by Marshall Wu
When Hong Kong was returned to China by the end the of its lease to the United Kingdom in 1997, among the agreements made between the United Kingdom and China was a fifty-year guarantee of one country, two systems. After over one hundred years under British rule, today Hong Kong is uniquely part-Western and part-Chinese. It is no longer the same city it once was under Chinese emperors. This is apparent in a common viewpoint among Chinese today, who may find Hong Kongers ‘spoiled’. In dramatic difference from the city of Shenzhen, fewer than thirty minutes north, Hong Kong has truly become a dual-language populace. In Hong Kong, cab drivers speak English and street signs retain both Chinese and English spellings.
Hong Kongers’ identities have once again been called up for debate by a controversial extradition bill which has now since been withdrawn. Hong Kong’s duality in governance would formally end when one country, two systems expires, but its citizens may not want to accept it. For protesters, the fundamental question is not about the change of rules but about how Hong Kongers now find themselves as different from China. The debate goes beyond Hong Kong, and invites the world to weigh in: Has Hong Kong’s history under British rule created Hong Kong, the city-state, or can it re-embrace its Chinese history again? As long as Hong Kong looks across the river to the north and refuses China, there will always be room for conflict.
As the current protests have extended into their eighth month, Beijing may be considering harsher measures. However the feared Tiananmen-style crackdown, rolling armored vehicles and soldiers into streets, is an unlikely outcome now and in the future. Barring extreme circumstances, a bloody crackdown would be harmful to China’s long-term control of Hong Kong itself, as well as China’s international standing and its ambitions abroad.
While negotiating Hong Kong’s handoff between the United Kingdom and China, Deng Xiaoping stated to Margaret Thatcher that if he wanted, he could skip the negotiations and retake Hong Kong by force within a day. Thatcher responded with the plain and simple: The world would see for itself that the change in hands was marked by bloody transition. The British, formerly the imperialistic overlords would represent stability and peace while China would be condemned as belligerent. China could have taken Hong Kong without negotiating, but the issue was not about China’s physical possession of the city. Taking Hong Kong by force would have destroyed the city’s economic confidence, stability, and powerful international characteristic. Taking the city by force would have been somewhat a pyrrhic victory.
Thatcher’s response to Deng continues to be relevant today. Despite that China’s international stature has strengthened significantly since 1997, it may still be getting used to the discomfort of losing its former primacy where Middle Kingdom has become East. Today it must contend both with a city which at its core is not entirely Chinese and rejects Beijing’s rule and a world which would not respect the ugliness of a crackdown. Thatcher’s response was about what China could not control- unlike a time before British ownership of Hong Kong. The act of subduing Hong Kong by force today might similarly miss the point of what exactly China means to subdue. Is it in fact the protests themselves, or the beliefs which drive them?
Had Deng chose to bypass negotiations, the price China would pay for forgetting about the world was made simple in the outcome of Tiananmen in 1989. The diplomats and statesmen who went through the painful years of diplomatic isolation and international ostracization following the crackdown are alive today. When they consider dealing with Hong Kong, the cost of returning to that period is surely on their minds.
Many anticipated that China’s 70th anniversary celebrations would be the definitive end of Hong Kong’s months of protesting. Unsurprisingly, Beijing showed no move to silence protests even in the face of heightened protests on the day of anniversary. Assuming that Beijing was willing to risk punishment from around the world in exchange for Hong Kong was a dubious assumption. Many argued that China would obsess to have a clean stage to celebrate the 70th anniversary of its founding, yet neglected to consider what would be an incomparably worse setting had it decided to bring guns and tanks into Hong Kong’s streets. While Beijing is said to care about appearances, that would not make it unpragmatic. No matter how ugly the protests are to Beijing, in a digitalized, affluent, and multinational city such as Hong Kong, media of soldiers shooting would be incomparably worse in every measure. No amount of repression could prevent pictures, cameras, and reporters from bringing the shooting to front pages everywhere across the world.
On the contrary, any violent crackdown in Hong Kong could only lead China to lose it for the foreseeable future. In a city not yet subject to Chinese censorship, pictures and memories of China marching into Hong Kong would last forever. Organized and internet-savvy Hong Kongers would weaponize media of Chinese ‘attacks’ in ways only preventable through unrealistically high levels of political and internet repression. This is not to mention that repression going beyond physical force would violate what sovereignty Hong Kong has. Today Hong Kong sees itself as more than just a river away from the mainland. Rolling in troops from across the bridge is a contemptuous but tacit acknowledgement of their differences made clear for everyone to see.
A crackdown in Hong Kong has repercussions beyond the immediate area that go into China’s own international projects. China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) goes beyond Asia and Middle East, some of its silk roads tying China all the way to Europe, the Arctic, and beyond. They currently intend to bind China to states between itself and the end of the silk roads in political, economic, and even social ways. If China wants its projects to succeed, it must become politically sensitive to these mixed group of countries ranging from autocracies to democracies. The message of the BRI coming from China is that of cooperation and prosperity.
Today the initial honeymoon period for the BRI is far past, and resistance to the project has started building. Countries crucial to BRI such as India have already expressed significant reluctance over further cooperation: For starters, the infrastructure debt from the Belt and Road Initiative taken on has become highly suspicious to domestic populations no matter how much their national governments want the investments. In this current state of BRI, stunning on-the-fence BRI partners with heavy-handedness in Hong Kong is tantamount to Beijing calling it quits on BRI itself. China’s investments and efforts will have been wasted. To think that Hong Kong, whose GDP has already been surpassed by its quieter and more docile neighbor Shenzhen, would be worth harming China’s future ambitions for might only be possible if China were irrationally unpragmatic.
In summary, an aggressive crackdown would be counterproductive in nearly every way. Beijing may be said to care about face and stability when it comes to justifying suppression, however it is not unrealistic. Crushing protests may credit Beijing with neither. But more than that, the question is about Hong Kong’s beliefs, which are not something reducible by anything like a gun.
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