It is difficult to understate the importance of what is happening in Hong Kong right now.
Protests began in response to an extradition bill, and were successful in securing its full withdrawal from Hong Kong’s Chinese-backed Chief Executive Carrie Lam. The protests – which consist of pro-democracy, localist, pro-independence, student-based groups and the Civil Human Rights Front – have expanded to include a total of five demands, and are notable both for their duration and breadth of civilian participation, with estimates as high as 2 million on a single day. Understanding the protests and the Communist Party of China’s (CPC) response reveal clues as to how the situation may be resolved, what they mean for the future of Hong Kong and mainland China’s relationship, and the impact on Chinese legitimacy at home and abroad.
1 . Judicial independence is an important democratic reform issue.
Before discussing issues specific to China and Hong Kong, the Hong Kong protests highlight how issues of judicial independence and rule of law are essential democratic reform issues everywhere, issues often overshadowed by a focus on free and fair elections. This is especially critical as the democratic backsliding occurring across the globe has largely been occurring through the chipping away of institutions and their integrity- just as the extradition bill would have done. These protests can therefore serve as a reminder to activists and policymakers of the importance of these judicial issues in democratization policy.
2 . The Hong Kong protests may not present as much of an existential threat to the Communist Party of China (CPC) as they would have in the past, nor as was seen in Tiananmen Square, though they do present a legitimacy threat, both domestic and global.
Although there has been a buildup of Chinese troops near Hong Kong in Shenzhen, as the situation currently stands, any rational (notwithstanding moral) imperative would not justify the People’s Armed Police Force (PAP) or the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) crossing the border to put an end to the protests, versus waiting them out.
Both the PAP and PLA have a near complete military advantage that could quickly and brutally repress protestors; however China would lose more than they would gain from a military intervention, given the impact on their international reputation and the subsequent economic downturn that would follow (as happened in 1989 when China was much less globally integrated). Hong Kong maintains immense political significance to mainland China and economic importance as a partner and gateway; yet still, the protesters do not present as much of an existential threat to the CPC as they would have in the past, nor as was seen in Tiananmen Square. From a political perspective, the Chinese government’s powerful surveillance and censorship regime can effectively repress any Hong Kong sympathizers in the mainland, as it has for years since Tiananmen. Furthermore, from an economic perspective, today Hong Kong represents less than 3 percent of Chinese GDP, compared to over 18 percent in 1997. Hong Kong is in fact facing an economic recession, partly due to protest-related business disruptions. Beijing could politically benefit from waiting them out, and blaming the prodemocracy movement for subsequent economic decline as it continues to propagate the narrative that only CPC power can bring increased economic growth to China.
A military intervention would damage Chinese legitimacy more than the ongoing protests already have. Yet despite the rational arguments to the contrary, it should be expected that the CPC will continue to fear that the Hong Kong protests will develop into more of an existential threat in the long-term. As it stands, it is incomprehensible that these protests could be seen on media in the mainland, let alone inspire sympathy protests. However, with the 2047 handover on the horizon, growing dissent in Hong Kong would not be permissible under the CPC’s unwavering One China policy and could contribute to a greater standoff as the “One Country, Two Systems” policy may be set to expire. In this way, and in light of the protesters’ success in securing the withdrawal of the extradition bill, the CPC is right to fear the efficacy and unmatched power of protests, and in the international solitary that has arisen.
3 . Given the repercussions of a military intervention, China is undertaking more covert operations to undermine the protestors and Hong Kong’s democratic institutions. This should be expected to continue in the future, by China and other non-democratic regimes.
Despite the at times incongruous economic development of China, which has required the substantial compromising of key ideological principles, it is a reflection of the success of the modern rules-based international order that China would face severe political and economic consequences if it responded to the Hong Kong protests with military force and an overt intervention. In light of this, China is increasingly using more covert methods to undermine Hong Kong’s democratic institutions and protestors’ efforts, including through disinformation campaigns, propaganda, surveillance, and more. This trend should be expected to continue in the future and should be counteracted by other actors, both in Hong Kong and other countries where it may occur (e.g., Sudan). This is particularly important as these covert actions are more difficult to identify and counter, as was seen with Russian interference in the 2016 US election.
Examples in Hong Kong include increased involvement by mainland CPC officials in the underground Communist Party in Hong Kong, described by Andrew Higgins in his New York Times piece, who are mobilizing a wide range of individuals and organizations (including some with links to those who attacked protestors last month); courting powerful business interests; and spreading editorials in party-controlled newspapers portraying protestors as violent terrorists. The CPC has also launched an aggressive propaganda campaign against the protesters by branding them as violent, extreme, and sponsored by foreign actors, including through relatively new social media methods. For instance, Twitter has blocked 936 accounts for “deliberately and specifically attempting to sow political discord in Hong Kong” as well as approximately 200,000 spam accounts linked to the CPC’s propaganda campaign. This will certainly be utilized by other authoritarian regimes in the future, and so it is particularly important that a rigorous monitoring system continues by government and social media actors.
4 . The protests are an important litmus test for China and Hong Kong’s future relationship, as well as Taiwan.
The Hong Kong protests do not at present constitute a serious threat to Communist Party rule in China. However it does present important political questions of legitimacy and pride, especially for a government with the most consolidated power in Xi Jinping since Mao. In the face of these questions, and especially if the protests continue with the energy they have maintained to date, Xi Jinping’s response will be an important litmus test. Despite rational and humane arguments against a forceful intervention, state-controlled messaging against the protestors has become increasingly aggressive, violent, and apocalyptic. It is well within reason to suppose that the vitriol and level of misinformation could well impact senior party officials’ decision-making. This is on top of the inherent difficulty that this authoritarian regime faces as it seeks to manage a mature relationship with democratic Hong Kong: the CPC has an instinct to repress, and repress quickly, rather than exercise the patience and tolerance that a situation like this requires. The longer it takes the CPC to learn this (and it is doubtful they will ever), the more dire the situation will become now and in the future.
Much remains to be seen from the prodemocracy movement and protestors’ side: how long they will continue, whether leaders continue to condone violent means, if they will become open to compromise on their demands, and more. However, Judy Blanchette describes the enduring instincts of the CPC, which will only serve to inflame the situation, through their covert and overt actions:
We’re veering into the realm of something more primal—the instinct for political survival. Thus, the near-apocalyptic rhetoric that permeates the CCP’s recent political discourse on Hong Kong is not mere blustering. And with the upcoming 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China on Oct. 1, there is mounting pressure to resolve the situation in Hong Kong quickly. If the CCP believes that these are the stakes, then the adoption of almost any means is acceptable. After nearly two years of international isolation and an economic downturn in the wake of its use of force on June 4, by 1992 the party emerged largely unscathed, while the Soviet Union lay in ruins. Similarly, while Beijing no doubt cares about its global image, it’s also prepared to detain millions of its own Uighur citizens in Xinjiang out of concerns of ethnic and territorial separatism
5 . Economic anxiety is an important undercurrent to this summer’s protests.
It is well known that a mainland China extradition bill initially sparked this summer’s protests. The extradition bill has recently been fully withdrawn from government consideration, though the protesters’ objectives have since expanded to include five total, broader demands. What has been lost in most analyses and narratives, however, is that there is a strong economic undercurrent to what is taking place in Hong Kong.
Similar to how the 1989 Tiananmen protesters were frustrated by rising inflation (alongside their inability to self-govern and address economic problems through reform), Hong Kongers have been under increasing economic anxiety from wage stagnation, rising rent prices, and more. Over 90 percent of Hong Kong locals work for small and medium-sized enterprises which have not experienced the same level of economic growth as multinational corporations operating in the city. This economic undercurrent reveals an additional layer to what may be fueling disillusionment, and highlights issues the government should act upon to restore legitimacy in the future. Economic dimensions relating to the ongoing trade war with the U.S. are also significant in this mix, with Beijing largely preoccupied by the unprecedented tension between the world’s two largest economies, and citizens feeling effects of related economic uncertainty.
This is all, of course, much bigger than simple individual pocketbook issues. The rule of law, democracy, human rights and dignity are at the core of these protests. Any analyses otherwise, such as those being propagated by the CPC, are reductionist. It now appears, especially based on 20-minutes of leaked audio between Carrie Lam and her advisors, that Beijing is largely aware that they cannot risk the damage to their international reputation nor the unique status of Hong Kong by following through with a military intervention, and will continue to counteract the movement through more covert means. This is because Chinese foreign policy, and foreign investment in the country, largely depend on its image of being well-managed and successful. Yet in this regard, the Hong Kong protests, while particularly significant, are still just one of many recent instances that have damaged China’s image, such as the Uighur camps and Belt and Road implementation. These all point to the continual Chinese reckoning with how its domestic, authoritarian regime affects its foreign policy, from a lack of legitimacy to difficulty dealing with complex situations when its instinct is to enforce and repress. This reckoning will inevitably continue, and will likely come to its more serious test and pinnacle through Hong Kong.