The sheer scale of Hong Kong’s defiance was breathtaking. By way of comparison, a comparable demonstration in the United States would have around 100 million demonstrators.
The immediate trigger for the protests was an extradition law that, if passed, would put everyone in Hong Kong—even transit passengers in the international airline terminal—at risk of deportation to China to stand trial in the communist-controlled court system there.
But make no mistake, the real target of Hong Kong’s rage is the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which for years has been tightening controls on one of the most cosmopolitan—and free—cities in the world. And everyone in China knows it.
When the Chinese regime unilaterally changed the city’s electoral system in 2014 to prescreen candidates for leader of Hong Kong, the people took to the streets in a massive protest called the Umbrella Revolution. The changes stayed in place, however, and Beijing’s favored candidate, Carrie Lam, predictably won.
The CCP upped the ante further in 2017 by disavowing the Sino-British Agreement. The original agreement had “guaranteed” that the city would enjoy local self-rule under the “one country, two systems” principle until 2047. But when Hongkongers complained about the CCP’s continuing interference in local politics, citing the Sino-British Agreement, a senior communist official dismissed their complaints by saying that the agreement had only “historical value.”
An even more lawless act occurred not long afterward. Five Hong Kong booksellers were snatched off the streets of Hong Kong and Canton by Chinese agents. Their crime? They were selling—in Hong Kong—books that had been banned in China for casting Xi Jinping and the CCP in a bad light.
But the old Chinese strategy of “killing one to warn the hundred” didn’t work that well on the free people of Hong Kong. The kidnapping of Hongkongers off the streets of their own city instead strengthened their resolve to resist any further encroachments on their promised freedoms. The proposed extradition treaty would have done just that.
The 2 million demonstrators who took to the streets came from all walks of life, but have one thing in common. They are nearly all the descendants of the millions of Chinese who fled communist rule from the 1940s on, for the relative safety of British colonial rule. They thrived in Hong Kong’s free market, lightly governed by civil servants who adhered to the rule of law, in stark contrast to the other side of the border, which was and is ruled by a corrupt communist oligarchy, and an equally corrupt judiciary.
If the course taken by Hongkongers is clear—they realize they must resist further encroachments by China on their fundamental rights—it’s far from clear how Xi will respond—but respond he must.
Following the departure of the British in 1997, Beijing moved an army into Hong Kong. But for the past 20 years, these troops have been kept to their barracks, never once called out to deal with the periodic episodes of public unrest against China’s overbearing actions.
Hong Kong in 2019 is not Beijing in 1989. Instead of a small contingent of foreign journalists who could be cowed and corralled in a single hotel, there are hundreds of reporters living in one of the most cosmopolitan cities on the planet. There are tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of Hong Kong citizens who wouldn’t hesitate to post on the internet any atrocities committed by the CCP.
A massacre in plain view of the entire world would be a debacle from which neither the CCP, nor Hong Kong, would recover.
The direct application of force is largely ruled out by another factor as well. Nearly all of the corrupt communist elite have parked some of their ill-gotten gains in Hong Kong, investing in the real estate or stock markets there. For them, and for China as a whole, Hong Kong is the goose that lays their golden eggs.
Ending Hong Kong’s separate status—either by direct military action or by slow, ongoing strangulation—would, in effect, kill the “goose.” The city’s role as a regional financial center would come to an abrupt end, the local stock and real estate markets would crash, and Xi would have made many members of the communist aristocracy even more discontented with his heavy-handed rule than they already are.
Xi’s hands are tied in the face of this defiance, which causes him to lose face every day it continues. If he orders the Hong Kong legislature to pass the extradition law, Hong Kong will erupt again. If he tells Lam and his other minions to withdraw the law, he will look weak.
Left with no good options, Xi can only look on in impotent rage as millions of his subjects vote in the streets not only against his policies, but against his continued rule itself.
His current problems in Hong Kong are greatly compounded by the current tariff standoff with the United States. Here, too, Xi faces a Hobson’s choice.
If he goes along with U.S. demands for fair trade—which means respecting property rights, the rule of law, and setting up an impartial judiciary—he weakens the Party’s control over society.
If, on the other hand, he resists such sweeping reforms, U.S. President Donald Trump will undoubtedly make good on his threat to raise tariffs on all Chinese-made goods. If this happens, then the entire export sector of the Chinese economy—the only sector that operates according to market principles and actually turns a profit—winds down, as companies move their factories to other countries to avoid the tariffs.
The cost of refusing to relax the Party’s stranglehold on power, will be a much weakened Chinese economy, which is already showing serious signs of strain.
Whatever decision Xi makes on Hong Kong or in the trade talks with Trump, he will be making enemies at a time when he can scarcely afford to do so. Will the citizens of other Chinese cities take up the cause of freedom? Perhaps. But more likely is a concerted effort by other factions within the Party to take advantage of Xi’s present weakness to reduce his influence, if not remove him from office.
As tempting as it might be to sit back and watch this play out in real time, the United States must remain alert to another possibility: That the CCP, to distract from its domestic problems, may decide to give the United States a bloody nose. This might take the form of encouraging Little Rocket Man to do what he does best, namely, firing off a ballistic missile or two. Or it might involve sinking a few more Philippine fishing vessels in the South China Sea, in effect daring the United States to come to the aid of its treaty partner. Or it might even, in order to silence its critics, launch an invasion, or at least a feint, of Taiwan.
Whatever action the CCP decides to take, there can be no question about one thing: No communist regime can afford to let a show of public defiance as large and impressive as that which Hongkongers just put on to go unanswered. Especially not when it occurs at a time when the CCP’s leadership in other areas is being questioned.
Whether or not the CCP means to destroy Hong Kong as a vibrant, and largely free, commercial center, the perfect storm that is now upon it may well mean its own political destruction.
Steven W. Mosher is the president of the Population Research Institute and the author of “Bully of Asia: Why China’s Dream is the New Threat to World Order.”
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.