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Staring into Hong Kong’s future today

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It is always dangerous to speculate about what China might or might not do, especially the further one looks into the future. The situation in Hong Kong provides a rare exception. 

Regardless of whether there is a Tiananmen-like clampdown, a Northern Ireland-like extended slow burn, or whether the protests end up simply dying out, the long-term negative consequences for Hong Kong — its return to being a sleepy backwater, a second-rate version of its once-enviable position as global financial center, a relic of the once-creative flexibility of Chinese communism — seem far more likely than any alternative.

Beijing is overwhelmingly to blame for what has transpired. First, it provided the spark in the form of introducing the extradition law, something that would have fundamentally changed the political and legal rights of all residents of (and visitors to) Hong Kong. 

Beijing undoubtedly knew this would elicit a reaction but went ahead anyway, just to see if it could get away with it. Ordinarily, a hard-fought pushback by the people of Hong Kong, leading to a decision to withdraw the proposal, would have been the end of it. 

However, and second, the PRC’s consistent demonstrations of post-1997 bad faith — the national security law of 2003, the election proposals that led to the umbrella movement, the disappearances of Hong Kong booksellers, etc. — have contributed to a tinderbox of resentment among Hong Kong residents that we see erupting in front of us and goes well beyond anger over the extradition law. 

Third, Beijing has stoked the fire of nationalism in China and aimed it against the people of Hong Kong, ensuring that the latter are marginalized in the larger Chinese society, like the Tibetans, like the Uighurs, like other vulnerable, peripheral groups within the Chinese body politic. The protesters — often strategically brilliant, sometimes tactically misguided, but consistently fearless — are the effect of Beijing’s behavior, not the cause.

That said, the protesters have also contributed to this situation by being unable to contain the radical fringe and thus prevent the center from holding. What had started as a uniquely 21st century form of organized protest has now descended into the more familiar violence of the Fronde that plays directly into Beijing’s narrative and while alienating moderate local supporters.

China’s president, Xi Jinping, has been smart, if cynical in handling the situation: Outsourcing the political solution to hapless Carrie Lam’s Hong Kong government and its coercive apparatus. Any sense by Hong Kong residents that their local representatives would provide a buffer between them and Beijing has been dashed, as has the Hong Kong government’s overall legitimacy (the Hong Kong high court’s striking down of the face mask ban, notwithstanding). The radicalization of the protests has brought them from the streets to the university campuses, providing the pretext to gut already fragile curricula, introduce “patriotic education” and otherwise curtail freedom of expression and thought. And Xi has ensured that the Hong Kong protests do not seep across the border into China by vilifying the protesters in the eyes of their fellow, Mainland citizens. Even in the absence of a military crackdown, the real damage has already been done.

We talk about President Trump’s affinity for authoritarian leaders. I think there is a more precise formulation: Our president demonstrates an affinity for leaders who inherit something of value and squeeze what is good out of it: Erdogan’s crushing of secular democracy in Turkey; Putin’s turning post-Soviet Russia into an oligarchic-kleptocracy; and, now, Xi Jinping’s transformation of Hong Kong from a uniquely politically and economically vibrant society into a rump appendage along China’s southeastern coast. 

It is, therefore, little wonder that Trump has allowed this to occur — unimpeded — on his watch: He seems constitutionally incapable of seeing anything wrong with Xi’s strangulation of Hong Kong. This soul-crushing blind spot is as alarming as the cold, Machiavellian calculations that led Washington to turn its back on the Hungarians in 1956 or the Kurds in 1991.

This chain of events should be utterly sobering to the people of Taiwan, both in terms of what Beijing is willing and able to do, as well as the amount of support its leaders might expect from a feckless United States.

Now is the time for Congress to actually do something inspired to get Beijing’s attention, rather than dilly-dally with the toothless but “feel-good” Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act. This legislation, like President Clinton’s linking of Most Favored Nation status to human rights in 1993, is likely doomed to be observed utterly and exclusively in the breach. 

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.

Tags Beijing Carrie Lam China Donald Trump Hong Kong Hong Kong Hong Kong extradition bill Hong Kong protests Politics of Hong Kong Uighurs Umbrella Movement

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