Current protests, including violence, present difficult decisions for the PRC and for Xi Jin Ping. The Hong Kong Government does not seem to be able to control things so what will Beijing do? No option provides a simple solution.
The situation in Hong Kong has been steadily escalating and poses dangers for Hong Kong as well as implications for the PRC and for Taiwan. The protests have become more violent and are no longer only by students. Smaller counter-protests have been staged by pro-PRC people. A further complication is the existence of factions within the protest group particularity between the more radical and violent ones and those who want to remain peaceful. The big question is what will Beijing do? And will the protesters back down? Might the more radical lose support from the mainstream who just want a peaceful life?
A cache of bombs and other material was discovered by the authorities but we don’t know who put them there. The students are unlikely to have access to this material which means either they are getting support from outsiders or, perhaps more likely, they were put there by Beijing, its HK supporters or less likely by the HK authorities to provide the option of taking firm action on the grounds that the protesters are terrorists. White clothed thugs including Triad members beat up peaceful protesters at Yuen Long train station presumably as a warning. They were hired either by Beijing directly, by the Hong Kong PRC supporters or less likely by the Hong Kong Government. Although Carrie Lam has condemned all violence the police were conspicuous by their absence. So far the PLA Hong Kong garrison has not intervened but actions taken could be a precursor to having them move in to “restore order”. Slogans painted on the Legislative Council building and especially the PRC Liaison Office have been very provocative. They have condemned the PRC in obscene terms and one read Xi is a pig.
So the question is will the protesters push Beijing to intervene in some way or will things calm down? It is hard to say but the PRC is faced with a difficult situation and Xi Jin Ping in particular. The Hong Kong Government shows little ability to control the situation. The young radicals want Carrie Lam to step down and want an elected leader instead of one effectively appointed by Beijing which has so far been unacceptable to the PRC. Xi is clearly authoritarian and does not want to lose face but he is caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. If he does intervene there could be bloodshed which would be bad for the international reputation of the PRC although Tian An Mien Square and memories of the Red Guards amongst Chinese leaders suggest that this is possible. Intervention would also send a message to Taiwan about one country two systems with all that implies.
However, if the situation is not controlled Xi appears weak and the PRC faces considerable embarrassment both domestically and internationally. Richard McGregor and others have argued that Xi faces a “backlash” within the Party and if true this could help his enemies. He is however likely to be pushed to be tough by hard-liners as well as to go softly by the more moderate factions.
Beijing could use the PLA on the grounds that the protesters are terrorists or send “volunteers” from the mainland to oppose the demonstrations either violently or to push up the numbers of the PRC camp. Direct intervention would be a last resort and Beijing will probably prefer to work through its supporters in Hong Kong and the Hong Kong Government. Employment of the Triads and other “loyal citizens” of Hong Kong could be stepped up. The domestic PRC media claims that the CIA is stirring it all up so this would be a fig leaf on which to hang intervention to protect Hong Kong from foreign interference. Of course in the long run, come what may, Hong Kong returns to the PRC in 2047 and it’s pounds to peanuts that no nonsense about democracy will be tolerated then.
Sermons by European countries are not going to have much effect on a nation which had over a hundred years experience of European concern for human rights beginning with the Opium Wars. Also, Xi has made it clear that the Chinese model is an alternative to the Western one. Lectures by the USA, Australia and others will also fall on deaf ears. Finally, China’s approach to the Uigurs does not suggest a conciliatory approach. Hong Kong remains a significant economy but does not have its earlier importance with the rise of Shanghai and other centres.
Much remains unclear but is hard to see the PRC backing down and no sign of the more radical protesters backing down. What the PRC does will be of interest to the people of Hong Kong and to Australia but we must face the certainty that the protesters will not win.
Cavan Hogue is a former Australian diplomat with extensive experience in Asia including as head of the Asia Division in DFAT.