Imagine the sight of tanks and armored personnel carriers juxtaposed against a backdrop of once impeccable glass and marble department stores, freshly-abandoned street markets, and modern skyscrapers. Masked by clouds of tear gas as they menacingly roll through this 21st century metropolis, the People’s Liberation Army plows effortlessly through makeshift roadblock barriers, rolling over and crushing dozens of young student protesters—leaving a trail of intermittent screams and lifeless bodies in their wake.
It may not require a massacre or even a severe crackdown, but the totalitarian Chinese government will prevail in Hong Kong, regardless of the means required to do so.
Machine gun fire rakes the streets of Kowloon’s Nathan Road, perhaps the most iconic boulevard in all of Asia, as PLA forces advance south towards Hong Kong’s Cross-Harbor Tunnel where they gun down hundreds, perhaps thousands of unarmed protesters and clear the way for their march on Hong Kong Island.
Mass arrests. Martial law. Summary executions.
One can only hope we’ll never see such grisly scenes in the days and weeks ahead, but such events have become a very real possibility as Beijing begins to lose patience with the pro-democracy protests in the Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong. This widespread pushback is the latest iteration of resistance to Beijing’s tightening grip on Hong Kong, their financial and cultural gateway to the rest of the world. These protests have metastasized into the greatest challenge to the Chinese Communist Party’s power since the Tiananmen Square protests and subsequent massacre in 1989.
Sadly, and despite wishful thinking around the world that freedom might prevail in favor of the pro-democracy movement, the outcome of such a contest is all but certain. It may not require a massacre or even a severe crackdown, but the totalitarian Chinese government will prevail in Hong Kong, regardless of the means required to do so.
NO WAY OUT. NO BACKING DOWN.
Despite overwhelming widespread support throughout Hong Kong and abroad against a controversial extradition bill that will fundamentally change Hong Kong’s way of life, the simple reality is that there’s no true recourse against Beijing’s will. None.
Despite lip service and limited intelligence support from the West (possible, but unsubstantiated), their only real options at the moment are capitulation, prison, or death.
Yes, the PRC cares about its public image on the world stage, up to a certain point. Beijing has shown some patience with the protestors for the sake of keeping up appearances in upholding the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984. In 2017, their patience apparently ran out when the Chinese Foreign Ministry announced that the declaration no longer has meaning.
For those asking how China will likely tolerate continued protests, the answer is simple: they won’t.
To predict the PRC response to persistent would-be-secessionists in Hong Kong, one needs to look no further than Xinxiang, Inner Mongolia, or Tibet. The empirics tell a consistent story, that China will act forcefully and decisively toward perceived separatist threats to maintain the integrity of their states as unquestionably unified.
Anyone, whether inside Hong Kong or out, who thinks there’s any real possibility that Beijing will listen and bend to the will of Hong Kong’s people doesn’t understand how power works in totalitarian dictatorships. The CCP has demonstrated countless times, from the Great Leap Forward to the Hundred Flowers Campaign, to the Cultural Revolution, that dissent will not be tolerated, and there are tens of millions of bodies to prove it.
For their part, the protesters have shown few signs of backing down. They view this as an existential threat to their freedoms and way of life.
“We have to keep fighting. Our worst fear is the Chinese government,” said a 40-year-old teacher who declined to be identified for fear of repercussions. “For us, it’s a life or death situation.”
Leaders in the movement, particularly among Hong Kong’s youth, made it clear over the weekend that they have no future in a fully communist and totalitarian dictatorship. That said, they have no meaningful way to resist.
They are unarmed and trapped on all sides by either water or mainland China. Despite lip service and limited intelligence support from the West (possible, but unsubstantiated), their only real options at the moment are capitulation, prison, or death.
There’s simply no way out for the protestors, and China understands this well.
WEAKNESS WELCOMES AGGRESSION
The CCP pays attention to history and knows what they’re up against. Chinese state-run propaganda outlets cite examples from history of so-called “color revolutions,” or those like it around the world that lead to (mostly) peaceful attempts at overthrowing totalitarian or otherwise oppressive regimes.
A full-scale, Tiananmen-style armed crackdown on Hong Kong is possible, but it’s an unlikely and undesirable last resort for the PRC.
The CCP rightly views these protests as a direct challenge to their sovereignty over the largest nation on earth, as it would likely embolden calls for Hong Kong independence, followed by a contagion of freedom that would further destabilize CCP authority in the Chinese mainland. Previous examples from the USSR, the Balkans, and the Middle East are cautionary tales for China, and they point the finger at the “black hand” of the United States and her allies for corrupting the populace and fomenting a subversion of Beijing’s authority.
From the CCP’s perspective, giving in to protestor demands won’t quell the disruption. It will only make the situation worse. They’ve seen this movie before.
Make no mistake: if necessary, they’ll kill thousands if that’s what it takes to stay in power, regardless of the cost. They’ve done it before, and they’ll do it again if they have to.
Deng Xiaoping acknowledged that the massacre of Tiananmen, although “painful,” was necessary to “achieve the common good” and maintain the stability and security of the most murderous regime in human history. Sadly, it worked.
That said, a full-scale, Tiananmen-style armed crackdown on Hong Kong is possible, but it’s an unlikely and undesirable last resort for the PRC.
For example, the Soviets’ crackdown in Hungary in 1956 tarnished their already horrible reputation around the world, even among communist sympathizers in the West. Not only would China lose significant political capital on the world stage, but they would also suffer an outflow of foreign capital from one of the most important financial centers on earth. Despite China’s move towards its own closed, international economy through their Belt and Road Initiative, they would likely see dramatic diplomatic and economic sanctions from their critical trade partners in the West.
What’s an authoritarian dictator like Xi to do?
A “SOFT” CRACKDOWN THAT’S ALREADY BEGUN
From Beijing’s perspective, there are easier and far more palatable ways to achieve the same desired results, and they’ve been carrying it out for months. Despite thinly-veiled threats of an armed invasion by the People’s Armed Police Force, China appears to have adopted a multi-pronged strategy using fear, arrests, state-run propaganda, organized crime, and tactical patience.
Pro-Beijing and state-run media outlets have flooded broadcast and social media across the world in an attempt to reframe the narrative as a choice between security, safety, and prosperity versus chaos, instability, and lawlessness. Beijing is much more media-savvy than they were 30 years ago, and are attempting to influence the mainland and Hong Kong youth through a variety of information campaigns, to include the hashtag #SaveHongKong, and even anti-democracy rap videos:
— CCTV Asia Pacific (@CCTVAsiaPacific) August 18, 2019
The CCP also enlisted the vocal support of the world’s most famous living Hongkonger, Jackie Chan:
??#HKProtest #JackieChan #香港遊行 #成龍
Jackie Chan, a native Hong Kong martial arts star, vows to safeguard the National Flag and hopes that Hong Kong could be peaceful again.
— CCTV Asia Pacific (@CCTVAsiaPacific) August 14, 2019
In addition to fighting the information war for control of the political narrative, Beijing appears to be using organized crime to subvert and intimidate the protesters, sending gangs of armed men to attack and terrorize them.
Finally, Beijing appears to exercise tactical patience by allowing the chaos on the streets, the continued disruption of ordinary life, and the breakdown of law and order to wear on both the protesters and the rest of the populace, who may very well turn against the student activists over time.
State-run media is capitalizing on this and amplifying the message:
Classes are scheduled to resume at Hong Kong’s universities in September, and there’s an expectation by some that many of the student-protesters will run out of steam and return to class. Whether or not this will happen remains to be seen, but the PRC is betting that the movement’s enthusiasm will dissipate over time and a desire for stability will eventually win out.
Rest assured that, as the protests, disorder, and violence simmers, Beijing is identifying leaders within the movement. We’ve already seen examples of this in recent days with the coordinated arrests of pro-Hong Kong independence leaders Andy Chan, Agnes Chow, and Joshua Wong.
AN EYE ON THE LONG GAME
Although a mainland invasion and military occupation of Hong Kong is still on the table, it’s far more likely Beijing will find more subdued ways to impose its will on Hong Kong. China is patient; while the West thinks in weeks and months, Beijing thinks in decades and centuries. This is fully in line with their plans to become the dominant global hegemon by 2049.
According to the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984, Hong Kong will be formally and fully absorbed by the People’s Republic by 2047, but if the CCP decides to accelerate that timeline, there’s almost nothing anyone can do to stop it.
Coverage of the ongoing protests has highlighted sympathy for Hong Kong’s democratic yearnings, as well as criticism against an increasingly authoritarian Chinese response, but ultimately this international spotlight does little to change the reality of the situation.
Regardless of the means, a sad and dismal outcome in Hong Kong is all but certain.
Xi Jinping will get his way, one way or another.