Michael Shoebridge of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute has artfully given the appearance of logic to a melding of fact, supposition and obsession in order to reach the conclusion that it is ‘time for the international community to step up to prevent a foreseeable massacre that will further cleave China—and other authoritarian regimes—from the rest of the world’. The protests in Hong Kong are his launch platform but his target is always President Xi and the CCP.
It would be idle to speculate how Shoebridge might have reacted to the sixties race riots that erupted in Watts, Newark, and across America in the wake of Martin Luther King’s assassination, or even earlier in Detroit, where a democracy employed armed forces, national guard, police and martial law to suppress the disturbances. Historical analogies must be used with great caution and with due regard to contingent circumstances but, as in Hong Kong, denial of civil and human rights were at the heart of America’s racial troubles. Rights were denied more blatantly, cruelly and unjustly to blacks in America than is happening in Hong Kong at present.
According to Shoebridge the same motivation and reasoning that three decades ago led to the massacre following Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 will inexorably lead to what is ‘a foreseeable massacre’. This is specious. Deng Xiaoping’s reforms were still fragile and the Chinese economy was only beginning to recover from the days of Mao Zedong. That didn’t justify the violence and deaths but does provide an explanation that distinguishes 1989 from the events in Hong Kong.
It is undeniable, as Shoebridge says, that ‘Beijing manages internal dissent ruthlessly and adeptly’. The regime is a one-party authoritarian state and the Hong Kong protests will sit uncomfortably with the ruling elite. Shoebridge believes the Chinese government has three options available: ‘engage with the people of Hong Kong’ and to tolerate the one government, two systems arrangement until 2047; to wait the protesters out hoping they lose momentum over time; and the most probable course, in his view, ‘a simple, repressive and violent one’.
That to date the Chinese government hasn’t opted for the latter is presented as evidence that it will. The cunning plot appears to be that ‘by refusing to engage with the Hong Kong people’s grievances President Xi is ‘creating a more pressurised, intense and desperate environment between the protesters and the authorities, which is leading inexorably to a violent conclusion’. The regime’s motivation is ‘their fear of a mass people’s movement that ousts the CCP’. Although this might be the case, there is no evidence that this actually reflects the nature of the internal CCP deliberations.
It would be unwise to discount any path to resolution of the Hong Kong crisis, peaceful or violent. To assume the Chinese government’s approach to Hong Kong is simplistic is equally fraught. The trade war had hit Hong Kong’s economy and the Hang Seng share market even before the protests began. Hong Kong remains a major off shore financial centre and ‘China’s most important springboard for foreign direct investment, either into or outside China’. China will need to tread carefully here.
Additionally, China has to carefully weigh how the approach it adopts with respect to the Hong Kong protests will play out in Taiwan. Arguably, President Xi’s commitment to the one country two systems policy for Hong Kong is in large part directed at a more important target, Taiwan. There is already evidence that the Hong Kong situation is strengthening pro-independence sentiment in Taiwan, a development of which the Chinese government will be acutely aware. China’s relationship with Taiwan is delicate and a heavy handed repression of the Hong Kong protests will make the prospect, such as it is, of peaceful reunification with Taiwan even more remote.
If Shoebridge’s dire prediction, a massacre along the lines of Tiananmen Square, is fulfilled there would undoubtedly be a major outcry from the world media and NGOs, and condemnation from many governments. Violent repression of the protests would override the self-interested and muted reaction to date. But that is not what Shoebridge is arguing. He proposes a pre-emptive intervention of some kind by the international community ‘to prevent a foreseeable massacre’.
This is unrealistic to the point of irrelevancy. Shoebridge fails to spell out what sort of pre-emptive intervention he desires but moral suasion seems to be the only realistic option. The governments of major world powers could warn China that violent repression would be frowned upon. However, the Chinese have not been obviously susceptible to criticism over other human rights abuses such as those against Uighurs and Tibetans, and China would argue that not only is Hong Kong a domestic public order issue but that critics should look to Kashmir and other places.
We cannot know how the Hong Kong situation will play out. Despite Shoebridge’s attempt to demonstrate some sort of inevitability, the Chinese regime is in a difficult and complicated position with Hong Kong as at the same time it is dealing with an escalating trade war with the US, an economic slowdown, and the prospect of a global recession. Governments will need to bring a far more nuanced and pragmatic approach to Hong Kong and avoid giving into the single minded hostility and Manichean approach advocated by Shoebridge.
It is not that its wrong for Shoebridge to empathise with the aspirations of the Hong Kong protesters or to recognise the Chinese regime’s willingness to use brutal violence when it serves its purpose. But allowing passion to distort reasoning is a serious failing in a high profile strategic policy commentator.
Mike Scrafton was a Deputy Secretary in the Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment, senior Defence executive, CEO of a state statutory body, and chief of staff and ministerial adviser to the minister for defence.