The Endangered Asian Century
America, China, and the Perils of Confrontation
For five months, Hong Kong has seen waves of massive protests and violence in the streets. And for five months, the local authorities, with the backing of Beijing, have responded in increasingly draconian ways—from wielding batons and firing lethal shots at protesters to jailing them on rioting charges—that have succeeded mostly in inflaming public sentiment. The situation has devolved into a stalemate, featuring escalating protests and brutal clashes between police and demonstrators. The question on everyone’s mind is if and when the Chinese government will resort to more aggressive means—including use of the military—to end the unrest for good.
The protests began in February in response to a proposed law that would allow Hong Kong to extradite residents of the territory to the Chinese mainland, tearing down the last firewall protecting Hong Kong from Beijing. Although Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam agreed to “suspend” the extradition bill on June 15, residents have continued to press their demands, calling for the formal withdrawal of the bill, an independent investigation into police abuses, the dropping of riot charges against protesters, and the introduction of democratic reforms.
On July 21, after activists defaced the national emblem outside of Beijing’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong’s Western District, the spokesperson for China’s Ministry of National Defense accused the protesters of “challenging the central government’s authority” and violating the principle of “one country, two systems”—the term used to describe Beijing’s model for ruling Hong Kong since assuming sovereignty over the territory in 1997. The protesters’ “radical” actions, he said, were “intolerable.” Then, on July 31, the Chinese military garrison in Hong Kong released a video showing Chinese troops practicing anti-riot drills. In one scene, the troops shouted that “all consequences are at your own risk!” Together, these messages were widely seen as a threat to deploy troops from China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Some commentators in the United States have even raised the prospect of another Tiananmen Square.
Yet a military intervention is unlikely. Beijing has greatly benefited from Hong Kong’s ostensible autonomy, enshrined in the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration and the 1990 Hong Kong Basic Law, which established the formula of “Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong.” This arrangement has allowed the city to become the leading financial center of Asia and an important link between the Chinese and global economies. Beijing has a strong incentive to preserve the façade of autonomy in Hong Kong.
What’s more, it already has a tool kit, honed during the 2014 protests known as the Umbrella Movement, to keep Hong Kong in check. Rather than cracking down with its military, the mainland authorities are likely to step up other repressive measures to end the protests and restore comprehensive control without undermining an arrangement that serves them well. Beijing, in other words, doesn’t need to turn to what commentators call the “nuclear option”: it hopes to achieve what it wants at lower costs with tools it has used before.
When, on July 29, reporters asked Beijing’s spokesperson on Hong Kong affairs, Yang Guang, about the prospect of PLA deployment, he replied that “the Basic Law has clear statements on that question, and I have nothing to add.”
Hong Kong Basic Law Article 14 says that the 6,000 PLA troops stationed in Hong Kong (with thousands more across the border in Shenzhen) are there “for defense” and “shall not interfere in the local affairs of the Region.” The law allows the Hong Kong government to “ask for assistance from the garrison in the maintenance of public order and in disaster relief” but states that on such occasions the PLA must adhere to Hong Kong law. Article 18 clarifies further that Chinese laws do not apply in Hong Kong, with the limited exception of those listed in Annex III of the Basic Law, mostly relating to national symbols, nationality, and diplomacy. (These exceptions must be enacted locally before coming into force.)
Beijing has refrained from deploying PLA troops not because of constitutional checks but because it has other tools of repression.
Article 18 provides one major exception. If the National People’s Congress Standing Committee “decides to declare a state of war or, by reason of turmoil within the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region which endangers national unity or security and is beyond the control of the Region, decides that the Region is in a state of emergency, [then] the Central People’s Government may issue an order applying the relevant national laws in the Region.” Short of the Chinese government declaring a national emergency, that is, PLA troops can be deployed in Hong Kong only at the request of the local government. Yet this is much less of a constraint than it might seem. The chief executive of the local government is chosen by a 1,200-person selection committee that is dominated by Beijing and generally defers to Beijing’s wishes. If it wanted to, the mainland government could easily direct Hong Kong to request military assistance.
Beijing has refrained from deploying PLA troops not because of constitutional checks but because it has other tools of repression, starting with the police. On July 29, a mainland spokesperson emphasized that the Hong Kong police have Beijing’s full support to “punish violent and unlawful acts” by “radical” protesters. On the same day, the People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party, called for “forceful” police action and attempted to dispel concerns that excessive force could backfire.
Under Hong Kong law, demonstrations are “unlawful” if the police refuse to issue a no-objection notice—the local version of a permit. They have already been making use of this tactic. They denied a notice to any form of protest in Yuen Long on July 26 and allowed rallies but denied notices to marches on Hong Kong Island on July 27 and August 4, rendering spillovers into the streets illegal. On July 27 alone, they arrested 49 protesters and subsequently charged 44 with rioting.
The police have also made use of “forceful” methods. On June 12, when protesters surrounded the Legislative Council to prevent it from deliberating on the extradition bill, the police fired rubber bullets, pepper spray, beanbags, and tear gas into the crowd. In subsequent weeks, they have begun using sponge grenades. Officers have been filmed beating protesters with batons and aiming their rubber bullets at protesters’ heads. They have arrested young people at hospitals, making wounded protesters fearful of seeking medical treatment, and have ordered ambulance and emergency medical staff not to treat injuries at protest sites without police approval. They have turned their ire toward journalists, firing tear gas at reporters on July 27 and again on August 3–4, and have begun accusing elected councilors, social workers, and observers from nongovernmental organization of obstructing police action. On July 30, officers pointed guns at protesters and journalists at a demonstration outside the Kwai Chung police station. The same day, an unidentified car threw fireworks into crowds of protesters outside another police station.
Most alarming, the police are credibly suspected of colluding with triads, members of Hong Kong’s organized criminal underworld. In a July 21 incident, hundreds of suspected triads dressed in white shirts indiscriminately beat locals with wooden sticks and metal rods at the Yuen Long train station. The police did not show up until after the gangsters had left, and senior officers were filmed speaking with the men in white shirts prior to the attack. Suspected protesters (including a nurse who volunteered emergency first aid) have been charged with rioting—which carries a maximum prison sentence of ten years—yet the gangsters have merely been investigated for unlawful assembly, a much less serious crime.
Beijing does not only use force to control Hong Kong; it adopts a whole-of-society approach. It used this approach to shut down the 2014 Umbrella Movement, and it will likely do the same to deal with the current anti-extradition protests.
To silence the streets, organizers of the protests—who were calling for “genuine universal suffrage”—were arrested and sentenced to up to 16 months in jail for “inciting nuisance” and “inciting others to incite nuisance.” To cleanse the civil service, law enforcement, judicial institutions, and university councils, Beijing used its handpicked chief executive, who has overwhelming authority over appointments and promotions within the Hong Kong government, to fill these positions with loyalists. To curb the power of Hong Kong’s elected Legislative Council, the government banned some opposition candidates from running for office and disqualified others after they had been elected. And to further undercut the courts’ lingering independence, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress took the unusual step of issuing a binding interpretation of local oath-taking requirements while a case to remove legislators who had disrespectfully stated their oath was still pending.
Beijing’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong’s Western District—the instrument of Communist Party control—does not intervene only at the top levels of the Hong Kong government. Its influence reaches deep into all 18 of the city’s administrative districts. It has internal offices for each of the district councils, and each district has representatives of the Liaison Office. These representatives busily attend and organize local functions to buy loyalty. They also mobilize support for Beijing’s favored candidates in elections. Junius Ho, widely accused of being the mastermind behind the mob attacks in Yuen Long, won his legislative seat in 2016 after his opponent withdrew from the race, citing anonymous threats.
A government accountable to the people could de-escalate the tensions by meeting popular demands. A survey conducted on July 24–26 shows that 73 percent of respondents believe the government should formally withdraw the extradition bill, and 79 percent support an independent investigation into police abuses. Beijing, however, has clearly indicated that it is going to heighten repression.
So far, verbal threats and physical abuse have only stiffened the resolve of Hong Kong’s people to defend the freedoms they have grown up with. Various professional and community groups—including accountants, architects, civil servants, finance workers, flight attendants, and medical workers—have organized one demonstration after another. Waves of arrests have inspired protesters to surround police stations and courthouses. In the last two weeks, the confrontations between protesters and the police have spread from Hong Kong Island to residential and shopping areas across the territory.
There is some chance that the police and the triads can end the current cycle of protests by arresting, jailing, and roughing up enough people. However, the people of Hong Kong are turning to other protest methods—such as a general strike, boycotts against pro-Beijing businesses, and targeted support for pro-democracy entities—that are less vulnerable to police and triad brutality. Most of all, indiscriminate and illegitimate coercion has backfired by creating public outrage against Beijing.
So far, Beijing has succeeded in walking a tightrope: it has maintained Hong Kong’s special status while eroding its de facto autonomy, all without having to resort to extreme measures such as sending in the PLA. But by normalizing police and gangster violence, it has exposed the lie behind “one country, two systems” and its principle of “Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong.” The message that the “radical” protesters—at the high price of police beatings and heavy jail terms—want to send to Beijing is that “if we burn, you burn with us.” Beijing is still unlikely to send in troops. But if it is looking for an excuse to declare an emergency, it will have one—but one that is of its own making.