As Hong Kong recovers from a general strike that paralyzed transportation and led to mob violence and tear gas fired on protesters, Beijing-controlled Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam (林鄭月娥) is hinting at even stronger action.
“Such disruptions have seriously undermined Hong Kong’s law and order and are pushing our city, the city we all love, and many of us helped to build, to the verge of a very dangerous situation,” she said.
The Chinese government agency that oversees Hong Kong held a rare press conference on Tuesday, announcing support for Lam and accusing the protesters of fomenting a revolution.
Most ominously, Chinese authorities have mobilized troops near the border with the mainland.
Having visited Hong Kong many times in the course of my naval career, both when it was a British crown colony and after the 1997 handover to China, I think I have a pretty good feel for how large the stakes are and how worrisome the situation is.
My military and diplomatic colleagues are questioning the long-term viability of the “one country, two systems” construct that has governed the relationship between Hong Kong and the rest of China for two decades.
The threat of large-scale capital and physical flight is increasing.
So, are we headed for a bloody replay of Tiananmen Square, on a vastly larger scale? What are the red lines for China in terms of when it will feel forced to act with an iron fist?
Here is the good news, summed up in one word: Taiwan. While the Chinese government sees Hong Kong as a vital commercial and economic center, the assimilation of Taiwan is a far bigger priority.
The Taiwanese, who are surely watching events on a minute-to-minute basis, tend to see their future reflected in how events unfold in Hong Kong.
With a population of nearly 25 million generating a top-25 global economy, Taiwan is simply a much larger prize for China than Hong Kong.
Taiwan’s geographic position, guarding the northern approaches to the South China Sea, is crucial for China’s long-term plan to control that body of water; some 80 percent of global trade passes through it, and billions of barrels of oil and trillions of cubic feet of natural gas lie below.
Also, in terms of symbolism, while the return of Hong Kong from a faded British Empire was a great triumph for Beijing, reining in the “renegade province” to which the defeated Nationalist forces of Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) fled in 1949 would be incomparably more significant.
Given all this, China will probably avoid a heavy-handed troop movement into Hong Kong for as long as possible, knowing that it would create an even stronger independence movement in Taiwan.
The politics of Taiwan tend to swing between two parties: the Democratic Progressive Party, who favor continued independent status, and the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), which sees a gradual path of engagement and perhaps eventually accepting the “one state, two systems” approach. The former holds power now, but leaders in Beijing would love to see a change of government in next year’s presidential elections and understand that the events in Hong Kong may have a big effect.
Still, like all authoritarian regimes, China seeks above all to maintain a sense of control throughout society as the basis of its governance.
Under the rule of Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平), it is becoming the world’s largest and most capable police state.