- Hong Kong protesters have been dogged but pragmatic.
- Beijing has little to gain from using military force to conquer a city it already occupies.
- There is room for a creative solution on Beijing’s part to resolve the current impasse.
The first live rounds of ammunition were fired during this week’s latest round of violent clashes between anti-government protesters and Hong Kong police. Extending the logic of their “eye for an eye” mantra, the young self-described revolutionaries began chopping down alleged police surveillance cameras instead of just temporarily blinding them with laser pointers. Petrol bombs were allegedly thrown at police. Tear gas was deployed. Dozens were arrested. Fortunately, no serious wounds were reported, as far as I am aware.
For those who desired a transition to something like a Gandhian passive resistance, this latest outbreak of violence suggests that the mass — and massively peaceful — protest on August 18 was something of a false dawn. But, as I described a few days ago, even that protest did not end wholly “peacefully”. Sure, there was little in the way of street combat, but a large contingent of more radical protesters did set up camp for a few hours outside of the government headquarters and the People’s Liberation Army barracks, mostly shining their lasers into the eyes of Hong Kong’s police, but also taunting the PLA soldiers garrisoned nearby.
Let’s talk about the PLA. Beijing, as everyone knows, paraded its buildup of troops along the mainland’s border with Hong Kong in Shenzhen on international TV a couple of weeks ago. But, the PLA is already in Hong Kong. Indeed, China’s The Global Times just reiterated that the Hong Kong garrison is not merely a showpiece but is there to “protect the ‘one country, two systems’ principle” such as it is.
Some have argued that the protests are a “direct challenge to the Communist Party’s control”. That does not quite ring true. So far, these protests amount to an indirect challenge to Beijing’s power. If the protesters wanted to directly confront or provoke Beijing, everybody knows where the garrison is. The night of the 18th, the vast majority of jeering protesters studiously ignored its presence. Unless it has been unreported, or I just missed it, while protesters were storming the Legislative Council on July 1, the 22nd anniversary of the colony’s retrocession to China, they also somehow managed to miss the more obvious target of the PLA garrison.
Instead, they managed to make their way all the way to Lantau Island to occupy the international airport there and make themselves a nuisance to international travelers. They have battled with their own police force. Their Five Demands require very little from the mainland’s side, although the fifth demand of greater democracy will surely rankle in Beijing.
The point is that this leaderless “revolt” is revolutionary, perhaps, but revolutionary with respect to the Hong Kong SAR government, not Chinese rule itself. The vast majority of demonstrators and even violent protesters have by and large kept both their demands and their activities within the scope of achievable objectives.
In this sense, the Hong Kong protesters are not all that far removed from the trend in Taiwan. A slowly growing coalescence around a liberal Taiwanese identity, especially among students, a willingness to act aggressively, sometimes violently, against the state and the police but no real will to openly provoke or test Beijing’s will by declaring independence.
In both Hong Kong and Taiwan, protesters have, despite extreme anti-Chinese and pro-foreign (even pro-colonial) rhetoric, been both extremely dogged and extremely pragmatic. I dare say, from a purely political, amoral perspective, that the Hong Kong protesters have found a nearly perfect balance between violence and peaceful protest — to be clear, this is no comment on the justice or injustice of their cause or tactics.
On Beijing’s side, a Tiananmen-style outcome would wreck Beijing’s image as a relatively liberal tyrant that seeks to become guarantor of a multipolar Westphalian world order. Of course, this would be a PR disaster in the West, and it would harden resolve in Taiwan, but it would also send a chill throughout the rest of Asia: if you say No to China or merely express your objection to Beijing’s unilateral implementation of an international agreement, you can expect the PLA to come visit sooner rather than later.
In other words, although the anti-government protesters have directly appealed to the West for support, they have effectively left the door open to a compromise that includes a continuation of the one country, two systems arrangement, if only Beijing would give the Hong Kong the nod to do so. On the other hand, Beijing would certainly want something in return, if only to save face. The question is, what could that be? One can imagine (I am spit-balling here), democratic overtures in exchange for some accelerated way of diluting Hong Kong’s significance in the Chinese constellation of cities and regions.
Assuming that the PRC remains a relatively stable Communist state and the Hongkongers feel ever more Hongkongy, the approach to the 2047 deadline for Hong Kong to become fully integrated into the PRC is bound to be an unpleasant, depressing process. But there seems little reason for Beijing to force the issue at this moment. Again, assuming a fair degree of internal stability, there is little reason to think that Beijing wants to go the Tiananmen route just yet. Just as most of the protesters have avoided confronting the PLA in Hong Kong, the PLA has ignored the few who have dared to taunt them. Nor do the Hongkongers really expect to achieve independence or full-blown self-determination in the near-term.
For those reasons, there is a probability that with some creative diplomacy, a way out can be found for both sides that will at least delay the otherwise inevitable reckoning. Losing face is problematic for Beijing, but so is scuttling its “soft” power diplomacy. The tear gas should not blind us to the fact that both sides are acting in predominantly pragmatic fashion.