The crisis in Hong Kong appears to be careening toward a devastating climax. With China’s government now using rhetoric reminiscent of that which preceded the Tiananmen Square Massacre in June 1989, Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters — and, indeed, its democracy — could be in grave danger.
For more than two months, Hong Kong has been beset by protests. Triggered by a proposed law to allow the extradition of suspects to mainland China, the demonstrations have since developed into broader calls to safeguard — or, perhaps more accurately, restore — the territory’s democracy, including by strengthening state accountability.
As the unrest drags on, the Chinese government’s patience is wearing thin and its warnings are growing more ominous.
The Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) garrison in Hong Kong is, in the words of its commander, Chen Daoxiang (陳道祥), “determined to protect national sovereignty, security, stability and the prosperity of Hong Kong.”
To drive the point home, a promotional video showing Chinese military officers in action was released along with the statement.
Chinese State Council Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office spokesman Yang Guang (楊光) has echoed this sentiment, warning the protesters — whom he calls “criminals” — not to “take restraint for weakness.”
He then reiterated Beijing’s “firm resolve” to “safeguard the prosperity and stability of Hong Kong.”
Office Director Zhang Xiaoming (張曉明) then took matters a step further, declaring that China’s government “has sufficient methods and enough powerful means to quell all sorts of likely unrest.”
This came just two months after China’s defense minister said that China’s stability since the Tiananmen crackdown proved that the government had made the “correct” choice.
Increasingly harsh warnings against Hong Kong’s protesters point not just to a hardening of positions, but also to the ascendance of figures in the Chinese government who favor asserting total control over the territory.
They have been reflected in the response from the police, which has been deploying rubber bullets and tear gas with rising frequency. Hundreds have been arrested and 44 have been charged with “rioting.”
However, far from being deterred, the protesters are challenging the Chinese government with increasing resolve.
Last month, they vandalized the outside of the Chinese government’s liaison office in the territory. Last week, they mounted a general strike that nearly paralyzed the territory.
Perhaps counterintuitively, this radicalization has come alongside broadening support for the movement, with members of the middle class — such as lawyers and civil servants — openly joining the cause.
With their stark warnings having no effect, China’s leaders might be sensing that the best — or even the only — way to restore their authority is by force, although Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) might wait until after the celebrations for the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China on Oct. 1 to act.
Whether now or in two months, a Tiananmen-style crackdown is not the answer.
For starters, Hong Kong’s 31,000-strong police force is not up to the task of carrying out such a crackdown. Not only does it lack the officers, but police might refuse to use deadly force. After all, there is a big difference between firing rubber bullets at a crowd and murdering civilians.