The Crisis in Hong Kong: What to Know

Jerome A. Cohen

I’ve been following Hong Kong’s developments. Below is what I’ve written for the Council on Foreign Relations two days ago. More is coming on my blog.

By Jerome A. Cohen

August 13, 2019

The Crisis in Hong Kong: What to Know

Why have protests surged in recent months?

Over the past ten weeks, the situation in Hong Kong has become increasingly tense. The broad protests, which on one occasion totaled roughly two million people, were sparked late this spring by the government’s attempt to adopt a bill that would have enabled the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to request extradition of suspected criminals from Hong Kong. The city’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, eventually announced that the bill was dead, but she has refused to formally withdraw it. She has also refused to resign.

Incidents of police violence have added fuel to the fire. The Hong Kong government has not established an independent investigation into police brutality, including reports of excessive use of tear gas, rubber bullets, and other weapons. Especially infuriating to many has been police tolerance of gangs that have assaulted protesters.

Frustrated by the government’s unresponsiveness, some protesters turned to violence. However, most protests, including a one-day general strike and the initial occupation of Hong Kong International Airport, were peaceful.

The protesters have expanded their demands. Many now insist on electoral reforms that the PRC has long rejected, as well as the reversal of the Hong Kong government’s removal of some democratically elected members from the Legislative Council. They want to exercise the political freedoms that they believe they were promised by the “one country, two systems” provisions of the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984 and Hong Kong’s Basic Law.

Will Beijing use force against the protesters?

The PRC has thus far left the growing crisis to the Hong Kong government and given it strong backing, but there are now serious signals that its patience may be expiring, and the threat of intervention by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is growing. Agencies and propaganda organs of the central government have called the protests “terrorist” activities and intensified their claims that Hong Kong’s turmoil is the result of American “black hands” seeking to create a color revolution.

Beijing knows that military repression in Hong Kong would be even more disastrous to its international relations than the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. Yet it will use force if necessary.

The Hong Kong government’s strategy is to make no concessions to the protesters, rely on aggressive police tactics, persuade community leaders of the desirability of stability, and engage in a war of attrition against protesters who continue to interfere with public, commercial, and social life. Such a policy ended the 2014 protests known as the Umbrella Movement.

But will this strategy be successful again, especially against a newly-energized younger generation that is the backbone of the current struggle? Most observers believe that Chairman Xi Jinping, recognizing that China now confronts a more serious challenge than in 2014, will not await the outcome of a war of attrition.

Thus, after celebrating the PRC’s seventieth anniversary on October 1, Beijing may well deploy the PLA. This would have tragic consequences for Hong Kong and its people, the PRC’s world standing, and international security.

Why does Hong Kong matter to Beijing?

Although Hong Kong’s economic importance to the PRC has diminished as mainland cities develop, it continues to be the PRC’s major international financial and business center and, as a special administrative region, enjoys a privileged status in its relations with the United States and other countries. Additionally, Hong Kong’s return to the Chinese motherland in 1997 symbolized the restoration of continental China’s territorial integrity and the vindication by the PRC of Chinese nationalism and sovereignty.

Beijing would never tolerate losing control over Hong Kong. Furthermore, the historic completion of China’s territorial integrity, in the PRC’s eyes, requires that Taiwan is ultimately restored to China. Losing control over Hong Kong would end the forlorn hope of reintegrating Taiwan in the foreseeable future.

Is the situation hopeless for the protesters?

Perhaps not if Hong Kong’s risk-averse nonofficial community leaders, who thus far have largely behaved like proverbial deer in the headlights, respond urgently to the crisis instead of continuing to dither.

They can organize an unofficial but public investigative, reconciliation, or unity commission to press for a peaceful resolution. Such an effort would never be possible in mainland China, because Communist Party repression has prohibited the growth of politically active nongovernmental organizations and independent public organizations.

Hong Kong is still strong in this respect. The Law Society and the Bar Association, for example, could take the lead in what would be a desperate but worthwhile attempt to avoid another Chinese Communist tragedy.