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Hong Kong waits for Beijing’s next move. Here’s what the experts say.

Why a military intervention could be costly on many fronts

- August 15, 2019

President Trump tweeted on Aug. 13, 2019, that “our Intelligence has informed us that the Chinese Government is moving troops to the Border with Hong Kong. Everyone should be calm and safe!” Later, he tweeted, “I have ZERO doubt that if President Xi wants to quickly and humanely solve the Hong Kong problem, he can do it.”

I asked several experts to weigh in on Beijing’s calculus about what its next move might be, and whether the current wave of demonstrations is likely to end without further bloodshed, as the previous Umbrella Movement protests did in 2014. Below, with minor edits, are their responses:

1. There’s a growing consensus that Beijing will inevitably order a military-style crackdown.

Veteran China watchers who hoped for a peaceful democratic transition in 1989 are making sure they don’t look naive this time around. The writing may be on the wall, but the ship has not yet sailed. Observers don’t sufficiently appreciate the costs of a military assault, which could threaten the regime’s survival.

For one, don’t forget that Hong Kong’s protesters aren’t children of the communist revolution; they’re highly educated, globalized and fiercely protective of their personal freedoms and an open society. The rest of Hong Kong, from billionaires to trash collectors, would also rise up in ways large and small — or simply leave.

Second, there are millions of personal ties between Hong Kong and mainland China. Unconnected netizens may approve of a crackdown; many Chinese would be horrified. Third, just when China had the United States and the West on their back feet, Beijing would face global opprobrium and isolation. Fourth, Beijing would kiss goodbye any remaining sliver of hope for peaceful reunification with Taiwan. And finally, the economic costs would be huge for Hong Kong, the rest of southern China and perhaps the entire country.

For all these reasons, a peaceful solution is in the leadership’s best interests.

Scott Kennedy (@KennedyCSIS) is the Trustee Chair in Chinese Business and Economics at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

2. There’s a real danger in making specific predictions or thinking we’ll see a repeat of what happened either in Hong Kong in 2014 or Beijing in 1989.

Here’s why: Authorities have already departed from both scripts. Hong Kong’s police have responded far more brutally in 2019 — they used tear gas rarely in 2014, and never inside subway stations. And there was no deployment of gangs or thugs to beat up protesters prior to the 1989 Beijing massacre.

No analogy will be perfect, but think about Poland in 1981. Jeffrey Kopstein and I talk about this in a recent article for the Atlantic. Distant hard-liners in Moscow encouraged local authorities in Warsaw to use whatever means needed to crush a popular movement on their own — with the assurance that Moscow would help if all else failed. The Polish government imposed martial law and arrested leaders of Solidarity, including labor activist Lech Walesa.

But there’s a twist: Hong Kong’s protests this year have been largely leaderless. This was a conscious move, precisely to avoid the rounding up of designated leaders that took place in Poland decades ago — and happened in the immediate aftermath of the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989, and in Hong Kong after 2014.

Jeffrey Wasserstrom, who teaches history at the University of California at Irvine, is the author of the forthcoming “Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink” (Columbia Global Reports, 2020).

3. Beijing does not have to send out Chinese troops because Hong Kong’s police are cracking down hard on the protesters.

Police actions on Sunday have caused particularly bloody injuries. Officers disguised as protesters beat up arrested protesters, leaving several with fractures. Police fired on protesters escaping into a train station with pepper spray at close range. Police shot one woman in her right eye with a rubber bullet. Police beatings left one man with a brain bleed.

Medical workers have since complained that the police “attempted to murder Hong Kong citizens.” Police are also credibly suspected of colluding with criminal gangs who have assaulted protesters and reporters.

Still, increasingly lethal repression is unlikely to end this “last fight for Hong Kong.” If Chinese forces roll into Hong Kong, protesters will “go home to sleep” — but strikes and boycotts, which are less vulnerable to physical suppression, will persist.

Victoria Tin-bor Hui, associate professor in political science at the University of Notre Dame, has written “Will China Crush the Protests in Hong Kong?” and “Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement: The Protests and Beyond.”

4. Beijing is looking to intimidate Hong Kong

Signaling the presence of the People’s Liberation Army across the border was meant to intimidate Hong Kong and to chip away at the strong public support for the resistance movement. But Beijing has given the Hong Kong police full mandate to suppress, intimidate and arrest hundreds of protesters. There is already a lot of bloodshed in the city’s streets, subways and shopping malls.

China is also unlikely to send in the troops because the “one country, two systems” model still serves China’s national interest. Hong Kong’s stock exchange is the primary capital market for mainland Chinese companies’ IPOs; the city still boasts the most sophisticated judiciary, business arbitration and financial expertise necessary for the Belt and Road Initiative; and Hong Kong’s separate customs status allows the acquisition of sensitive strategic technology.

Last but not least, sending in the tanks will irreparably ruin the prospect of peaceful reunification with Taiwan and Chinese President Xi Jinping’s legacy and honor. Beijing has a nationalistic stake to show the world that Chinese people can run Hong Kong as well as the British colonialists.

Ching Kwan Lee, a professor of sociology at the University of California at Los Angeles and a visiting professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, chairs the Society for Hong Kong Studies.

5. Beijing might not appear to have much standing in its way

The Trump administration has already telegraphed its neutrality; many in Congress have been traditionally harsh on China — nothing new there; the Chinese blogosphere and citizenry seem to support a hard line. Financial firms may increase their exodus from Hong Kong; and nondemocratic Belt and Road Initiative partners will be supportive or neutral.

But two things might genuinely give Beijing pause. First, Xi has staked his own legacy on a “China model” to compete with the U.S.-led neoliberal one tarnished by the 2008 global financial crisis. A military crackdown in Hong Kong could forfeit these aspirations and undercut China’s great power ambitions. Is Xi willing to sacrifice this opportunity?

But the real existential fear is the effect of such bloodshed on Taiwan. The “one country, two systems” framework underlying the China-Hong Kong relationship lies at the cornerstone of reunification with Taiwan. Will bloodshed in Hong Kong lead to Taiwan formally declaring its independence? The endgame for Hong Kong hinges on this question.

Andrew Mertha is Hyman Professor of China Studies and director of the China Studies Program at Johns Hopkins School of International Studies.

6. Would China send in troops?

Sending Chinese military or paramilitary forces into Hong Kong to confront protesters directly — or activating the Chinese forces already in Hong Kong — would potentially be devastating for China economically and geopolitically. Such a move could set off an international crisis and could help throw the world economy into recession. The likely consequence could be the end of China’s rise. Already, China faces serious economic problems as a result of debt-fueled over-investment and a rapidly shrinking workforce. In some ways, China today resembles a combination of the Soviet Union and Japan in the 1980s.

Using force in Hong Kong would also be tantamount to committing to eventual military conflict with Taiwan — and, by extension, Taiwan’s quasi-ally, the United States. By intervening militarily in Hong Kong, Beijing would effectively be declaring the bankruptcy and decisive end of “one country, two systems,” the formula by which the Communist Party still officially hopes to unify peacefully one day with Taiwan. Abandoning this pretense would leave only force as an option for dealing with Taiwan, an exceptionally high-risk strategy.

Dan Lynch is a professor of Asian and international studies at the City University of Hong Kong.

7. Hong Kong in 2019 is fundamentally different from Beijing in 1989.

Beijing’s strategy is to maximize the benefits while minimizing the costs of repression. The costs have been largely borne by the Hong Kong — not the central — government.

Public condemnation of the Hong Kong Police Force’s excessive violence and mobilization of “thugs-for-hire” to beat up and intimidate protesters falls squarely on the shoulders of the Hong Kong government. Seen in this light, Beijing has been able to use violence largely with impunity.

Given the sluggish domestic economy, the trade war in the backdrop and financial capital invested in Hong Kong — not an insignificant proportion of which is owned by the echelon of powers in Beijing — the cost of a direct military intervention, in terms of international censure and potential risks to the regime, could simply be too high for Beijing to bear.

Lynette H. Ong is a professor of political science who teaches Chinese politics and studies authoritarian politics at the University of Toronto.