Recent events in Hong Kong present the Chinese Communist Party with an unprecedented opportunity to consolidate power in the territory.
After the teargas used on the first night backfired, figuratively and at least once, literally, it’s time to reassess your options. The “guerilla strategy” of occupying many locations simultaneously to spread out the police, combined with the sheer number of protesters and their continued commitment to the movement and to non-violence have created a crisis for China. But in crisis, there is opportunity. Since more teargas is unlikely to disperse the protesters, and they seem determined to stay, what options are available to you?
1. Shut down communication and transportation infrastructures
2. Escalate the violence
3. Wait, agitate, infiltrate, and intimidate
Option 1: Shut down the communication and transportation infrastructures
Since the guerrilla strategy relies on Hong Kong’s excellent communication and transportation systems, shutting down that infrastructure could cripple the movement. This strategy didn’t work particularly well for the Arab states that attempted to block parts or all of the internet to disrupt protester communication in 2011, and it’s likely to be even less effective in Hong Kong, which is small, and densely populated with technologically literate and innovative citizens.
Moreover, to the extent that it does work, it gives protesters part of what they want (disruption of the financial sector as a means of gaining bargaining power) while alienating your most important private sector allies (that same financial sector). As much as shutting down Facebook and Twitter may seem to work in the Mainland, or in Iran, the reality in Hong Kong creates a situation where stifling freedom of expression and movement will cause the government to lose more than it would gain.
Option 2: Escalate the violence
The second option is something you must be considering. It worked for you in Beijing in 1989, though at considerable cost. It would be costly again if you tried it again in Hong Kong today, likely more so. As I’m sure you’re aware, the Western “democracies,” particularly the US and the UK, are caught in a bit of a dilemma regarding Hong Kong. While they have to publicly support the democratic aspirations of Hong Kong people, their real interest is in the stability of the Hong Kong financial system, and in maintaining trade ties to China. Violence would likely force Obama, Cameron, Merkel, et al. to issue face-saving sanctions against China.
Further, violence might not work as quickly and easily as it did in Beijing. Hong Kong people have long felt like they are having something taken away from them (both in the form of promised “universal suffrage” and in the form of the perceived regional autonomy and individual rights they see slipping away). The protesters in Beijing in 1989 were fighting for things they had never had, things that remained mere ideas to them. Much psychological evidence demonstrates that humans are considerably more motivated to avoid losses than they are to make gains.
The motivational logic of loss aversion, as well as the feeling of being coerced by an external other make the psyches of the protesters today in Hong Kong potentially more difficult to crack than those in Beijing in ‘89. The violence necessary to break the collective will of the Hong Kong people might be too great to avoid international repercussions. Much like the communications and transportation infrastructure, it is the human capital of Hong Kong that makes it useful to Beijing and its corporate and financial allies. Violence risks damage to that human capital, just as it risks valuable trade relationships with other nations.
Option 3: Wait, Agitate, Infiltrate, and Intimidate
Waiting is the default option, and the one you are currently engaged in after the teargas brought out more protesters. Along with waiting, there is concern about the use of provocateurs and intimidators infiltrating the protests, particularly in Mong Kok. The protesters have contained these efforts so far by remaining calm, and even forming lines to block off provocateurs who seek violent confrontation. Spies have been spreading disinformation, which may have led to a temporary loss of control of the Mong Kok site by the protesters, but it has been regained.
Because the Hong Kong people are so much more creative and devoted than the paid thugs of the CCP, subverting the movement in any meaningful way is likely to prove difficult, similar to the way that governments and corporations struggle to stay ahead of hackers when designing internet security. The 50 cent army is no match for a decentralised, determined movement that feels like it has a lot to lose.
Perhaps you think that you can wait out the protesters, that by next week, after the holidays and the weekend, they will lose steam, and go back to work/school. I advise you to give that a try. It would be wise to wait until at least Monday before either escalating or negotiating.
But there is risk in waiting too long. First, while you wait and attempt to subvert the movement, the protesters gain valuable organising experience. They become better at handling your tactics, tactics which in comparison will be slow to adapt to a situation in flux. They may organise to the point that they can occupy in shifts, allowing protesters to participate in the movement while still going to work and taking care of their families.
Second, emboldened and organised, protesters may increase their demands beyond the relatively modest goals of the present and ask for complete independence from China. Third, you risk the democracy movement spreading to the Mainland, as tourists visit Hong Kong and learn from protesters. If you can’t subvert the movement by next week, you should consider co-opting it instead.
Option 4: Negotiate
While seemingly the least attractive, it is the fourth option option that presents the greatest opportunity. The demands of the protesters are modest, for now. It seems likely that they can be appeased by an amendment to the Basic Law that allows for public nomination of candidates for Chief Executive, and of course C.Y. Leung’s resignation. The focus on the Chief Executive has caused people to forget about the fact that the CCP has democratically unalterable control over the Legislative Council, control provided by the UK’s parting gift to the CCP, the Orwellian-named functional constituencies.
So you could keep functionally permanent control of LegCo, and in the negotiations over the nomination process for Chief Executive, you could strengthen the role of the legislature (don’t call it weakening the Chief Executive) by enacting changes to the Basic Law that allow LegCo to check the power of the Chief Executive, since the legislature is the branch you currently don’t risk losing control over. But if you wait too long, the people might remember that true universal suffrage means abolishing the functional constituencies as well.
Even with public nomination of Chief Executive candidates, the chances of a member of the Pan-Democratic camp being elected are small, even in a free and fair election. I’ve mentioned before that one-off elections tend to favour two centrist candidates and are typically easy to manage. The median LegCo member is still in your camp, as the Pan-Democrats have less than half the elected seats (43 Pro-Beijing to 27 Pan-Democrats).
The current political climate favours the Pro-Beijing camp, but the longer the protests go on, the more that may shift. At some point, elections in the Mainland may be your best option to quell discontent, and just as your special economic zones gave you experience managing market economies, Hong Kong could give you valuable experience managing elections.
The Value of Democratic Cover
The fact of the matter is, you have given in to protesters in Hong Kong many times, much more than any “democratic” government does. CY Leung backed down on the National Education mandate when Joshua Wong, now a leader of Occupy Central, and others led a protest against it. You have repeatedly given up on attempts to pass an anti-subversion law based on Article 23 of the Basic Law in the face of protests, and you have were forced to sack Tung Chee-hwa because of it. If you take advantage of the present opportunity, you will never have to give in to the demands of the people ever again. All you need is a little “democracy”.
In response to the protests, the US State Department pointed out that, “the Hong Kong chief executive’s legitimacy would be enhanced if people have a genuine choice of candidates.” And the US should know. In 2008, the legitimacy of the office of president of the United States was badly damaged. A deeply unpopular president had just bailed out the bankers who had caused the biggest economic collapse since the Great Depression, and he was prosecuting two unpopular foreign occupations.
Barack Obama was elected on a message of “hope” and “change” and then proceeded to retain Bush’s Secretary of Defence (Robert Gates), appoint Goldman Sach’s chosen successor (Timothy Geithner) to Bush’s Secretary of the Treasury (Henry Paulson), and bail out the bankers at taxpayer expense again, while the bankers foreclosed on people’s houses.
When it became obvious to many that Obama’s election had not solved the problems of crony capitalism like many naively had hoped, Occupy Wall Street protested. Obama gave in to none of their demands, and was generally able to label them as a fringe group that didn’t represent the people. Why was he able to do this when your labelling of Occupy Central as fringe radicals is ignored and ridiculed? Democratic cover. Obama was elected, and Occupy Wall Street was not. The fact that many of the Occupy Wall Street’s demands were Obama campaign slogans was irrelevant.
Obama has been able to roll back civil liberties and and assert presidential powers that only a liberal could get away with asserting. When Obama asserted the authority to kill anyone in the world, including American citizens, with no checks on his power from any other branch of government, he got away with it despite the fact the people who would have opposed a Republican president doing the same thing, because the people who would have opposed such an overreach from Bush were his supporters. A two-party system has it’s advantages. The Hong Kong people are asking you to create one. Want that anti-subversion law passed? Once your next chosen Chief Executive is “elected,” you can have an anti-subversion law and so much more. But without public nomination, you have no democratic cover.
Because the US Constitution is perceived as a document that embodies hard-fought freedoms, freedoms Americans believe they fought the British over (even though the Constitution was written more than a decade after the Revolutionary War), Americans defend that document as if it were sacred. The Constitution sets up a system that is hostile to Americans’ democratic aspirations, much more so than constitutions written more recently in more European countries, whose constitutions include proportional representation and therefore do not set up a two-party system. Many Americans despise the two-party system; they know that choosing between two candidates who have both been pre-approved by corporations is not really much of a choice. Yet these same Americans defend the Constitution that creates the system they despise.
Similarly, if you make Hong Kong people fight just a little bit more, and then appear to “give in” to their meagre democratic demands, you will create a citizenry that will defend the Basic Law, defend the system that allows you to control Hong Kong’s politics in perpetuity (you could have a system that works so well for you that you won’t want to change a thing in 2047). But if you wait too long, those demands may become less modest as the people’s distrust grows.
The unpredictability of the current moment
Understandably, authoritarian infallibility can go to one’s head. While it’s possible that your propaganda can turn the majority of the Hong Kong populace against the protesters, or that the protests will run out of energy, it’s also possible that they will gain in experience and confidence, and increase their demands to include abolition of functional constituencies or even regional independence. The reality is that in the midst of history-in-progress, nobody really knows how things will turn out.
Realities are changing too fast for anyone to follow, much less predict. The safest way to consolidate your power in Hong Kong is to give these protesters, who in their naive faith in “democracy,” brainwashed by British imperialists, want nothing more than for you to throw CY Leung to the wolves and allow public nomination of the Chief Executive. The moment of opportunity to tighten your control is now. Seize it. As the protesters say: if not now, when?
- Protests in Hong Kong caused by China failing to honour its promises (chinadailymail.com)
- Hong Kong braces for protests as China rules out full democracy (chinadailymail.com)
- China sends armoured carriers into Hong Kong Streets amidst democracy protests (chinadailymail.com)
- A showdown is looming in Hong Kong, with China threatening to send in its army (chinadailymail.com)
- China asserts paternal rights over Hong Kong in democracy clash; tells Hong Kong it must obey (chinadailymail.com)
- Comment: Hong Kong’s youth are standing up to China (sbs.com.au)
- Under the umbrellas: what do Hong Kong’s protesters want from China? (theguardian.com)
- China warns on ‘illegal’ HK protests (bbc.co.uk)
- In ‘Umbrella Revolution,’ China confronts limits of its power (dailymail.co.uk)
- Umbrella Revolution, the one the world cares about. (ireport.cnn.com)