No. A police state would serve Beijing better.
With the Hong Kong protests intensifying in the past month, there has been much speculation about Beijing’s next move. In particular, many have wondered whether the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) could be deployed to quell the protests.
When police suddenly left their position and let protesters storm Hong Kong’s Legislative Council complex on July 1 — resulting in political statements being graffitied on desks and walls, and a colonial-era flag being placed on the central podium — some feared this was a trap that could be used to justify a more hardhanded response by the authorities. Perhaps even an invasion from the other side of the border.
Although Beijing representatives in Hong Kong initially reassured the local population and the international community that they wouldn’t send in the army, they came back on their words just a few weeks later, after protesters targeted the Liaison Office — Beijing’s representative in Hong Kong — leaving graffiti on the surrounding wall and pelting eggs and paint at the national emblem.
More precisely, Beijing now emphasized that it wouldn’t unilaterally decide to deploy the PLA, but that it could send troops to assist the Hong Kong government in restoring order at the latter’s request. This, they said, would be legal.
Recent events have already demonstrated that the Hong Kong government isn’t actually in charge of Hong Kong affairs — Beijing is. Therefore, what Beijing was signaling is that it could request the Hong Kong government to request Beijing to request the PLA to get out of their barracks and assist the local police force. Who knows, perhaps even take over as the main law enforcement force, at least for some time.
Would Beijing actually (request Hong Kong authorities to) declare some form of state of emergency to be enforced by Chinese troops? Would Beijing further escalate tensions and seek to push for a more direct type of rule?
My view is that it wouldn’t. Not because it can’t, but because it doesn’t want to.
First, a military deployment would create serious problems for the regime. A second Tiananmen would be the last nail in the coffin of China’s international reputation at this precarious time. It could have devastating results in terms of capital flight, not only in Hong Kong, but also in China.
Second, sending the army and bringing Hong Kong closer to direct Beijing rule would cause major governance headaches to Beijing. Why would leaders in Beijing want to dirty their hands handling such an “unruly” population when they can use local dummies to absorb most of the discontent? So far, except for a minor act of defiance against the Liaison Office, Beijing has been left alone the public. Protesters have channeled their anger toward the local establishment — the puppet — rather than the master pulling the strings. How convenient! An escalation in repression by the army could also result in deadly clashes with the more committed protesters who could finally target Beijing representatives (i.e. PLA soldiers), leading to a small-scale guerilla-type of conflict in Hong Kong’s urban jungle.
Third, Hong Kong’s annexation under the principle of “one country, two systems” was meant to entice Taiwan to follow suit. China would do so by showcasing its best practices with respect to enabling internal autonomy and promoting democratic development on its territory. In other words, Hong Kong was meant to create favorable conditions for “peaceful unification” with Taiwan.
By congratulating the establishment on its performance, Beijing may even be encouraging a more resolute, hardhanded repression.
Beijing, through its Hong Kong policy, has already done a great job at demonstrating its commitment to achieving the exact opposite of what it had pledged, thus alienating a vast segment of Taiwan’s population. An invasion, or mere images of the PLA on Hong Kong’s streets, would definitively alienate Taiwan and confine China to military options in its irredentist quest. China has used belligerent rhetoric to manipulate Taiwan politics, but it is aware that it can hardly launch a successful military campaign against the island-state without great loss of military personnel, arsenal … and face. This is without taking into account the U.S.’ probable military assistance to Taiwan. Worse, even if a military invasion succeeded, the foreign, colonial regime would face major governance problems — not the least of which would be full-out, large-scale guerrilla warfare.
Therefore, I believe things would have to get seriously out of hand for Beijing to opt for a more forceful intervention in Hong Kong.
But this doesn’t mean that things are looking good for Hongkongers.
On Monday, July 29, the State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office held an unprecedented and thus symbolically significant press conference to reiterate its support for the Hong Kong government’s handling of the situation. By repeatedly expressing its support for the authorities in the special administrative region, while branding the dedicated protesters as pawns of foreign powers seeking to destabilize China, Beijing has been signaling that the Hong Kong government shouldn’t give in to protesters’ demands. Indeed, by congratulating the establishment on its performance, Beijing may even be encouraging a more resolute, hardhanded repression.
Similarly, by stressing the legality of sending Chinese troops to maintain order in Hong Kong, Beijing is signaling that the Hong Kong police has the central government’s full support in further escalating violence to squash dissent. If Beijing is justified in deploying the army, surely the police is justified in cranking up its use of force a bit — or a lot.
Levels of satisfaction with the Hong Kong police have recently reached a “new low,” and the animosity between the public and the police seems increasingly reciprocal. With Hong Kong leaders rejecting meaningful dialogue with the population, the Hong Kong police has been given the unpleasant role of absorbing much of the public’s anger. In this context, we might just be a few congratulatory pats away (on the police’s shoulder, by a powerful ally up north) from witnessing the actualization of a fully-fledged police state in Hong Kong.
An “autonomous,” fully-aligned police state to take care of Beijing’s dirty work: could this be the endpoint of the “one country, two systems” stratagem?
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