In Hong Kong, the need for peaceful persistence

In Hong Kong, the need for peaceful persistence
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In Hong Kong, hundreds of thousands of protesters are expected for weekend rallies following the aggressive pro-democracy demonstrations at Hong Kong International Airport last week, bringing the region to the brink of military intervention by Beijing.

Such tactics provide a clear pretext for mainland forces to punish and eradicate what they see as a challenge to the authority of Xi Jinping. The mainland government has encroached upon the liberties of Hong Kongers and likely is waiting for events that could legitimize a complete political takeover of the territory, ending the “one country, two systems” model 28 years ahead of schedule — with time to clean up before the 70th commemoration of the People’s Republic of China in October. 

The evidence that Beijing has been preparing for military action in Hong Kong is plain to see.  Some Hong Kong legal experts say official descriptions of protesters’ actions as “terrorism” have opened the way for the use of anti-terror laws and powers against them. China’s People’s Armed Police have assembled in the city of Shenzhen for “exercises.” 

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The legal basis for intervention is in place. Articles 14 and 18 of the Hong Kong Basic Law suggest that resistance to totalitarian rule by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was foreseen. Article 14 provides for Hong Kong authorities to request assistance from the Chinese army “in the maintenance of public of public order.” Article 18 states that in the event of “turmoil within the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, which endangers national unity or security and is beyond the control of the government of the Region, … the Central People’s Government may issue an order applying the relevant national laws in the Region.” Hong Kong and mainland China would become one country under one system.

Still, the actual form that intervention could take is unclear. A violent crackdown would not be a repeat of the Tiananmen Square massacre because the situation is different and technology has developed. There is no threat of a military coup in Hong Kong, and thus no need to send so many troops to watch for possible military uprisings, as Deng Xiaoping did in Beijing in 1989. 

What is more, 30 years ago, Beijing did not have riot police in place. Li Peng, the late “Butcher of Beijing,” said his troops had “no rubber bullets” and were forced to confront unarmed, peaceful demonstrators with tanks, machine guns and thousands of army troops. The result was a bloodbath. By contrast, China’s police force now is well-equipped and trained for political repression. The government could send 50,000 to 100,000 armed police to reinforce Hong Kong’s 30,000-strong force and the Hong Kong People’s Liberation Army garrison of 6,000.  These combined forces, authorities presume, could pacify the situation.

Conventional wisdom says Hong Kong is too important economically for Beijing to suppress it to “death.” While Hong Kong is important, its importance has diminished significantly.  Shanghai has surpassed it in capital market value, and Shenzhen is following closely. Even after a crackdown, with proper manipulation Hong Kong’s markets could recover; capital goes where it gets highest returns. When the CCP opens its arms to international investors with favorable market opportunities, they will return to Hong Kong.

To violently suppress the push for freedom in Hong Kong is not Beijing’s first choice or best option, but if disruptive protests continue, it increasingly looms as its inevitable choice — especially as Hong Kong has become a base to oppose Xi and the entire communist regime. The authorities likely are confident of their ability to “create prosperity” after the conflict, in effect buying off restless young people with material incentives. This they did after Tiananmen, and they have been trying to do in Tibet and following the incarceration of 1 million Muslims in Xinjiang. Informed by Marxist-Leninist determinism, the CCP believes economic prosperity solves all problems.

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Though the protests continue, some participants apologized for disruptions at the airport. But they must — and will — continue. The protesters do not fear a mainland political and military takeover, because they believe that will happen in Hong Kong if they do nothing. 

It is imperative that protests proceed in a way that maintains pressure for democracy and human rights — and for accountability by Hong Kong’s intransigent rulers — while reducing the prospect of a bloody assault. The movement must not play Beijing’s game and be manipulated or dragged into a violent denouement by creating pretexts for implementing Articles 14 and 18.  They must try to pry open a window for political change. 

To do that, the movement needs clear leadership. Until now, it has been largely decentralized, with no hierarchical structures, but the situation has evolved to a point where legitimate authorities are needed. Hong Kongers need trusted figures to challenge the Hong Kong government to negotiate to defuse the imminent crisis. They need leaders to call and organize people to participate in elections in September 2020, and to more effectively engage with the international community.

A commitment to peaceful protests must be rewarded by firm expressions of international support. Americans identify with the aspirations of the people of Hong Kong, and need their leaders to represent their feelings. President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump faces high stakes in meeting with Erdoğan amid impeachment drama Democrats worry they don't have right candidate to beat Trump Trump threatening to fire Mulvaney: report MORE needs to join House and Senate leaders Rep. Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiGiuliani pens op-ed slamming 'unprecedented' impeachment inquiry Brindisi, Lamb recommended for Armed Services, Transportation Committees Overnight Health Care: Top health official defends contract payments to Trump allies | Vaping advocates confident Trump will turn from flavor ban | Sanders gets endorsement from nurses union MORE (D-Calif.) and Sen. Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellMcConnell protege emerges as Kentucky's next rising star Hillicon Valley: Schumer questions Army over use of TikTok | Federal court rules against random searches of travelers' phones | Groups push for election security funds in stopgap bill | Facebook's new payment feature | Disney+ launch hit by glitches McConnell, GOP leaders say they won't be watching House impeachment hearing MORE (R-Ky.) in making clear America’s unwillingness to conduct business-as-usual with Beijing if violent crackdowns take place.

American leaders are called to take moral actions on which their legacies will hinge. The Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act needs to become law, and the Magnitsky Act needs to apply. Yet given the stakes, these are not enough. Trade deals with no linkage to a reduction in Chinese repression will not comport with America’s principles and mission in the world and will — sooner, rather than later — blow back on America’s own freedom. Not only Hong Kong’s negligent officials, but the Chinese economy as well, must be made to feel the pain. The world, and history, are watching. 

Jianli Yang is founder and president of Citizen Power Initiatives for China, a Tiananmen Massacre survivor, and a former political prisoner in China. 

Aaron Rhodes is president of the Forum for Religious Freedom–Europe and author of  “The Debasement of Human Rights” (2018).