It is becoming increasingly clear, as the Hong Kong protests continue, that the Chinese Communist Party will be forced to make a choice – either a bloody, military crackdown (the more likely of the two) or conceding to the protestors’ demands. A concession, in the eyes of Beijing, would be unthinkable as it would an obvious admission from China’s invulnerable Communist Party that it miscalculated and was completely outmanoeuvred by a legitimate grassroots, pro-democracy movement – a prospect that hardline President Xi Jinping simply could not countenance either domestically or internationally.
If the Communist Party decides to deploy military assets against the Hong Kong protesters, what then? A key British colony until 1997, Hong Kong is not politically, economically, and – most importantly – psychologically controlled by China’s Central Committee. It is, despite reunification under the “one country, two systems” doctrine, a special administrative district with deep-rooted traditions of personal freedom, open trade, and independent courts.
Because of these very particular variables, which are specific to Hong Kong, Beijing’s response to any further escalation in either the size or the impact of the protests is likely to spark a crackdown that will result in far higher casualties than what was seen in Tiananmen Square 30 years ago.
Xi and the Communist Party have been telegraphing for some time after Beijing proved that it is more than willing and fully capable of the most egregious Maoist-style human rights violations when it recently unleashed the most despicable authoritarian methods in Xinjiang Province that targets Uyghurs, the region’s indigenous Turkic-speaking Muslim community, hundreds of thousands of who have been forced into re-education/concentration camps.
Ruthless methods like these do not bode well for the pro-democratic forces in Hong Kong.
The international community cannot sit idly by and allow the Chinese Communist Party to commit yet another slaughter in the name of consolidating its iron-fisted grip on power. That, however, seems to be the exact trajectory that the situation seems to be heading towards that result if swift and decisive action by the US, the European Union, and the UK is not taken to defend the people of Hong Kong.
The question remains, however, what sort of action can be taken by the international community to help avoid a bloody crackdown? Threats of a no-fly zone, International Criminal Court charges, and sanctions – similar to those that were used against Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad after his genocidal campaign to snuff out anti-government resistance in Aleppo – are nearly unthinkable for China as it is the world’s second-largest exporter and trails only the United States in terms of the size of its economy.
Further complicating matter is that, despite the ongoing trade war with the United States, the Chinese economy is still deeply enmeshed with both the American and European economies. The weakening of the yuan not only keeps Chinese goods safe from US President Donald J. Trump’s tariffs, which are aimed at reigning in Beijing’s stranglehold on the world’s production and export industries, but also allows China to continue consolidating its control of key energy and economic sectors in Africa and cultivate ever-closer relationships with like-minded authoritarian regimes and developing countries across the whole of Eurasia as those governments have little interest in taking the Chinese Communist Party to task for their human rights violations due to the fact they hope to see major political and financial gains by being included in China’s Belt-and-Road Initiative.
Unlike in Syria, where the regime survives solely because of the combined military might of Russia and the financial backing of Iran, China’s 2 million-strong People’s Liberation Army is more than up to the task of holding its own against NATO-standard opponents – including the United States – as it did during the Korean War nearly seven decades ago. Most importantly, none of the key players in the ongoing Hong Kong crisis – be it Washington, Beijing, London, Brussels, or Moscow – wants to see the situation escalate to the point of starting World War III.
Harsh sanctions that would closely resemble those imposed on Iran and North Korea are also likely out of the question as far too many Western companies rely on Chinese labour money to truly allow for punitive measures to be employed that could be potentially crippling for their own operations.
The US’ trade war could be ramped up and expanded to include Britain and Europe, but it is hard to imagine that the Communist Party leadership in Bejing wouldn’t come to the conclusion that it could threaten to retaliate in a way that would be designed to take a heavy toll on an EU economy that is far more fragile and uncertain than that of the United States.
By doing this, China could easily scare off potential European support for a harsher EU response to Beijing’s actions in Hong Kong as several Kremlin-friendly governments in Europe are hoping for a lifting of Brussels’ sanctions against Russia, one of their largest trading partners.
The pro-democracy elements within the international community, for the time being, appear to have resigned themselves to the likelihood that the Chinese Communist Party will eventually unleash the full might of its military and security services on Hong Kong’s protestors. There also seems to be little real effort to put pressure on Xi and the rest of the Chinese government to back down. This could leave one to speculate that the West has privately hoped for a stand down from the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement if Beijing agrees to some small concessions that would bring the dreaded defanging concept of “quiet stability” back to the city, while simultaneously saving face for the Central Committee of the Communist Party and preserving the legitimacy of the protest movement.
Despite the pessimistic outlook, there are concrete steps that the international community can take to help save Hong Kong and keep it from coming under the direct rule of the Communist Party in Beijing.
The aircraft carrier group led by the USS Ronald Reagan, which is currently in the western Pacific, would send a clear message to Xi and the Chinese government that the United States will not remain neutral if they opt to quash the pro-democracy movement by resorting to mass bloodshed on the streets of Hong Kong.
A show of force would also embolden the US’ Southeast Asian allies – including Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia – who have been increasingly alarmed by Chinese expansion in the South China Sea, to take a tougher stance against Beijing.
Taking the bold move to position a carrier group to within close proximity of Hong Kong’s shores would further reassure Taiwan about the White House’s commitment to protecting its independence from mainland China and quiet those in the Taiwanese capital Taipei who have grown increasingly worried that the Trump administration was willing to look the other way during trade negotiations with Beijing just as the Chinese military built up a potential invasion force in the Formosa Strait.
The West must and should have a contingency plan for a Berlin Airlift-like relief mission for Hong Kong that would plan ready to go at a moment’s notice if the People’s Liberation Army cuts attempts to blockade the region. Not unlike the near-legendary American and British effort to save West Berlin from Soviet strangulation in 1948-49, the job of supplying Hong Kong’s 7.3 million people would be a herculean task. But despite the difficulties and the massive cost, the West can, and must, see to it that the effort is carried out.
Taking on and successfully fulfilling this type of mission would be a powerful message to the world’s dictators and authoritarians – many of who have begun to openly question whether the West’s model of liberal democracy is on the decline – that they are no match for the Free World when it consolidates all of its resources for the purpose of protecting one of its own.
Any attempt by the Chinese Communist Party to order a violent suppression of the protest movement must be met with a public response from the West that such a move is an illegitimate military occupation of Hong Kong that fundamentally and legally violates the “one country, two systems” model that was set in stone when the UK agreed to hand the region back over to China. By doing this, Western leaders like Trump and the UK’s Boris Johnson will have the ability to take the moral high-ground in the eyes of the international community if it hopes to exude enough pressure on Beijing to potentially back down.
The international community’s ability to forcefully push back to the point that Beijing backs down will only come enough of the world’s leading nations view the Communist Party’s actions as an illegal and unlawful occupation. The consequences of not getting a wide consensus would result in a similar situation as to what was seen after Russia’s illegal occupation and annexation of Crimea. Not enough countries agreed on how to respond. This doomed the international reaction to being utterly ineffective and left Moscow with the ability to act with unchecked impunity in the region.
And what of the Chinese Communist Party, itself? Its officials must be given a way to retreat from Hong Kong without losing face – a concept thus far ignored by most of the West’s analysts. Individual sanctions, International Criminal Court charges, and other targeted measures may be less effective in China than otherwise. The chances for a conciliatory response is antithetical to Xi’s hardline regime and the vast majority of the Communist Party’s stalwarts. Any response must focus on a robust principled opposition to Beijing’s actions and less on personal attacks against the Party leadership. The later might otherwise empower the hardliners in Xi’s administration.
Xi’s embrace of Mao-like powers has made the risk of a bloody showdown in Hong Kong all the most possible. Recent photographs of People’s Liberation Army convoys massing in nearby Shenzhen are not proof that Beijing is planning a Tiananmen-style massacre, but the signs are obviously ominous.
There is no easy solution for Hong Kong, but allowing the Communist Party and the Chinese military to proceed unimpeded may truly spell the end of the Western democratic liberal order.