As the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China approaches on October 1, many analysts have speculated that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will ramp up its efforts to quash the Hong Kong protests. In a white paper released on September 27, the CCP noted that “without a unified and strong leadership force,” China would have “tended towards division and disintegration... and caused widespread chaos.” This language is reminiscent of an op-ed in the Chinese state-run newspaper Renmin Renbao published just before the Tiananmen massacre that condemned pro-democracy activists for “plunging the whole country into chaos.”
But how far will China go in its crackdown on Hong Kong? As the protests are in their 16th week (the fourth week after Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, withdrew the extradition bill that sparked the protests), it is clear that the people of Hong Kong are looking for more than just the usual assurances about respecting the “one country, two systems” agreement. China’s longstanding strategy to “gradually absorb” Hong Kong by supporting pro-Chinese businesses, buying up Hong Kong media conglomerates and backing China-friendly candidates for Hong Kong government posts has clearly failed. The people of Hong Kong see, and reject, Chinese encroachment.
As such, China has three options in dealing with Hong Kong. First, China can attempt to further “gradually absorb” Hong Kong and control the narrative around the protests. We have seen this in Chinese attempts to discredit the protestors on Twitter, highlight the sporadic violent clashes between the protestors, and describe the protests as “riots.” The aim with this approach is to show domestic audiences that democracy is destabilizing and dangerous, while strong CCP control ensures domestic stability. But one of the Hong Kong protestors' remaining four demands is that China withdraw its characterization of the protests as riots. As such, it’s unlikely this strategy will do much other than mild damage control in the mainland. China, eventually, will still need to directly confront the protests in some way.
The second option is to intervene militarily. This would involve mobilizing the People’s Liberation Army garrison in Hong Kong or deploying the People’s Armed Police, a force whose core mission is domestic stabilization but still falls under command of the Central Military Commission, into Hong Kong. But as many analysts have noted, this would be an extremely risky strategy. Not only would it completely change the nature of Chinese-Hong Kong relations forever, it would also have negative international consequences.
Great Britain might re-visit the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration treaty and the United States might reconsider the Hong Kong Policy Act, which would call Hong Kong’s status into question. It could also set the stage for more protections for Taiwan and for Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan’s pro-independent president who’s up for re-election in January 2020. Given how much money and effort the CCP puts into shielding itself from international backlash and domestic separatism, it seems unlikely that it would be willing to take this risk.
The last option is a mix between gradual absorption and military intervention. And this seems to be the most likely route that Beijing will take. Instead of quashing the protests themselves, China can pressure Hong Kong authorities to take more extreme measures to crackdown on the protests.
This would mainly occur if Lam were pressured into invoking the emergency regulations ordinance to stop the protest. This ordinance essentially rids Hong Kong of basic freedoms (such as the freedom of information and movement) so that the chief executive has full power to make arrests, seize property, shut down lines of communication and “make any regulations whatsoever which [she] may consider desirable in the public interest.”
This would allow Beijing to exert control over the people of Hong Kong through the chief executive, and encourage the Hong Kong police to take more extreme measures to disperse the protests. Doing so would give Beijing a few degrees of separation between the central authorities and the actions taken in Hong Kong, while still allowing it to encourage a stronger hand in Hong Kong.
The Hong Kong protests affect more than just China-Hong Kong relations, and are indicative of broader international tensions between democracy and authoritarianism. At a time when democracy is in retreat around the world, Hong Kong reminds us that democracy is not an inevitability, but a choice. The question, then, is how Beijing will deal with countries trying to make that choice in Asia.
Annie Kowalewski is a DC-based researcher who focuses on US defense policy in the Indo-Pacific and the Chinese military. She is currently a Pacific Forum Young Leader.