I fear that China is about to crack down on Hong Kong and retake the airport by military force. A crackdown is what it did in June 1989 when the tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square, which they did after a long period of protests during which the government did nothing. China’s leaders finally lost patience and crushed the protests by force. Their descendants show signs of doing the same thing again, particularly when they brand the occupiers of Hong Kong Airport as “terrorists.”
I have just read a piece by Minxin Pei in which he argues that a Tiananmen-type crackdown would cost the government of China too much.
“Hong Kong’s residents would almost certainly treat Chinese government forces as invaders, and mount the fiercest possible resistance,” Pei writes. “The resulting clashes — which would likely produce high numbers of civilian casualties — would mark the official end of the ‘one country, two systems’ arrangement, with China’s government forced to assert direct and full control over Hong Kong’s administration.”
Tiananmen's descendants show signs of doing the same thing again, particularly when they brand the occupiers of Hong Kong Airport as “terrorists.”
And that, Pei writes, would cause “an immediate exodus of expats and elites with foreign passports” and of Western businesses, with a “collapse” of Hong Kong’s economy.
I lived in Hong Kong for three years. It was a long time ago, and I may be on shaky ground when I argue with Minxin Pei, but it’s difficult for me to picture the Hong Kong people putting up “the fiercest possible resistance” to the Chinese army. The Hong Kongers are not a military people; they are an unarmed, commercial people. When I was there, they were much less ideological than Americans. Obviously, that’s changed, but by how much? And if Hong Kong’s youth have embraced ideology and activism, what difference can it make now?
Hong Kong was a British colony during most of the 20th century. It had an odd mixture of freedom and capitalism under British common law but with no democracy. The time to have taken to the streets and occupied the airport was in the early 1980s, when the deal to give Hong Kong 50 years of a separate system under China’s sovereignty was being negotiated between Margaret Thatcher and Deng Xiaoping. If the Hong Kong people had shut down the airport and demanded independence, they might have got it from Britain, though it’s doubtful that China would have let them keep it. There is no chance of getting independence from China now.
When I was there, the Hong Kongers were much less ideological than Americans. Obviously, that’s changed, but by how much?
The protesters in Hong Kong want control of Hong Kong by the Hong Kong people. China’s leaders cannot afford to give them that, and they won’t.
Either the protesters give up and leave the airport, or the Chinese Army forcibly evicts them. Either way, they lose.
What, then? If the Chinese army takes the Hong Kong airport and says, “Order is restored, back to work!”, will the Western businesses leave? Maybe a few. The crackdown in Beijing in 1989 created bad publicity all over the world; it caused tens of thousands of Chinese students to stay in the United States, and it kept tourists away from China for a while. It cost China billions of dollars. But look what it bought: no domestic opposition for 30 years. For China’s leaders, it was worth the cost. My bet is that they’ll do it again.
If the Hong Kong people had shut down the airport and demanded independence, they might have got it from Britain. There is no chance of getting independence from China now.
Long term, the biggest question about Hong Kong has been whether its system will remain distinct from China’s or whether the two systems will begin to merge. If China cracks down, an answer to that question will begin to take shape — and it won’t be one the Hong Kong people want.
And what of the United States? Will Donald Trump impose economic sanctions on China? That bolt has already been shot, for all the good it’s done.
I fear the Hong Kong people are on their own.