With the arrests earlier today in Hong Kong of the youthful pro-democracy activists Joshua Wong and Agnes Chow, a harsh crackdown by Beijing on the popular movement seems increasingly likely. Since the protests erupted in June, the Hong Kong authorities have not exactly acted with restraint. More than 800 protestors have been arrested, and, The Guardian reported on August 12, peaceful protesters have repeatedly been attacked with tear gas, rubber bullets, and other projectiles and weapons. Unable to contain the relentless and ever-shifting popular mobilization through conventional policing methods, the communist authorities in Beijing have turned to local Hong Kong mafia groups, the so called “triad” gangs, to terrorize peaceful demonstrators.
Yet nothing has silenced the people of Hong Kong, who, since June 9, have used a fluid and decentralized array of tactics to press their demands: permanent withdrawal of the proposed Hong Kong bill that would enable Beijing to obtain the extradition of anyone in Hong Kong; fulfillment of Beijing’s obligation to allow the people of Hong Kong to democratically elect their own government; and accountability for multiple acts of police brutality.
The current movement lacks the clear leadership and organization of the 2014 Umbrella Movement (in part to avoid leaving leaders as clear targets for persecution). And unfortunately, some radicalized elements of the movement have turned to violent tactics to fight the police—a battle against a massive authoritarian state that they cannot possibly win with rocks, sticks, and firebombs but might with strict and sustained adherence to proven methods of nonviolent resistance. The crisis could have been de-escalated many weeks ago if Hong Kong’s stubborn and politically inept Chief Executive, Carrie Lam—who owes her loyalty to the Communist Party bosses in Beijing and not to her own people—had offered to negotiate with representatives of the pro-democracy movement. Instead, she only conceded to table (not permanently withdraw) the extradition bill, while street demonstrations, blockades, airport shutdowns, and gestures of resistance as delicate as protest symbols on baked goods have made Hong Kong an ongoing civic battleground and a metaphor for today’s global struggle for liberty.
Now, nearly three months of crisis appears headed toward a tragic denouement. Writing from Hong Kong on Wednesday, the New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof (who shared a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the Tiananmen Democracy Movement in 1989) poignantly shared a sense of foreboding that is growing among journalists, policymakers, and intelligence analysts: “There are so many parallels to the Tiananmen student democracy movement that I covered in China 30 years ago—and I wonder if Beijing may ultimately deploy troops, perhaps from the paramilitary People’s Armed Police, to crush these protests as well.”
Earlier this month, China’s leaders amassed thousands of paramilitary personnel from the People’s Armed Police in a sports stadium in Shenzen (just over the border from Hong Kong). The spectacle appeared to be a warning to the people of Hong Kong, and the world. Now Beijing is upping the ante. Yesterday it sent a fresh detachment of People’s Liberation Army troops into Hong Kong, along with armored personnel carriers, army trucks, patrol boats, and armed helicopters. If these deployments were “routine,” as Beijing dubiously claimed, the threats to “resolutely implement the ‘one country, two systems’ principle” carried a menacing tone. If Beijing had implemented this principle, Hong Kong’s once-vaunted rule of law would not now be under mounting assault, and its people would be fully and freely choosing their own leaders and representatives.
With the 70th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party’s revolutionary conquest of China rapidly approaching on October 1, the odds are increasing of a violent crackdown (possibly in stages, beginning with the removal of leading voices for peaceful democratic change, such as Joshua Wong and Agnes Chow, or perhaps sooner and more brutally).
There may not be much time left to avert a tragedy. The United States, the UK, and other leading democracies must make clear to China’s leaders (particularly through private channels) that violent repression in Hong Kong will bring severe and long-lasting consequences. At a minimum, we should use the Global Magnitsky Act to impose targeted sanctions (including financial penalties and visa bans) on individuals responsible for the repression, like those a former Treasury Department official has already proposed applying to Chinese officials responsible for the ongoing grave violations of the Uighur minority in Xinjiang Province. While the trade war is dangerous enough as it is, Beijing’s leaders must know that a violent crackdown in Hong Kong would obstruct any possibility of a return to a more normal relationship with Western democracies. And we must prepare now to wage and win a battle for global public opinion to make the PRC pay a very heavy price in esteem should it use force to suppress peaceful protestors in Hong Kong.
At the same time, in the dwindling time that may be left, we should reach out to diverse elements of the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, urging strict adherence to non-violence and a willingness to negotiate and compromise. Being careful to avoid any language that might be seen to justify or excuse a crackdown, foreign friends of the Hong Kong democracy movement should try to deflate dangerous illusions. Kristof concluded his column on Wednesday with this haunting reflection: “In the run-up to the massacres of 1989, idealistic protesters often told me that their cause was invincible. And then I watched tanks roll over righteousness.”