Beijing is manufacturing the circumstances to justify brutal intervention in Hong Kong
26 Aug 2019|

Scenes of protesters with sticks chasing police through Hong Kong streets and police officers pulling out their guns and pointing them at protesters show that the Hong Kong authorities are losing control of the city. And that’s probably just what leaders in China want the world to see at this point.

Beijing manages internal dissent ruthlessly and adeptly. Step one is to identify and isolate critical voices and individuals before they have a chance to gather support or join together. That’s where the massive internal security apparatus of the Ministry of Public Security and Ministry of State Security, enabled by high-tech surveillance systems fed by government and corporate data, come in.

Step two is to clamp down rapidly and violently on protesters who have managed to organise despite state surveillance and arbitrary arrest. Such protests routinely arise over corrupt deals between provincial government official and land developers that displace local residents from their properties, although labour unrest because of dangerous or simply oppressive working practices in Chinese enterprises is also a cause. That’s where the standing police force and the heavily armed paramilitary of the People’s Armed Police come in, along with operatives of Chinese security agencies.

Step three is done simultaneously with the other manoeuvres—and it’s about ruthlessly suppressing reporting of protests and of the underlying grievances that are causing them. The Chinese Communist Party’s control of information allows this to be quite successful in mainland China, and also helps limit the news about protests that leaches into the outside world.

Step four, which is also done concurrently with the other measures, involves government officials threatening retaliation against individuals’ families if they persist in ‘making trouble’. People who are brave enough to risk their own safety are often not so willing to put their loved ones at risk, so this is an effective tactic. We’ve seen it used in Australia by Chinese government operatives threatening Uyghurs to not speak up if they don’t want family back in Xinjiang punished.

But the normal Beijing playbook for managing dissent has just not worked in Hong Kong, for four main reasons. First, the protest movement in Hong Kong is what Beijing truly fears—a mass movement whose scale is undeniable. And there’s no clear leadership group Beijing can arrest or intimidate to decapitate the protests, although the authorities have continued to arrest those they think might be important.

On top of this, the protesters have been incredibly innovative in shifting the nature, location and tactics of the protests, making containment impracticable. They’ve drawn on international sources of inspiration, as we saw with the kilometres-long ‘human chain’ on the weekend, which echoed the ‘Baltic Way’ protests in 1989 that helped topple Soviet rule in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

And lastly, the protests have been broadcast virally by multiple eyewitnesses through social media and have been covered extensively in the international media. Pretending they’re just by a small group of extremists or about low-level issues, which has worked in the curated information environment of mainland China, just hasn’t washed with international audiences and governments.

So, we’ve got to a point where the playbook needs to turn a page. As I see it, Chairman Xi Jinping and his politburo colleagues have three options. The best—and most unlikely—path for Beijing to take is to do what a representative government would: engage with the people of Hong Kong to listen to their views and act on them. That sounds incredibly naive and idealistic I know, but the option is open to Beijing. It would demonstrate a maturity that might shift the increasingly bleak assessments people across the world are making of China and maybe give Xi a chance to salvage some credibility for his offer to take his China Dream to the world.

It’s now well beyond the time when Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, could engage with the people of Hong Kong on some of the core grievances they’re expressing and have any hope of being listened to, so it’s up to Beijing. Xi could do this by being the adult in the room. He could politely disown Lam’s disastrous handling of the protests while also expressing concern about the protesters’ methods, then use that space to do some of what the protesters want, in a way he controls.

That would mean appointing a respected Hong Kong figure to hold a public inquiry into police violence during the protests, as well as inquiring into violence by protesters. Providing some kind of amnesty for individuals involved would be wiser than laying charges against officials and protesters. Xi could also unilaterally withdraw the extradition bill and commit to no further action on it under the ‘one country, two systems’ commitment. While he could be reassuring about keeping Hong Kong’s political and legal structures in place over coming years, the bottom line would remain the 2047 timeline for Hong Kong to assimilate into mainland China.

The second path open to Xi is to continue to give no ground to the people of Hong Kong on any of their grievances and to simply wait the protesters out. That option would require him to keep control of the security forces so that they don’t escalate further in violence even in the face of attacks by protesters. And it would require an assessment that the protests will lose momentum over time—which hasn’t happened to date. It might be attractive as an approach between now and the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China on 1 October.

The most likely course from the politburo, though, is a simple, repressive and violent one. Hong Kong matters most to the old guard in Beijing as a symbol of control—theirs or the people’s. Sure, Beijing has tried the normal playbook to manage things, and it has failed. But the reason Xi hasn’t taken steps to de-escalate the confrontation between the Hong Kong people and the police through politics (listening and negotiating) is that doing so would cede a level of control from the party to the people, and send a message that this might be possible in other parts of China.

As we saw with references to ‘colour revolutions’ by senior party members in the past few weeks, their fear of a mass people’s movement that ousts the CCP is real. The Hong Kong protesters’ use of Eastern European precedents like the human chain stokes those fears.

So, what Xi and his party colleagues see as at stake in Hong Kong is their personal futures, along with the future of CCP rule in China itself. That is the logic that brought Deng Xiaoping to order the People’s Liberation Army to massacre its own people in the streets of the capital 30 years ago, when Eastern Europe was convulsed with its own people’s movements.

And it’s this same voice of self-preservation and continued control that is likely to be loudest within the CCP as the protests continue. Beijing is driving the course of events in Hong Kong to this conclusion by refusing to engage with the Hong Kong people’s grievances—and Xi surely knows that. This refusal is creating a more pressurised, intense and desperate environment between the protesters and the authorities, which is leading inexorably to a violent conclusion.

That may be just what Beijing wants. And the party leaders’ excuse would be that events on the ground got so chaotic that they were left with no option but a lethal intervention. They should be held to account for creating the environment in which such bloody logic can be paraded as a justification.

It’s now time for the international community to step up to prevent a foreseeable massacre that will further cleave China—and other authoritarian regimes—from the rest of the world.