After months of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, China’s central government signaled this week that it was losing patience with the demonstrators and might be preparing for a major crackdown.
On Tuesday, Yang Guang, a spokesman for the Chinese government’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, said the protesters had “exceeded the scope of free assembly” and would face “a blow from the sword of law.” Yang’s comments came after the defense ministry warned last month that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army could be called in to help Hong Kong police quell the protests, which the government has characterized as “riots,” and after images and videos were released of soldiers and police officers training to confront protesters.
Yang’s statement was precipitated by a massive three-day civil-disobedience campaign, including large rallies throughout the city, blocking trains and roads, and a general strike that saw 200 flights canceled after 2,300 civil-aviation workers called in sick to work on Monday. Hong Kong’s government responded with escalatory measures, arresting 148 people and firing 800 canisters of tear gas on Monday — nearly as much as had been used in the preceding eight weeks combined.
Hong Kong’s chief executive Carrie Lam issued a statement on Monday accusing the protesters of attacking China’s sovereignty, a sentiment echoed by Yang on Tuesday. The protests had started over opposition to a bill that would allow Hong Kongers to be extradited to mainland China for criminal trials; the government suspended the legislation in June but the protests have continued — the protesters are demanding that the law be withdrawn completely. By now, demonstrators have additional demands, including Lam’s resignation, fully democratic elections to replace her, and an investigation into police use of force and attacks on protesters by gangsters in which they suspect the authorities were complicit. Lam has made no concessions to any of these demands.
Both Lam’s local government and Beijing have sought to portray the mass protests, the largest of which drew 2 million people in a city of just 7 million, as violent riots instigated by a small group of subversives and supported by hostile foreign governments (i.e., the United States). On Wednesday, Zhang Xiaoming, director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, remarked that the demonstrations had “clear characteristics of a color revolution” and described them as the worst crisis the semi-autonomous city had experienced since the U.K. handed it over to China in 1997. Zhang did not echo his representatives’ dark warnings of the previous day, but rejected one lawmaker’s suggestion that the extradition bill be tabled and an inquiry into the actions of both the police and the protesters launched.
Beijing has strong incentives to see these protests quelled sooner rather than later. President Xi Jinping, already facing mounting foreign pressure and internal criticism within the Chinese Communist Party, is deeply concerned with China’s projecting the sort of internal strength and stability that the Hong Kong crisis undermines. Xi is preparing to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China in October with a grand military parade and does not want that celebration clouded by unrest.
The president’s strongman style and paranoia about his own authority would seem to suggest that he will crack down hard on the Hong Kong protesters rather than make concessions to placate them. However, Xi has reportedly hesitated to use force, in part because this would put an end to any possibility of Taiwan’s voluntarily reuniting with China under a deal similar to the one struck with Hong Kong in the ’90s, which established the “one country, two systems” policy and guaranteed the city 50 years of autonomy. Sending in the PLA to crack skulls in Hong Kong would also likely damage the reputations of the government and the army and as well as spook the global financial industry, of which Hong Kong remains a major hub.
On the other hand, Xi’s tenure in office so far has seen Hong Kong’s autonomy gradually eroded. Lam, widely understood as a puppet of Beijing, was “elected” in 2017 by the Election Committee, a body of only 1,200 people over which the central government has extensive influence. Hong Kong’s last major protest wave in 2014 centered on demands for universal suffrage, following a proposed reform giving the CCP even more influence over the selection of candidates for the chief-executive role. That movement ultimately fizzled, so Xi may calculate that this one will as well and that he can afford to speed up that process with force.
If Xi does decide to launch a crackdown in Hong Kong, the U.S. is unlikely to stand in his way. President Donald Trump has repeatedly broadcast ignorance of and uninterest in the situation in Hong Kong, echoing Beijing’s language in talking about the demonstrations. Last month, Trump said Xi had acted “very responsibly” in handling the standoff, and last week he referred to the protests as “riots” and indicated that it was none of his business what China does to its own people: “Somebody said that at some point they’re going to want to stop that. But that’s between Hong Kong and that’s between China, because Hong Kong is a part of China.”
Trump’s interest in China appears to extend no further than the rapidly escalating trade war in which his administration and Xi’s are engaged. His comments suggest that he has a limited grasp of what’s going on in Hong Kong and no interest in intervening to help protect civil and political rights there. Chinese officials, who have decried bipartisan statements from U.S. lawmakers supporting the Hong Kong protesters and their demands, were apparently pleased with Trump’s take on the matter: “I think President Trump has got two things right this time,” foreign-ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said on Wednesday. “First, what happened in Hong Kong are riots. Second, Hong Kong is part of China.”
While China hawks and optimists may see the Hong Kong protests as a nascent revolution, the sad reality is that they can be easily crushed whenever Xi decides he has had enough of them. Sending in the army won’t even be necessary; the People’s Armed Police, a paramilitary force that China has used to enforce martial law in Tibet and Xinjiang, and which Xi fully militarized last year, could move in to restore order without the politically messy step of unleashing the PLA on citizens. Beijing will surely try to solve the problem without killing anyone, but when push comes to shove, it has the means to end this.
A crackdown on Hong Kong would be consistent with a China that is becoming more authoritarian, not less. Xi has abolished term limits for himself, purged his rivals and critics, and taken the hallmark authoritarian step of having his own interpretation of communist ideology taught in schools. He may still hope to lead Taiwan toward an amicable reunification, but he is openly using gunboat diplomacy to make that argument. Trump’s trade war has hurt, as an economic slowdown threatens Xi’s power, but Trump’s obsession with trade balances and tariffs may also have made space for Beijing to be more aggressive in other areas where the U.S. isn’t paying as much attention.
A crackdown in Hong Kong may finally cement the world’s understanding that economic liberalization in China has not led to greater political freedom as advertised, but this understanding is unlikely to have any effect on Beijing’s decisions. Hong Kong’s business community will probably look the other way, as the protests have taken a major economic toll on the city and many businesses will be glad to have things back to normal. The international community will have little power to stop it, especially with Washington standing aside. Direct foreign support for the protests would hurt more than help, and Trump has already pulled many of the levers he might conceivably use to punish China for human-rights abuses. It seems the U.S. has neither the power nor the moral authority to influence the outcome of this crisis.