What are Beijing's best options for ending Hong Kong protests?

Why We Wrote This

To address the escalating unrest in Hong Kong, what are China's most likely paths to progress – for all sides?

Tyrone Siu/Reuters
China's People's Liberation Army soldiers have been conducting very public drills in and around Hong Kong in recent days. Shown here, a June 30, 2019 ceremony at Stonecutters Island naval base, in Hong Kong.

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After more than two months of Hong Kong pro-democracy protests, escalating this week into airport shutdowns and violent confrontations with police, Beijing is signaling that it has had enough. 

Chinese People’s Liberation Army soldiers are conducting highly visible drills in and around Hong Kong. Mainland Chinese officials are using the word “terrorism” to describe the protests. 

At this critical juncture, China watchers envision three possible scenarios: a military intervention by Beijing, an attrition strategy by Hong Kong police, or a negotiated resolution between Hong Kong officials and protesters.

Another Tiananmen Square-type confrontation would have major political and economic costs. It would also destroy any credibility Beijing might have in bringing Taiwan into a similar “one-country, two systems” arrangement. The most likely option, say analysts, doesn’t involve Chinese military intervention, but rather a war of attrition. 

It would mean an intensified response by Hong Kong’s 30,000-strong police force, including more arrests and tougher punishments for protesters. “This could backfire,” warns Victoria Tin-bor Hui, at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. “They have hurt so many other people who are not hard-core protesters. The majority of the population is very angry.”

As Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests draw increasingly harsh denunciations from Beijing – which says the demonstrations show signs of “terrorism” – fears are growing of a military crackdown by China.

Such concerns are not unfounded. They have been stoked by widely publicized anti-riot drills by China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Hong Kong garrison, with about 6,000 troops. And across the border in Shenzhen, thousands of People’s Armed Police, the PLA’s paramilitary force tasked with quelling domestic unrest, conducted drills last week.

“Should the situation in Hong Kong deteriorate further into unrest uncontrollable” by Hong Kong’s government, “the central government will not sit on its hands and watch,” Liu Xiaoming, China’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, told a London news conference on Thursday. “We have enough solutions and enough power within the limits of the basic law to quell any unrest swiftly.”

Thomas Peter/Reuters
Military vehicles are parked on the grounds of the Shenzhen Bay Sports Center in Shenzhen, China Aug. 15, 2019.

Hong Kong’s protests erupted in June as millions of residents took to the streets to oppose a bill that would allow the extradition of criminal suspects to China. Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam suspended the bill, but protester demands have since grown to include its complete withdrawal, an independent inquiry into police brutality, amnesty for arrested protesters, and democratic electoral reforms.

At this critical juncture, China watchers envision three possible scenarios with vastly different consequences for the future of Hong Kong and the region:

  • A military intervention by Beijing with extremely heavy costs.
  • An attrition strategy involving intensifying coercion and repression of dissent by Hong Kong authorities – the most likely scenario.
  • A negotiated resolution between the Hong Kong government and the protesters – the best-case scenario.

Under Hong Kong’s Basic Law, which governs the “one country, two systems” framework by which the former British colony reverted to Chinese rule in 1997, China has two options for intervening militarily in Hong Kong. Hong Kong’s government could ask for assistance from the PLA garrison to maintain order, and in that case the Chinese military must follow Hong Kong law. Or, China’s government could declare a state of emergency exists in Hong Kong “that endangers national unity” and apply national laws, allowing for a PLA deployment.

Beijing’s condemnations of what it calls a small group of foreign-backed “black hands” and “extreme radicals” waging “terrorism” laid the groundwork for justifying such an emergency.

Still, the military option would have major practical drawbacks as well as devastating consequences for Hong Kong.

Hong Kong’s young and agile protesters describe themselves as moving “like water” and could melt away from PLA formations, laying low or “going to sleep,” as some protesters say.

“All this raises very complicated logistical questions beyond the unseemly appearance of Chinese troops invading this modern New York-like city and trying to control what local people are doing there,” says Michael Davis, a global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C., and a former law professor at the University of Hong Kong.

If some protesters did stand up against Chinese troops and were injured or killed, China’s leaders would be condemned for waging another crackdown along the lines of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crushing of pro-democracy protests.

Chinese President Xi Jinping knows “repeating a June 4, 1989 Tiananmen-type massacre ... would be a disaster for him ... his leadership, his people, and certainly for Hong Kong,” says Jerome Cohen, faculty director of the U.S.-Asia Law Institute at New York University School of Law and an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Using force would show the ‘Chinese dream’ is a nightmare,” he says, referring to Mr. Xi’s trademark slogan on China’s future. “But if push comes to shove, he’ll use force.”

Even without bloodshed, analysts say a Chinese military intervention would greatly undermine Hong Kong’s status as an Asian financial hub that serves as a vital business conduit between China and the world – likely leading to an exodus of international companies.

“It would signal the death knell for Hong Kong’s autonomy under the one country, two systems framework,” says Thomas Kellogg, executive director of Georgetown University’s Center for Asian Law. Beyond economic costs, the intangible benefits for culture and politics of having a uniquely autonomous, relatively free space within China would be lost, says Professor Kellogg.

By effectively ending Hong Kong’s semi-autonomous status, Beijing would sacrifice any credibility it might have in persuading Taiwan to reunify with mainland China under a similar formula. “A failure to resolve the situation successfully in Hong Kong will put to an end for all time ... any thought people in Taiwan might have of integration with the mainland under one country, two systems,” Professor Cohen says.

Moreover, the United States and other countries could revoke the special status they accord Hong Kong.

The attrition strategy

Given such major drawbacks, many analysts say Beijing and Hong Kong authorities will persist instead with an attrition strategy aimed at wearing down the protesters.

This more likely scenario would see an intensified response by Hong Kong’s 30,000-strong police force, including arrests as well as an escalation of punishments for protesters.

Yet with Hong Kong police already facing charges of being overaggressive, and of arresting some innocent bystanders, this strategy could fuel more protests and public discontent.

“This could backfire,” says Victoria Tin-bor Hui, associate professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. “They have hurt so many other people who are not hard-core protesters, the majority of the population is very angry,” says Professor Hui, a native of Hong Kong.

Hong Kong authorities – and indirectly Beijing – can also exert influence over local political bodies, institutions, and businesses to pressure the public and curtail demonstrations.

Let’s negotiate

Still, with a late July survey showing broad public support for key demands of the protesters – more than 70% of respondents said the government should formally withdraw the extradition bill and investigate police abuses – many analysts say a negotiated resolution would be the most effective way to diffuse tensions.

Under this scenario, an independent group of Hong Kong civilian leaders – such as representatives from business, law, education, and other sectors – would have to step forward, say observers. This group would have to work imaginatively to persuade both the Hong Kong government and the protesters to enter into negotiations.

So far, the Hong Kong government has not indicated it is receptive to such talks. The protesters, many of whom are students, have deliberately chosen to be anonymous and leaderless as a form of protection. Both sides would have to compromise.

“Hong Kong should adopt the approach of a free and open government in addressing this crisis ... they need to show some degree of political accountability,” says Professor Kellogg.

For example, if the government formally withdrew the extradition treaty and agreed to an independent investigation of police abuses, “it would diffuse the conflict and most Hong Kong people would want to see the protest wind down,” says Professor Davis. “It is the lack of democracy that has produced a government that is very poor at defending Hong Kong’s autonomy. It is a festering sore, and these steps need to be taken now.”

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