By William Tucker
Columnist, In Homeland Security
When the Hong Kong legislature took up a measure that gave Beijing the ability to extradite and try Hong Kong citizens on the mainland, over one million people took to the streets to protest the proposed bill.
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Hong Kong’s government largely conceded, at least temporarily, and shelved the measure. Although the protests have continued, they had diminished in size until recently. The remaining protests are characterized as ”pro-democracy” and Beijing has insinuated that it believes the U.S. is behind them.
China Took Protestors Waving of US Flags as Evidence of Washington’s Backing
Earlier this week some protesters took to the streets waving U.S. flags, which China will use as evidence of Washington’s backing. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has called the claim “ludicrous on its face”; however, China is an authoritarian state and not exactly required to provide evidence of its claims.
Yang Guang, spokesman for the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office of China’s State Council, has stated that the protesters are using terrorist tactics in their fight with the police. So it would seem that China will likely move to put an end to the remaining demonstrations.
Although China has yet to move in, video released by state media show the government stationing personnel and equipment in nearby Shenzhen. These forces belong to the People’s Armed Police. They are in the area for regularly scheduled exercises, but can be employed to handle the Hong Kong situation if called upon to do so.
Any Decision by Beijing Will Have Repercussions Domestically and Internationally
This is where the situation becomes fluid. Any decision by Beijing will have repercussions domestically and internationally, and as such, will inform China’s decisions going forward.
For instance, protests in mainland China occur with some frequency, but they are typically over local issues and are largely non-violent. Demonstrations by minority groups, on the other hand, can get tense. These protests in a semi-autonomous district like Hong Kong might influence other groups in China that have a problem with Beijing. Tibetan nationalists and Uighur separatists are often put down forcefully, but Beijing has taken the matter of the Uighurs in Xinjiang to a dangerous level.
China Cannot Allow these Protests to Drag on Indefinitely
For China, these protests cannot be allowed to drag on indefinitely, but using heavy-handed tactics could cause Beijing further economic pain. When protesters shut down Hong Kong’s international airport, riot police were forced to move in and eject the protesters because of the negative economic impact of the airport’s closure.
Indeed, by itself Hong Kong has the 32nd largest economy in the world and shutting down international travel has had a negative impact on commerce. In the midst of a trade war with the U.S. and record high unemployment in urban areas on the mainland, China runs the risk of incurring international sanctions for human rights abuses if it chooses to engage in a Tiananmen Square-style reprisal.
Tariffs are one thing to weather, but sanctions are quite another. China might be able to get away with hidden abuses in Xinjiang, but any such activity in Hong Kong would surely leak out to the world at large. Even with a media blackout in Xinjiang, information manages to get out. In Hong Kong, an international cosmopolitan city, keeping a lid on running street battles would be difficult at best.
The protests of this past weekend saw 1.7 million Hong Kong residents peacefully take to the streets. This is a significant increase over the smaller protests that turned violent. But the fact of the matter is Hong Kong is a small island that is concerned about its future. China is likewise concerned, but for different reasons.
Beijing is not just worried about social upheaval, it is obsessed with it; this is why the protests in Hong Kong are such a hot button issue. China might intervene in Hong Kong directly and violently put it down the protests as it has done in the past; however, the mainland government is hoping to delay that decision as long as it can without being seen as acquiescing to the protesters.
Beijing will respond in some fashion, but how it does will have a long-term impact on the nation’s future.