By Geoff Raby
Published on 5 September 2019 on Australian Financial Review
Tragically, the turmoil in Hong Kong can only end badly. No good outcomes are available to the participants. Whatever happens, Hong Kong will never be the same again. The year 2046, the last of the 50-year transition, will begin once the streets are cleared, however that is achieved. Hong Kong could well become a black swan event that changes the region and the world beyond.
Three months into continual rioting, mass demonstrations and escalating violence, Beijing remains intransigent. At the beginning, Beijing could have taken the steam out of the protests had it allowed Carrie Lam, the Chief Executive, to scrap unambiguously the extradition bill – the spark that lit the bonfire – and establish a genuinely independent commission of inquiry to examine police behaviour, and then sacked her for incompetence and replaced her with a more politically attuned chief executive who had a degree of support across various groups.
That Beijing has refused to do so and has dug in as protests grow is extraordinarily obdurate and ultimately self-defeating. Most worryingly, the protesters' list of demands has widened, to the point where the "one country, two systems" formula that has underpinned the relationship between Hong Kong and the mainland since 1997 is now being rejected in the streets. This also has profound implications for Taiwan and regional peace and stability.
Beijing’s official position for not dispatching Lam and making some meaningful but, in the scheme of things, relatively minor concessions can only be understood in the context of internal elite politics. By and large, one of the strengths of China’s political leadership is its sensible pragmatism. This time, however, the official line is that any concessions, even the most obvious one of getting rid of Lam, would just bring forth more demands from the streets.
After three months of Beijing’s stubbornness, the situation has only become worse. The violence has increased massively, the protesters' legitimate grievances have increased, especially against the inept and increasingly violent police, and the rejection of Beijing’s rule is becoming widespread and entrenched. Someone needs to advise Beijing that when you are in a hole and want to get out of it, stop digging.
In 1989 – before the denouement of the People's Liberation Army's killing of innocent residents of Beijing – the reason for the failure to act and seek an accommodation with the aggrieved students occupying Tiananmen Square and protesting in many cities around the country, was to be found in the political struggle at the centre of Chinese politics.
So it is most likely the same today with Hong Kong. A pragmatic, sensible course of action – which would seek to find a way of defusing the situation through compromise, accommodation and dialogue – is not possible because of elite politics in Beijing. President Xi Jinping has many enemies who have been waiting years for him to slip so they can attack him. This is their moment.
Compromise would be seen as weakness and a vulnerability. This is one of the consequences of strongman political leadership. It closes off sensible options. The problem for Xi, and his opponents know it, is that he has no other option. While a military intervention, either through the People’s Liberation Army or the People’s Armed Police, is a possibility it remains highly unlikely.
The international consequences would be disastrous. Foreign capital and global companies would flee Hong Kong as if the bubonic plague had broken out. In any event, the military will resist being drawn in. All militaries want to know what the exit strategy is. None exists for Hong Kong. The prospect of being mired into trying to control a labyrinth of steeply narrow streets and laneways is a military’s worst nightmare.
Following Tiananmen Square, the PLA adopted a strategy of maximum intimidation of the population, which lasted for three to four days. We witnessed truckloads of troops arriving at the hutongs across the road from the diplomatic compounds, listening to gunfire for hours and being warned not to appear on the balconies of our apartments. We feared the worst; however, the gunfire wasn’t directed at the residents but aimed into the air, to intimidate them.
The PLA also shot up the foreign buildings along the main avenue, aptly named the Avenue of Heavenly Peace. No foreigner was injured, which can be seen as a tribute to the government’s intelligence about the location of each and every foreigner at the time of the shootings.
The layout of Beijing is nothing like that of Hong Kong. It has wide, flat boulevards and, in those days, tightly packed courtyards, or hutongs, in which residents could easily be trapped, not steeply rising alleyways and lanes with high-rise buildings that could serve as vantage points for trapping and attacking troops.
The military could still be used if Xi’s political imperative requires that, but the costs would be enormous. It is clear from the courageous, if foolhardy, behaviour of many of Hong Kong’s youth that the bloodshed would be horrific. At a time when many in the West want to push back against China, this would provide an ideal opportunity to impose severe sanctions on Beijing. Not only Hong Kong’s but Chinese economic growth would tank.
For all these reasons, it is most unlikely the military will be used. In view of the incompetence and brutality shown so far by Hong Kong’s police, which has only made the protesters more resolute, the only path to resolution is compromise. Lam has indicated she may now understand this by offering to withdraw, not simply suspend, the extradition bill. This was a key demand of the protesters at the beginning of this drama three months ago. But now it is likely to be seen as too little, too late.
Xi Jinping will want the demonstrators off the streets well before the October 1 celebrations of the 70th anniversary of the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. This was to be his grand moment, and a burning Hong Kong would entail an intolerable loss of face. The resilience of the people on the streets of Hong Kong may finally have convinced Beijing that compromise would be a better outcome than tanks at Hong Kong's major intersections during the 70th anniversary.
However all of this is resolved, following this summer of discontent, Hong Kong will never be the same again; 2046 has collapsed into the present. Beijing will do whatever is necessary through political interference, media and digital control, and undermining Hong Kong’s independent judiciary and academia to ensure this never happens again.