As Hong Kong’s anti-administration protests grow stronger and increasingly violent, fears of a Tiananmen Square style response by Beijing also mount. Trevor Watson looks at the difficulty faced by China watchers as they attempt to predict the next move by one of the world’s unpredictable regimes.
Yes, it was a very long time ago and China has changed a great deal, but as images of young chanting protesters on the streets of Hong Kong fill the television screen, memories of a bloodied Tiananmen Square loom large.
Will the tanks roll into the streets of Hong Kong as they did the streets of Beijing in 1989, to literally crush an insurrection that had dragged on for months and is now beginning to threaten not only public order but also the economy of this East Asian powerhouse?
‘Will they or won’t they’ has become the name of the game for the people of Hong Kong, concerned foreign governments and, of course, commentators the world over.
On the one hand, China is today a highly sophisticated superpower that is not only locked into but to a large extent, drives the world’s economy and political structure.
While global opinion and an economic backlash didn’t mean much in 1989, a violent crackdown in Hong Kong now could cost China dearly, particularly in political terms as international outrage takes its toll on trade and erodes the standard of living that so many of its people now take for granted.
Beijing would also destroy any hope of reunification with Taiwan under a clearly failing ‘one country, two systems’ arrangement similar to that promised to Hong Kong in 1997. One extreme scenario has it that Chinese action against Hong Kong could prompt US President Donald Trump to ratchet up Washington’s military presence and therefore tension in the Taiwan Strait.
Furthermore, Beijing is aware that the Hong Kong unrest is contained. Unlike the 1989 troubles which spread rapidly, there is no “networking” element to the Hong Kong situation that is likely to infect other parts of the country. Indeed, there seems to be little sympathy on the Mainland for the privileged of Hong Kong who are apparently willing to abuse their good fortune.
In short, violent action would have highly detrimental consequences for China domestically and internationally and leave Hong Kong, its gateway to the world where Chinese companies flourish under the ‘rule of law’, a smouldering economic wreck populated by millions of Beijing haters.
Given these factors, the prospect of PLA tanks rumbling through Central anytime soon would seem very unlikely.
On the other hand, there are some disturbing similarities between Hong Kong and Tiananmen Square. In tone, the rhetoric hasn’t changed a bit. Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, has warned the city is nearing the “abyss” while Beijing talks of the protests as “riots” and the protesters as “terrorists”.
Beijing talks of protesters “wantonly trampling on Hong Kong’s rule of law and social order” as the PLA releases threatening videos and armored vehicles moving towards the border that divides the People’s Republic and its Special Administrative Region.
And with their ever-expanding list of demands, the protesters are demonstrating a similar degree of naivety as their counterparts of a generation ago. They now want a complete withdrawal of the extradition bill which triggered the protests in the first place; the withdrawal of the term “riot” to describe the protests; an amnesty for all arrested protesters; an independent inquiry into alleged police brutality and the big one, universal suffrage for the Chief Executive and Legislative Council elections.
Of course, above all else, the one factor that is common to Tiananmen Square and Hong Kong is Beijing’s determination to safeguard its absolute authority. A totalitarian regime that resorts to everything from facial recognition devices to concentration camps is hardly going to allow a rabble in HK to weaken its power.
Carrie Lam’s resignation, as demanded by some, would amount to an unacceptable loss of face.
Beijing is no doubt weighing up is options. Will it be the tanks or nothing as many see it? Or, are there other options? Some commentators believe that Beijing may act but stop well short of a crude and brutal Tiananmen Square type military intervention.
Beijing could, for example, respond to a request from the Hong Kong authorities for riot police who have been highly trained in non-lethal force. Martial law or a curfew are also possible. At another level, Beijing has already started pressuring local institutions and companies to act against those who have joined the protest.
Again, determining just how Beijing will play its cards is very difficult. It would be much easier if these events were unfolding in a rank and file member of the world community. We could speculate about negotiations, maybe a government backdown, perhaps a resignation or two.
But there is nothing rank and file about the big player here. We are dealing with an aggressive super nation with an outlook shaped by its self-determined status as the Middle Kingdom and which is ruled by a paranoid regime with little time for the rules that government the rest of us.
Trevor Watson is a Walkley Award winning journalist with extensive experience in China and South East Asia