt and Road Initiatives now all fall on his shoulders. This may encourage his foes to rally around common opportunities. The more difficult and seemingly obdurate the Hong Kong protests become, the more likely they are to become the issue that unites the anti-Xi forces.
Of course no one can say that this will definitely happen, but logic and the reality of Beijing politics strongly suggest that, sooner or later, such a unifying crisis will emerge. Xi himself presumably understands just as well as those who would like to see him ousted. Premier Li is hardly the only actor hoping the crisis in Hong Kong will spell doom for Xi. It is plausible that some might want to entice him to send troops to Hong Kong and even conduct another Tiananmen-style massacre there, a moral and political trap. In any event, the Hong Kong movement has been the first open political setback for Xi Jinping, and it will have far-reaching political reverberations. Although Xi Jinping has so far distanced himself from the Hong Kong situation, the results of the protests will ultimately be laid at his feet; his legacy, what he values above all else, is at stake.
Xi’s Hong Kong Options
October 1, 2019, the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic, is a critical event for Xi Jinping. Will it find China coasting forward on a wave of successes, or mired in conflict and disorder? The next two years will be decisive for Xi’s political future and his aspirations to name himself, in effect, President for Life. He will likely need to face down challengers on multiple fronts. Xi cannot afford for Hong Kong to become an issue around which opposition against him can coalesce. His watchful eyes will focus not only on the Hong Kong democrats but, more importantly, the Hong Kong elite and the outreach that his “comrades” in Beijing have extended in Hong Kong.
Given the persistence of the Hong Kong challenge and its failure to dissipate in the face of Carrie Lam’s rigid policy of denial and increasingly brutal police tactics, we can infer that Xi is desperate. There are no viable scenarios for the outcome of the protests and the emergence of a new political equilibrium in Hong Kong that bode well for Xi.
Attempts to peacefully assuage the concerns of the people of Hong Kong would hand them moral victories and embolden them to press for more political rights. It would perhaps also encourage people on mainland China to follow suit. On the international level, Hong Kong could easily become the front line of the “new cold war” between the free world and China, and could erode Xi’s carefully crafted image as a successful autocrat among his supplicants around the world. Inspiring intrigues from many sides, it is hardly a situation supportive of his quest for life-long rule in China and for leadership of the new world order to come after the “liberal” world order crumbles.
A second option, the imposition of long-term, non-lethal coercion—one form of “peaceful ending” to the crisis—could postpone bloodshed by suffocating Hong Kong. But under such circumstances violence could erupt at any time, denying Communist China the ability to claim that it is the guarantor of rational stability. Hong Kong would continue to plague Beijing’s internal politics. It would be a powder keg, the focus of endless speculation and intrigue, and thus a symbol of the failure of Xi’s power.
A third option is brutal military suppression, but this would inevitably be a public relations catastrophe for Xi, leaving him isolated internationally and unable to proclaim a new, China-led global order. Xi could perhaps adopt the vaunted “long view” of history and decide to ride out the horrified international reactions that would follow a crackdown, but given crucial approaching domestic political tests, his focus will likely remain more short-term. And all signs point to the growth of an apocalyptic mindset among the people of Hong Kong that would be resistant to even the most brutal military suppression.
Facing these bleak alternatives, and the prospect that his domestic foes would use them to forge coalitions to attack him, what are Xi’s strategic options?
First, Xi could allow the protests but continue to orchestrate, with the cooperation of thugs in Hong Kong, violent clashes aimed at peeling away popular support for the protesters, who would suffer from fatigue and frustration. Many protestors would be incarcerated, and others would stay home for fear of a similar fate. Over time, the protests would die down by themselves, as they did during the Umbrella Movement in 2014. This is the best-case scenario for Beijing.
If the movement does not die down, Beijing may try to radicalize it so that it will become increasingly violent. Indeed we have already seen this tactic in action: Hong Kong police have encouraged violence, either by ignoring threats (when they allowed demonstrators to trash the Legislative Council offices), or by instrumentalizing criminal thugs to commit violent provocations. Intensely orchestrated violent incidents would plunge Hong Kong into such chaos that Beijing could declare it to be in a state of emergency and “ineffective governance” (a term recently coined by the Director of the Liaison Office of the Central People’s Government in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region). This would give Beijing grounds to enact Articles 14 and 18 of the Hong Kong Basic Law: The Hong Kong Garrison would help keep order, and Beijing would promulgate temporary laws to restrict freedoms of press and assembly.
If it deems terror tactics insufficient to halt the advances made by Hong Kongers, the Chinese state will declare a state of emergency and send in armed police to violently crack down on the protesters and “liberate” Hong Kong. This option would be a last resort for Beijing, but it is nonetheless a viable one. There have been several signs that Beijing is preparing for this scenario. About 160,000 members of the police forces staged a large exercise in Guangdong province on July 30. The exercises were reportedly part of summer training in preparation for events surrounding the 70th anniversary of the founding. Heavy equipment such as armored vehicles and helicopters have been observed participating in the exercises. Chinese police forces do not often stage exercises of this size. Their location and scale suggest that they could be linked to the worsening security situation in Hong Kong. The police exercises, coupled with PLA counterterrorism drills in Zhenjiang, Guangdong province, as mentioned above, could be intended as a display of readiness on the part of mainland forces to intervene in Hong Kong.
If either of the last two of these strategies were deployed in order to keep a lid on unrest for the 70th anniversary celebrations on October 1, Beijing would need to undertake huge efforts to restore the economy of Hong Kong, much as they did following the Tiananmen Square massacre.
A violent crackdown by the PLA would be the most dangerous option of all for Xi, both domestically and internationally. Some opponents may egg him on toward this folly in order to topple him, manipulating his vanity. But by and large, few major leaders want to be associated with “massacres”. Among the two generations of retired leaders in China, last week only Jiang Zemin came to the funeral of Li Peng, the “Butcher of Beijing” who ordered the slaughter at Tiananmen. At a time when the entire world is asking whether Tiananmen will be repeated in Hong Kong, the absence of so many august figures at Li’s funeral shows, if not a moral rejection of state violence, a pragmatic one.
We believe an analogy with the events in Prague in 1968 is useful for understanding the hazards of violent suppression in Hong Kong. While the “one country, two systems” model is in fact rapidly moving toward one of “one country, one system”, Hong Kong today, as a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of China, has a governance model in which its leaders have more in common with the vassals of pre-revolution China than they do with the party officials who rule other parts of the country. Their sense of achievement, honor, and position in history is ultimately reckoned with in different terms, prompting them to assume a more paternalistic orientation toward Hong Kong citizens. Before the CCP took power, China’s politics were “feudal”. Governors of a province or a county were called “parent officers” and the people “subjects” and “children”. The primary responsibility of a parent officer was to take care of the interest of his subjects and children. Violence against one’s subjects on the part of central authorities was something to be opposed. If Xi sent troops to Hong Kong, Carrie Lam and her colleagues would react differently than did Chen Xitong, the Mayor of Beijing in 1989, when Deng Xiaoping sent tanks onto the Beijing streets.
This can be compared to the situation in 1968, when the Soviet Union sent tanks into Prague in response to the Prague Spring. Although they were unable to stop it, even the hardliners in the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia did not wholeheartedly support the move. While the reforms initiated by Alexander Dubcek were repealed and he was expelled, as dictated by the Kremlin, an underlying movement for reform was in fact strengthened by the invasion. The moderate factions that had followed Dubcek’s lead were, at heart, Czech and Slovak nationalists who sought autonomy. Their disapproval of Soviet power tactics put them more on the side of the nascent Soviet dissidents. Subsequently, they adopted a more flexible stance regarding economic reform and dissident activity. This helped lay the foundation for the Velvet Revolution.
It is highly likely that Hong Kong’s rulers adhere to a paternalistic model of leadership that gives them a sense of responsibility for the welfare of their “subjects.” How would they react to the brutal imposition of Communist Party military rule in Hong Kong? The lack of a clear answer to this question raises the stakes for Xi.
Our Hong Kong Options
In this precarious moment, Hong Kongers should consolidate their gains by claiming victory and continuing to demonstrate for political freedoms and against Communist Party rule. But they must do everything in their power to prevent these protests from becoming violent, and to avoid playing into the hands of those seeking justification to enact Articles 14 and 18 of the Basic Law. They should participate in September’s upcoming elections for District Legislators, and in the March 2020 elections for the Legislative Council. Several visionary protestors have been calling on young people participating in the protests to register as new voters. The Hong Kong election authorities announced on August 1 that 385,985 have become new registered voters this year, a 47 percent increase from the 2015 election year.
Members of the protest movement must also expand their advocacy in international institutions, national governments, and civil society. They must make the point that their struggle will have consequences of the highest order, not only for the future of Hong Kong and China, but for democracy and human rights globally.
The U.S. government must push back against the hackneyed Communist Party claim that America is the force behind these homegrown protests for freedom, and it should also firmly defend the rights of Hong Kongers to freedom of expression and assembly on the basis of international standards and the principles of universal, individual political rights.
American leaders must join together in common cause against violent suppression of the protests by either Hong Kong or mainland security forces; at the same time they should firmly express opposition to violence by demonstrators. Chinese leaders who discourage state violence against Hong Kong protestors should be praised. Participation in upcoming elections should be encouraged. Hong Kong leaders working peacefully for freedom and democracy need to be embraced. Finally, if violent crackdowns occur, Congress needs to pass the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act and implement the Magnitsky Act to punish those responsible, in both Hong Kong and Beijing.
The evolving crisis in Hong Kong is one that will affect us all. As such, it is one that deserves our attention, our solidarity, and our concrete efforts to assist those seeking the same freedoms we enjoy.
Jianli Yang and Aaron Rhode