It should be obvious to the entire world, that the unrest in Hong Kong is increasing – and it is not about some proposed law to send dissidents to Mainland China. That proposal was taken off the table weeks ago.
This is a full-fledged revolution for independence from Beijing. It will not be quelled unless Chinese President Xi Jinping is willing to use massive violence against the demonstrators – violence that would even surpass the events in Tiananmen Square in 1989 — more like the Soviet suppression of democratic forces in Hungary in 1956 and the 1980s failed attempts to crush Solidarność in Poland.
The lessons of history suggest that authoritarian regimes cannot maintain a hold over a populace that is willing to fight and die for freedom – at least not without killing hundreds, thousands or even millions of them. How long authoritarians hold on – and it is never forever – depends on how much violence they are willing to inflict on the people. The Soviet Union survived for approximately 80 years. Hitler’s Third Reich lasted a mere six years.
It should be evident that trying to outwait the protestors – hoping they will just run out of energy – is not working and not likely to work. With the level of violence increasing – including deaths – there is only one way Xi can clear the streets – deadly force.
We may be on the eve of that with demonstrators now using arrows and catapults against the police and the members of the People’s Liberation Army who have been sent into Hong Kong by Beijing to push back against the protest.
So far, the only deaths have been among demonstrators. No police officers have been seriously injured or killed. But with violence escalating, that could happen any day now. Of course, that would put more pressure on Xi. While it would be used as an excuse for more violent retaliatory action, a measured response may not be enough to stop the unrest.
On the other hand, an increase in violence on both sides could take the once protest past the current demonstrations and riots into a full-blown civil conflict. Xi cannot be sure that the Hong Kong police will remain loyal to Beijing. Those officers share much of the sentiment of the protestors. It is the reason Xi is sending in mainland military to fight against the protestors. We have been told that already members of the fire fighting community have aligned with the protestors.
As I have noted in previous commentaries, there is no happy choice for Xi. There is no win-win strategy.
Xi is facing upcoming elections for the Hong Kong municipal council. By all measures, the democratic forces are likely to achieve an overwhelming win. Xi has a very tough choice. If he allows the elections to go forward, he will have a lot less control over the government – maybe none. If Xi cancels the elections, he will likely find millions – not hundreds – in the streets again.
If Xi decides to use whatever force is necessary to quell the action in the streets, he will have to kill a LOT of Hong Kong citizens and could plunge the island city into long term chaos from a simmering resistance movement. We could be talking civil war.
Violent action against the people of Hong Kong would destroy Xi’s image and strategy of being a positive leader in the world community. He would take the China that has been emerging from behind the Maoist Bamboo Curtain and make it once again brutal regime unfit for participation in the civilized world.
It would cripple China’s efforts to be a world leader in manufacturing, technology and trade. It would be much more difficult to lift those sanctions that are already hurting the Chinese economy. In fact, there could be new sanctions from European nations. Business enterprises would lose their interest in China for manufacturing and marketing. Southeast nations like Vietnam and Cambodia – along with African nations and even countries in South and Central America — could gain if China was to lose its manufacturing advantages over growing unrest.
Between tariffs, the protests in China and an inevitable decline in the Chinese Economy, the once enviable economic growth rate has collapsed. It is currently running a zero and may be heading into a recession, if not there already. It would appear that Trump’s trade stare-down will force Xi to blink first. The unrest in Hong Kong is likely to force Xi into a trade deal more quickly.
Xi also must look past Hong Kong. There are regions inside of mainland China that have the potential of exploding into resistance to Beijing. There is the current conflict with the Uighurs and the Mongolian region has long had an uneasy relationship with Beijing.
Still, it is impossible to see how Beijing can maintain control over Hong Kong without a brutal response to the growing demonstrations – demonstrations that are destroying the economy of one of China’s richest and most productive regions. Hong Kong has been the Middle Kingdom’s prime example of civility with the civilized world.
So … if it is disastrous to crush what is now a rebellion and Xi cannot succumb to total independence for Hong Kong, what can be the best outcome – if not a win-win, at least a measured loss for both sides?
For that example, we need only look at Taiwan. Beijing has virtually no authority over the island even though it is officially a province of China. It may come as a surprise to many Americans, but our nation has a “one China” policy, recognizing that technically Taiwan is a province of China – even though we have agreed to defend Taiwan should Beijing attempt to oust the current government by military force. Most of the world maintains a similar view. Brutally crushing the unrest in Hong Kong will undoubtedly re-ignite the independence movement in Taiwan.
Allowing Hong Kong to be another quasi-independent province in the model of Taiwan would be a loss for Beijing – but it could be a face-saving loss. Violence against the people of Hong Kong or allowing the island to be totally independent of Beijing are both humiliating defeats for Xi. In one case he becomes an international pariah and in the other case, he has totally lost an important piece of China – economically, culturally and image-wise.
For hardliners in China, the total loss of Hong Kong would put Xi in the same position as former Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who presided over the dissemblance of the Soviet Union. Russian hardliners – including President Vladimir Putin – remain bitterly hateful of Gorbachev to this day.