The summer of 2019 has seen week after week of protest in Hong Kong.
The protests began June 9 when as many as a million people marched against a bill that could allow suspects to be extradited to China. Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, who was appointed by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in 2017, proclaimed the legislation dead days later. But she also declined to withdraw the legislation, spurring additional – larger – protests that at times disrupted financial and transportation systems, leading to clashes with police.
Many in the West have wondered why China hasn’t taken firmer action to quell the protests.
As an expert on social movements and political change, I believe that the conflict in Hong Kong – and its resolution – may have implications for America and the rest of the world. If China brings Hong Kong under its thumb, this shift would alter the terrority’s politics and economic decision-making. Such a change would undoubtedly ripple through the global economy and affect the ability of American companies to do business abroad.
Yet, for now, China’s response is fairly subdued. That may be because China is benefiting from not appearing to be involved. Here are three ways.
1. Repression and control
Hong Kong’s residents have more freedom than Chinese residents living in mainland China – including an independent legal system and a free press.
That’s because Hong Kong is its own special administrative region, which gives it significant autonomy from China’s central government. This model, known as “one country, two systems,” was a condition imposed by the British when they transferred Hong Kong back to China in 1997.
But China’s leaders in Beijing want to bring the territory under its control. In 2014, for example, a Hong Kong court purged several pro-democracy politicians from the territory’s Legislative council and installed pro-Beijing politicians in their place. Much like this summer, Hong Kong’s citizens took to the streets, and their calls for democracy were met with pepper spray, tear gas and rubber bullets.
While China is well known for its overt and covert repression against its citizens, in the case of Hong Kong, Beijing can argue it is not directing Lam’s response, but is simply standing by if she calls on Beijing for assistance.
China has little to lose by taking this approach. If conflict between the police and citizens resumes and the political system destabilizes, China can swoop in and try to remake Hong Kong in its own image.
This is certainly a possibility. State repression, even when it involves violence against demonstrators, does not always end protest movements. If residents of Hong Kong sense that their window of opportunity to effect change is closing, they may risk their lives to push back against the government. That kind of violence between police and demonstrators can escalate and create a political crisis.
Chaos in Hong Kong enables Beijing to continue to exert more control over the region – possibly crushing the pro-democracy movement once and for all – all while letting it deny its intent to do so.
2. A show of military might
Even if it remains on the sidelines, China’s central government can use the protests to influence other outcomes in its favor.
Over the last week, it has implied that it might intervene to end the demonstrations by moving military equipment and personnel to a sports center in Shenzhen, China, that is visible from Hong Kong.
This show of force is a reminder to Hong Kong’s citizens that Beijing is willing – and prepared – to assume control of the territory through the use of force. That may provide enough of an incentive for demonstrators to find a way to work with Lam and encourage a resolution more in Beijing’s favor.
Arguably, this has already influenced some demonstrators’ behaviors. While protesters are still calling for Lam’s ouster and more democratic freedoms, one of the leaders of the pro-democracy Civil Human Rights Front told American news media that the group was working hard to ensure that the demonstrations would once again be peaceful. However, participants in mass demonstrations rarely share a single vision on how to effect political change. It is clear that some protesters continue to believe that violence will help them.
Another potential benefit to Beijing is the message their show of force sends to the Trump administration – proof that China can engage in video-ready shows of global military might. Such spectacles are one way that political leaders can buttress their authority and send a warning to other countries.
3. Building support at home
Trump’s trade war is hurting China’s economy. In fact, China’s economic growth stalled to a 27-year low of 6.6%. Although this rate is still high compared to most world economies, contractions such as these increase citizen dissatisfaction, particularly in nondemocratic countries.
While China has historically stymied popular protests, it has been harder to do so as more of its citizens gain access to the internet. Some Chinese citizens have moved away from politely protesting local officials to directly challenging government authority online, which is harder for government officials to contain.
The protests in Hong Kong give China an opportunity to quell that discontent by redirecting their attention toward a common enemy – the demonstrators, who, according to government accounts broadcast on state television, are violent and often paid provocateurs doing America’s bidding.
Beijing’s efforts to mobilize the citizenry around a Chinese identity seem to be working. On the social media site Weibo, users circulated a post that personifies China as a “little brother” whom its citizens are rallying around and willing to defend against the demonstrators’ disparaging characterizations. At least in the short term, this surge of nationalism will quell discontent at home.