China Needs to Change Its Strategy on Hong Kong Before It Is Too Late

What started as a protest in June 2019 against an extradition bill that would have undermined Hong Kong’s autonomy has now snowballed into a movement for greater freedom and political reforms, thus challenging the legitimacy of the government. Despite repeated warnings by the pro-China authorities, a majority of Hong Kong citizens, including a growing number of school children are vowing to support the uprising through thick and thin. This indicates that China is facing the most sustained challenge since the revolution in Tiananmen Square, thirty years ago.

The mass demonstrations by “Hongkongers” (citizens of Hong Kong describe themselves as “Hongkongers” rather than “Chinese”) are in bold defiance of the Chinese authority, and a crackdown could prove quite costly for China. An open and prosperous Hong Kong is vital for China, as Hong Kong’s wealth has filled the coffers of China. Hong Kong is a massive financial hub, a source of foreign capital, and a currency exchange market with a stock market larger than London. A crackdown would destroy the wealth and Hong Kong’s global position in finance that Beijing needs. Also, Hong Kong’s freedom and autonomy are global issues. Moreover, bloodshed in Hong Kong would shatter China’s hopes of bridging the rift with Taiwan.

These considerations protect the protestors from Beijing’s wrath. The trade war with the United States has further restricted China’s options and tilted the balance in favour of demonstrators. The movement has proved that powerful, authoritarian governments can be forced to repeal draconian measures in the face of popular mobilization.

China’s dilemma

China is in a catch 22 situation with Hong Kong. Businesses, both foreign and domestic including China and Hong Kong-based operations, have begun to explore opportunities outside China. Any increased pressure from China would invite severe criticism from the United Kingdom, the United States, and the European Union. All three have a profound economic and political interest in Hong Kong’s prosperity and its exceptional freedom under China.

A military crackdown could dent China’s international image as a “Responsible Great Power” and spark further radicalization in Hong Kong. Hong Kong can become a symbol of democratic resistance and spark similar movements in Taiwan. China wants a defeated, obedient population in Hong Kong, not a rebel commune.

How Beijing will deal with Hong Kong and Taiwan in Asia is a very pertinent question. Will economic development hasten the movement’s decline and resolve all sorts of problems that Hong Kong faces today? Hundreds of thousands of protesters who are now demanding greater autonomy will continue their protests, causing further economic and political disruption. The announcement of recession might further fuel dissatisfaction and take violent shape and turn Hong Kong from an economic paradise to a nightmare for business establishments.

On the other hand, if brute force is used, the consequences could be catastrophic. The protestors know this too. This is why, despite Chief Executive of Hong Kong, Carrie Lam’s repeal of the extradition law, they will continue to provoke and test the nerves of Beijing. The warning by the Communist Party officials not to “play with fire” or “mistake restraint for weakness” reflects Beijing’s ways of settling dissent.

The pro-democracy agitation poses a severe challenge to China’s rule. Both protestors and China through its proxies in Hong Kong are standing firm on their grounds. If China doesn’t act swiftly to calm down the agitation, the protests might culminate in either a similar revolt like the Middle East faced that unseated the governments in Egypt and Libya or result in a similar massacre that happened in Tiananmen Square. Will China change its strategy and adopt a pro-democratic stance in Hong Kong is a million-dollar question. And the Hong Kong protestors along with the world are eagerly waiting to know China’s answer to this question.