Just when it looked like the protests in Hong Kong were getting out of hand, when vandalism and violence seemed sure to bring on a Beijing-ordered crackdown a la Tiananmen Square, something extraordinary happened.
Pessimism is a weak predictor when it comes to the determined residents of Hong Kong. Instead of careening further toward disaster, they put on a massive 1.7-million-person demonstration, and not a single policeman swung his baton as protesters marched to the rally point.
The leadership and the overwhelming majority of the democracy movement understand fully that violent clashes with the authorities are counterproductive. Invading the parliament building, shutting down the airport and fighting with the police are not the types of activities that will secure Hong Kong’s freedom.
The youthful protesters were said to have grown impatient with the meager results of peaceful demonstrations. The extradition bill to the mainland that triggered the protests has yet to be officially withdrawn, universal suffrage to elect Hong Kong’s leaders and amnesty for more than 700 arrested protesters have not been granted, and the mayor, Chief Executive Carrie Lam, remains in office.
But they are not the only ones whose patience is being tested by the struggle. The signs of “impatience” — as the media calls it — in Beijing are unmistakable. The People’s Republic condemned the wild scenes at Hong Kong airport as “close to terrorism,” and claimed they were the “work of the U.S.”
That’s as close to a pretext for forceful intervention as you’re likely to get. And the forceful interveners stand ready. Beijing has stationed several thousand troops in Shenzhen near the border with the former British colony, and high-profile exercises were held there last week, to make the obvious point.
Prior to this week’s giant display of self-control, the organizers — known as the Civil Human Rights Front — made the point with young hotheads that impatience is a poor guide for behavior.
According to the Singapore-based Channel News Asia (CNA), it was a case of the older generation counseling the young. A typical comment: “If they are unhappy, they should discuss slowly with the government. Let all sides work things out. They are civilized people. Do civilized people resort to violence?” Some even rated the police — who have been criticized for an increasingly brutal response — as behaving better than the militant protesters.
How representative the comments were is not clear. It was not a scientific sampling, and it could have been one journalist’s interview with a single group of like-minded folk.
But the willingness of so many in Hong Kong to go along with the organizers’ plea for peaceful behavior was sufficient evidence that they see the sense of the situation. Peaceful protest and negotiation with the government may eventually yield some of the desired results. Violence will beget more violence and repression.
The world is on the side of the democracy movement. But what is the world to do?
Dispensing the wisdom of western diplomacy, the European Union’s High Representative Federica Mogherini said, “It is crucial that restraint be exercised, violence rejected and urgent steps taken to de-escalate the situation. Engagement in a process of broad-based and inclusive dialogue, involving all key stakeholders, is essential.”
Lawmakers in Washington have been looking at more concrete action, threatening to revise Hong Kong’s special trade status with the U.S. Though cognizant of the sensitivity of the matter, they are moving slowly.
China, as expected, bristled at the idea. You Wenze, a spokesman for China’s ceremonial legislature, rebuffed criticism from Congress as “a gross violation of the spirit of the rule of law, a blatant double standard and a gross interference in China’s internal affairs.”
The rulers in Beijing have more to fear from President Donald Trump, who has proved in his dealings with them that he is no “paper tiger.” An executive order from the president could suspend the special status, causing havoc to their economy.
Mr. Trump sufficed with a broad hint at linkage between restraint on the streets of Hong Kong and settling the trade war with the U.S.:
“I’d like to see Hong Kong worked out in a very humanitarian fashion. I hope President Xi can do it. He sure has the ability, I can tell you that, from personal knowledge. He certainly has the ability to do it if he wants to. So, I’d like to see that worked out in a humanitarian fashion. I think it would be very good for the trade deal that we’re talking about.”
While impatience is a real factor among the young protesters in Hong Kong, as applied to Beijing the term is misleading. The Chinese leaders are not so emotional; they’re known for taking the long view of affairs, and of coldly calculating their self-interest. If they intervene with force it will only be because they feel they have to in order to maintain authority, and only if they believe they can sustain the cost of another Tiananmen Square protest diplomatically and economically.
So far, they figure brute force isn’t worth it. If the Hong Kong protesters can keep the pressure on peacefully, it should stay that way.