The huge, ongoing demonstrations in Hong Kong are directed not just against chief executive Carrie Lam’s refusal to withdraw her proposed extradition law. They also represent a major challenge to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s’s iron-fisted rule. The demonstrators are demanding that the democratic rights promised to them when the city came under Chinese rule remain intact.
China’s treatment of dissidents has grown increasingly harsh, as has that of its Muslim Uighur population. Capitulation to the Hong Kong demonstrators would only encourage others on the mainland who are unhappy with Xi’s regime. It is, therefore, only a matter of time before Xi orders the People’s Liberation Army to crush what Beijing perceives to be a rebellion fomented by “the West.”
It is inevitable that there will be much bloodshed, and more arrests, if Beijing acts to silence the Hong Kong demonstrators. It is equally inevitable that the “international community” will remain as silent as it did in 1989 when the Communist China government crushed the Tiananmen Square protesters.
To begin with, President TrumpDonald TrumpSenate rejects attempt to block Biden's Saudi arms sale Crenshaw slams House Freedom Caucus members as 'grifters,' 'performance artists' Senate confirms Biden's nominee to lead Customs and Border Protection MORE has not shown interest in supporting protests against dictators other than Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro. Not only has he expressed admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korea’s Kim Jong UnKim Jong UnNorth Korea bans leather coats after Kim starts new fashion trend Belarus and Russia must resolve the migrant crisis on their own North Korea's Kim makes first public appearance in month MORE, he also has stressed that, despite the increasingly tight sanctions he has imposed on Iran, he is not seeking regime change in Tehran. Trump’s quarrel with China is over trade; he appears indifferent to the treatment of its people.
Moreover, Trump is soon to launch his campaign for re-election. He needs a trade deal with China to avoid damaging the American economy, whose strength would be his strongest electoral selling point. On the other hand, a trade war with Beijing likely would inflict the greatest pain on many working-class Americans who voted Trump into office, and they would be far more likely to vote him out in 2020.
What better way to seal a trade deal with Xi than by remaining silent as the Hong Kong protesters are put down?
The Europeans are no more likely to do anything in the face of a Chinese crackdown. At most they will voice feeble complaints regarding Chinese behavior. China continues to make serious inroads into Europe’s economies. Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovenia, Estonia and Croatia — all members of the European Union — have signed onto Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative. Other European states, seeking Chinese investment, may participate as well.
In addition, the majority of European Union members, including Britain, France, Germany, Spain, Italy and Poland, have joined Beijing’s Asian Investment and Infrastructure Bank as “founding members.” Trump’s open hostility to the European Union is a further disincentive for the Europeans to alienate Beijing over its actions in what it terms a domestic issue.
China’s Asian neighbors likewise will remain silent. Some are themselves autocratic. Others simply do not want to alienate a powerful neighbor. They might criticize Beijing in private; even then, they will do so only in a whisper.
Hong Kong’s tragedy began in 1997, with Britain’s withdrawal from what was until then a crown colony. Ever since, successive Hong Kong leaders have represented Beijing’s interests, sometimes openly, usually in more subtle ways. It has suited the Chinese leadership for Hong Kong to remain semi-autonomous, in order for it to continue as a source of financial and economic support to the Chinese economy. No doubt Beijing will seek to maintain Hong Kong’s economic status after the rebellion is crushed.
Whether Xi and his colleagues can succeed in doing so, once the tanks have done their dirty work, remains very much an open question.
Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.