The courage to back down in Hong Kong

The courage to back down in Hong Kong
© ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP/Getty Images

I have been highly reluctant to invoke the Tiananmen Square crackdown of June 1989 to predict the end game of the 2019 Hong Kong protests.

But this reluctance is eroding with each passing day. I was in China – Beijing and Chengdu (the other Chinese city that experienced mass bloodshed) – at the time, and I remember having two distinct feelings. Before the crackdown, I thought, “This cannot end well,” although I was thinking in terms of mass arrests after the protests died down not an actual military crackdown.

After I heard about the massacre the morning of June 4, I thought, “What a profoundly stupid thing for the authorities in Beijing to have done; apart from the horror of killing its own citizens, it will set back China’s relations with the West years, if not decades.” 

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The corollary of this second thought – up until June 3, 1989 – was that China would never do something as foolish as putting an end to the protests militarily. But that’s exactly what it did.

These same two thoughts have haunted me throughout this summer’s protests in Hong Kong. And as the authorities in Hong Kong and in Beijing have allowed the protests to continue for months – itself a parallel with 1989 – patterns have emerged in which these two events appear to be converging, suggesting a similar denouement.

Let’s be clear about how this started. Beijing has historically done whatever it can get away with, sometimes by engaging in behavior that seems just shy of reckless. If rebuffed, it always finds a way to retreat in a face-saving manner. However, and this has been a key part of its South China Sea strategy, when its bluff is not called, it moves in, occupies and consolidates the political (or military or economic) space. 

That is what the Extradition Law was: Beijing’s attempt to sand down the contours of “one country, two systems” a bit more in favor of Beijing. The Hong Kong electorate rejected this by taking to the streets. Beijing did exactly the right thing by withdrawing the bill from consideration, albeit not permanently.

This was the inflection point. Beijing might have told Hong Kong’s consistently tone-deaf chief executive, Carrie Lam, to quietly remove the bill from the docket altogether, weeks or months down the road. But this would have been too little, too late, especially for the people of Hong Kong 

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This summer of protest has become a referendum on the whole “one country, two systems” idea. It reanimated all the ways in which China has neglected Hong Kong – by manipulating its burgeoning democratic institutions, allowing the physical infrastructure to crumble, boosting Shanghai and the greater Pearl River Delta region at Hong Kong’s expense, opening the borders to the mad scramble of tourism from the Mainland, imposing cultural markers onto a proud and rich Cantonese society, etc. – and brought them again to the fore. 

Now the endgame is hiding in plain sight, if we choose to see it.

What is happening in Hong Kong has tremendous significance for Taiwan Straits relations, as the “one country, two systems” framework always had Taiwan’s reunification with the Mainland as its ultimate target. Each day of protest in Hong Kong serves to further delegitimize the “one country, two systems” formula and, with it, its prospects for success with “bringing Taiwan back into the fold.”

As far as the Chinese side is concerned, the stakes are every bit as high as they were in May of 1989; indeed, they are arguably much, much higher. We underestimate how bankrupting of the “one country, two systems” formula gets to the very core of the Chinese Communist Party’s own legitimacy at home. Thus, when Fareed Zakaria argues that Beijing’s response to the Hong Kong protests shows China’s “fragility,” he’s absolutely right, but his argument is also irrelevant. 

We already see that Beijing has been busy sowing the ground for a subsequent post-crackdown narrative. The idea that the U.S. is behind the crackdown is absurd on its face. 

Nevertheless, the mainland-based media can point to Julie Eadeh as the proverbial “smoking gun” to the only audience it cares about—its own citizens. These citizens have been primed to think negatively about the U.S., thanks to incessant propaganda from China’s vast media apparatus and by the Trump administration’s own misguided China policy. 

And if this wasn’t enough, the Chinese authorities have spiced up this pre-emptive narrative with references to “color revolutions” (code for upping the stakes) and, most recently, “terrorism.”  Somewhat working at cross-purposes, Trump himself gave Xi an invaluable gift to bolster this narrative when he called the protests a “riot.” 

Finally, a group of lawmakers on Capitol Hill have sought to seize the discourse and condemn China ex ante. Regardless of their motivations, the effect is to further reinforce Beijing’s narrative.

But even more importantly, the effect is to paint China’s leaders into a corner. That is particularly dangerous with a leader like Xi Jinping, who has already demonstrated an unprecedented and uncharacteristic degree of restraint thus far that cannot last. Xi is almost certainly being furiously lobbied to get tough by hardliners in Zhongnanhai and Beidaihe who have demonstrated a vastly stronger preference for the stick over the carrot.

Rather than escalate further, all sides need to summon the courage to stand down as quickly as possible. They must all take a breath and establish a set of confidence-building measures that will create a kernel of trust upon which to draw down from this situation, learn from it and build upon it. 

As difficult as it is, the protesters need to check their frustration and disgust and refrain from unnecessarily antagonizing the mainland authorities further, for example, by defacing the Chinese Communist Party Liaison Office, waving American flags with the express intention of taunting Beijing and continuing to occupy Chek Lap Kok Airport— all of which shift Beijing’s calculus strongly in favor of intervening militarily. 

The Hong Kong authorities – particularly firebrands like Junius Ho – need to take it down several notches and think about their Hong Kong constituents. The white-shirted goons need to be taken off the streets and the MTR stations immediately, and the police need to scale back their violent crowd control measures. Beijing must engage the citizens of Hong Kong in a way that recognizes and appreciates their grievances with credible and demonstrable promises to do something about them, while simultaneously drawing down its military activity on Stonecutter’s Island and along the border with Shenzhen. 

And if the Trump administration is incapable of brokering some sort of temporary peace, it should at the very least avoid giving Xi any more rhetorical ammunition and making the situation worse. Finally, Congress should think through its actions and about the inevitable outcome of its own baiting of Beijing, working instead for the betterment of the people of Hong Kong, rather than virtue signaling and scoring political points at home.  

Otherwise, this will end badly, and the effects will be worse than we imagine.

Andrew Mertha is Hyman Professor of China Studies and the director of China studies and director of SAIS China at the School of Advanced Studies at Johns Hopkins University.