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What’s Next for Hong Kong?

Beijing seems to think it can wear down the protesters and wait them out. That's wishful thinking.
September 9, 2019
What’s Next for Hong Kong?
Demonstrators hold up their hands to symbolize the five demands that protesters are asking for, as they march from Chater Garden to the US consulate in Hong Kong on September 8, 2019. (Photo by Vivek Prakash / AFP/Getty Images)

Over the last three months, the protests by millions of citizens in Hong Kong against the administration of Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, Hong Kong’s chief executive, has assumed an almost David and Goliath character: the threat of massive military action by the People’s Republic of China against legions of unarmed protesters – many of whom have declared their willingness to die in order to defend the individual rights and liberties that the residents of the former British colony are still entitled to. Some of them have reportedly even written their last will and testament and expect to be killed in the streets.

Last week, Goliath blinked. What happens next will be telling.

Despite previous declarations by Lam that her Communist-backed government would accede to none of the protesters’ demands, on Wednesday she announced that the “much-despised Extradition Bill,” as it was described in the Hong Kong press, would be withdrawn from the administration’s legislative agenda. Striking the bill from any further consideration was one of five demands from the protesters to Lam’s administration..

Lam also promised to create an “investigative platform” to examine the causes for these protests that have turned progressively violent. This “platform” is a body tasked with forming a set of recommendations for a path forward, but it is not the fully-chartered commission of inquiry that the protesters demanded. They also called for all of those arrested thus far to be released and all charges against them dismissed and for Lam to resign as part of a political reform process.

The extradition bill that Lam withdrew was the initial spark for these protests. It would have required authorities to detain anyone living in Hong Kong but charged with a crime by the government on the mainland and extradite them for trial across the border. Due process is almost non-existent on the mainland – and “evidence” that could be used to trigger any such extradition order is cheaply and easily manufactured by the communist regime’s infamous Ministry of State Security (MSS).

The “one-country, two-systems” arrangement that Hong Kongers have lived under since the 1997 handover of the former British colony to Beijing has created a wide gulf between the societal atmosphere, governing arrangement and social order in Hong Kong and that of the mainland PRC.

In her landmark work published in 2014 to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the massacre in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, The People’s Republic of Amnesia, Louisa Lim interviewed countless numbers of young, mainland Chinese. Her intent was to demonstrate how much or how little they know about the difference between life in their country, where there have been unlimited resources dedicated to erasing almost all evidence of the 1989 slaughter, and the outside world, which is horrifyingly aware of those events of three decades ago.

One of them was a young Chinese student who was visiting Hong Kong for the first time in his life. His experience was eye-opening, to say the least.

“The way of thinking here is very open,” she reported from her conversation with this young marketing student. “It gives you the feeling that you dare to speak out, dare to do stuff, dare to criticise and dare to think,” he told her.

That daring to speak and criticise those in power is precisely what the Hong Kong protesters have been defending. The extradition bill might have been the catalyst for the weeks of protests, but the larger objective was to protect their way of life, to prevent Xi Jinping’s Communist Party from placing them under the same dictatorial regime that so cavalierly orders its military into the streets to shoot its own people.

The Communist Party has been chipping away at Hong Kong’s democratic system of government for years. The extradition bill was the last straw, and the withdrawal has been described widely as “too little, too late.” Two protesters still wearing masks to protect their identity held a press conference late Wednesday denouncing Lam’s move as “a band-aid on rotting flesh” and repeated their calls for “five demands, not one less” to be met by the city government.

The situation creates a serious dilemma for Beijing. On one hand, Xi and his deputies are terrified by calls for political reform by the ongoing protests. “If this movement jumps to the mainland,” said one long-time China analyst based in Hong Kong, “it could spread like wildfire and the country could be plunged into chaos.”

SinoInsider, a research center dedicated to analyzing events in the PRC, has assessed that “the [Communist] Party has decided on the strategy of ‘advancing to retreat’ on Hong Kong. The ‘advancing’ part of the strategy is convincing the world that the PRC will deploy troops into Hong Kong for another Tiananmen-style crackdown at a moment’s notice. The ‘retreat’ involves ‘meeting’ the demands of the Hong Kong protesters in a backhanded way in the hopes that public anger will die down and the city will return to normalcy. The CCP’s goal of ‘advancing to retreat’ is to calm things down in the city and focus its energies instead on other pressing matters, such as the Sino-U.S. trade war and the 2020 Taiwan presidential election.”

In the meantime, the CCP walks a tightrope of trying to maintain this balance – at least until after October 1, a national holiday to celebrate 70 years since the founding of the Communist government. Any action taken against Hong Kong before this red-letter day would spoil one of the signature moments in the CCP’s history of existence. The danger is that the seemingly unending protests in Hong Kong run against the party line that the nation is a “harmonious society” and potentially casts a long shadow over these celebrations.

There is also the reality that any action taken against Hong Kong could go very wrong. The military units that have been massing across the border in the mainland city of Shenzhen are largely not regular People’s Liberation Army (PLA) military units, but the People’s Armed Police (PAP) – armed formations charged with maintaining internal stability inside the country.

The PAP is not by any means a modestly sized organization, and it is the PAP that would carry out any kind of Tiananmen Square-like suppression of the protests.

The difficulty with the PAP, said a longtime China specialist in Beijing who spoke to the Bulwark, is that the personnel in these units are not exactly the best-prepared individuals in the Chinese state’s toolbox of repression options. “There is an old saying, he explained, “that in the PLA you are trained 100 hours for every hour you might be deployed in action somewhere and that in the PAP you are trained about one hour for every 100 hours you would be on crowd-control duty. Not surprisingly, the PAP have a history of firing into crowds without adequate provocation or authorization for doing so.”

Nothing about how Beijing’s state-controlled press has reported on the protests to date suggests that the PAP would be ordered to act with restraint. During a particularly violent exchange between the Hong Kong police and protesters on July 30, an officer with the surname Lau brandished a loaded Remington shotgun at a crowd of hundreds of demonstrators near Kwai Chung Police Station. Rather than being sanctioned for pointing a deadly weapon at a gathering of unarmed civilians, he was instead hailed as a national hero in mainland publications – and will be feted as a guest of honor at the upcoming October 1 National Day celebrations in Beijing.

Shortly before Lam’s decision to withdraw the Extradition Bill more than one news agency’s analysis of the situation was that “Hong Kong is now a tinderbox and the government holds the matches.”

One option that intelligence officials and diplomats in Beijing who spoke to the Bulwark believe is under serious consideration is deploying the PAP into Hong Kong, but with orders to avoid confrontation with the protesters. Instead, they would be posted to guard the liaison office for relations with Beijing and other central government offices that have been overrun and defaced in previous protests. This, in theory, would leave the Hong Kong police free to deal with the protesters exclusively.

While it looks like some clever move that eases the strain on the police, it is actually a worse idea than the standard, half-baked directives that come from the HR department at any large corporation. Putting the PAP in charge of safeguarding these facilities would make it appear as though Lam and the other pro-Beijing lawmakers and administrators need an occupying army from across the border to prop them up and provide their security for them. In the eyes of the people of Hong Kong they would now be puppets and mouthpieces of an external power.

Whatever solution Beijing comes to, evidence to date is that Xi and his cohorts believe that muddling through without having to give in to the protesters demands will eventually cause the movement to run out of energy. The protesters will, they believe, eventually give up and go home before the CCP has to make any difficult decisions. It is the triumph of hope over experience. For the immediate future there is no evidence that events will play out in this manner.

Reuben Johnson

Reuben F. Johnson is a defense technology analyst and correspondent for Breaking Defense and was based in Kyiv for two decades prior to the Russian invasion. He is currently based in Warsaw.