The anti-government demonstrations in Hong Kong are now eight weeks old and still going strong, but the level of violence is rising.
A lot of the violence is down to the police and to triad gangs who were hired to attack the demonstrators, of course, but now the People’s Daily, the official mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, is demanding that the Hong Kong government “punish lawbreakers regardless of whether they hold up the banner of ‘freedom and democracy’.”
Nobody expects a replay of 1989’s Tiananmen Square massacre, but weekend after weekend the confrontation grows more tense. Last week China’s Defense Ministry even warned that it might use troops to quell the unrest, saying the protests were “intolerable” and that the army would mobilize troops to restore public order if requested by the Hong Kong government.
Yang Guang, spokesman for Beijing’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, followed the paranoid official line on Monday, blaming “irresponsible people” in the West for stirring up trouble in a bid to “contain China’s development.” But when asked if Beijing would send troops in to stop the protests, he only repeated that the Hong Kong government could ask for help if it needed it.
This is a major crisis in the only part of mainland China that is not ruled directly by the Communist Party, but Beijing clearly does not want to go nuclear if it can avoid it. Which it probably can, because at this point the whole confrontation has become purely symbolic.
It started out in early June as a real struggle over an important issue. The Hong Kong government introduced a bill that would allow criminal suspects in Hong Kong to be extradited to China and face trial in Communist Party-controlled mainland courts (which have a 99% conviction rate). Everybody assumed that it was acting on orders from Beijing.
The protesters were out in the streets at once. The rule of law still exists in Hong Kong, but nobody would be safe if they could be extradited to the People’s Republic at Beijing’s whim.
Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, backed down very quickly. She “suspended” the draft extradition bill, and various people close to her reminded the media that it would automatically die when the current session of the legislature ends next July. But she did not formally withdraw the bill, presumably because that would involve too grave a loss of face for the regime in Beijing.
Since then, the demos have been purely symbolic. The extradition bill is not going to happen, but the protesters want Lam to kill it officially and publicly. Even if she complied, she could always bring it back in the next session of the legislature (whose members have to be approved by Beijing). So even if they win, they have no guarantees for the future. Why bother?
Hong Kong was not a democracy under British rule before 1997, and it is not one now. But it was and still is a place where the rule of law prevails, the media are free, and individual rights are respected. However, this special status within China, which was supposed to last for fifty years after the hand-over, has been under growing pressure from Beijing since the rise of President Xi Jinping.
Xi, who has abolished term limits on the presidency, is relentlessly centralising power in China, presumably in the belief that this is the only way to preserve Communist rule in the long run.
He has turned the heavily Muslim province of Xinjiang into an enormous open-air prison, and he is building an online system of ‘social credit’ that will score citizens on their degree of compliance with the regime’s goals and norms. People with low scores will have a hard time in life. And he is nibbling away at Hong Kong’s civil rights, because they set a bad example for other Chinese.
The demonstrators in Hong Kong have carried on because they are trying to make a point: that interfering with Hong Kong’s freedoms is more trouble than it’s worth. So long as Hong Kong remains economically important to the People’s Republic, they have a chance of succeeding, but they can never expect a decisive victory.
Seven and a half million people in Hong Kong are never going to force the Beijing regime to do anything. With the right tactics, however, they can probably preserve their own freedoms, and continue to serve as living proof that an ethnic Chinese society does not have to be a tyranny.
It’s a balancing act. They must never challenge the Communist regime’s ultimate control, but from time to time they have to demonstrate to Beijing that tolerating a local aberration like civil rights in Hong Kong is less costly politically than ending it by force.
They have done enough to achieve that for now, and it’s probably time to stop.
Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.