Francis Moriarty: What are China's options in Hong Kong?

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WILLIAMSTOWN — What will China do to deal with the massive protests convulsing Hong Kong — especially as the demonstrations center on a sense of identity that is increasingly distinct from the rest of China, and upon a demand for a democratically elected government that is not under Beijing's thumb?

It is rational to worry for Hong Kong, but there are also reasons to temper concerns.

For the moment, the size and peacefulness of Sunday's protest march by 1.7 million Hong Kong people — nearly a quarter of the city — has replaced the images of violence between demonstrators and police that dominated recent news reports.

Raising the presumption of military intervention also conjures up certain images, like tanks rumbling into Beijing's Tiananmen Square and crushing the pro-democracy protests there in 1989. To raise the specter of a military response in Hong Kong implicitly assumes that the central government cannot sit idly by while the contagion of democracy spreads.

A DIFFERENT CHINA

These are reasonable worries given the track record of a Communist government that rules without popular mandate, fears public opinion and is preoccupied with round-the-clock monitoring and shaping its image at home and abroad.

To worry about use of force also carries the presumption that the Chinese Communist Party is somehow genetically incapable of keeping its promise to let Hong Kong run by its own rules until 2047, as agreed by China and Britain before Hong Kong's reversion to China in 1997.

Many people — including this writer — have openly feared that Beijing would revert to its playbook in order to halt the demonstrations that have been occurring in Hong Kong for nearly three months. Intervention is still not out of the question.

But we need to be careful when seeking to draw parallels. Past is not always prologue.

Today's China is different from the China of three decades past. It's an expansionist China, with a robust military posture and growing assertiveness. Its foreign policy clearly announces global intent, and China leaves no doubt about its willingness to push back whether over Huawei or Hong Kong.

At the same time, it is a defensive regime, ever wary of foreign intervention into whatever is defined as its internal affairs — and what could be more internal to Beijing than whatever constitutes being a physical part of China, or whatever it means to be a Chinese? Hong Kong now finds itself at the crosshairs of both questions.

Just as Hong Kong today is not comparable to Beijing 30 years ago, nor is the central government under President Xi Jinping comparable to Beijing in the era of Deng Xiaoping.     

Deng was the undoubted paramount leader and that is what Xi wants to be. Xi is sometimes called the chairman-of-everything to underscore his penchant for heading every important body. By contrast, Deng — a skilled card player — ran the show even when his only formal title was as head of the Chinese Bridge Association.

In Deng's day, China was just beginning to pull out of the decades of misery under Chairman Mao Zedong and start transforming into the world's factory, whereas Xi's China is at the top of the industrial standings.

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Perhaps most importantly, we now live in the information age, and both the Hong Kong citizenry and Chinese government are far more sophisticated when it comes to messaging and the media. That gives Beijing some latitude beyond muscle.

In 1989, the term "social media" was yet to be coined. The troops that were ordered into Beijing during the pre-dawn of June 4 were drawn from rural army units. They had no idea of events beyond the propaganda they were being fed and no idea what they were facing.

The students within Tiananmen Square were largely at the mercy of the rumor mill. There is no comparison with today's speed and ubiquity of communications.

This is the era of smart phones, Google Earth and photo-taking drones. Hong Kong, a leading financial and media center, is integral to the worldwide web and its people are amazingly tech savvy. The demonstrators' hit-and-run strategies are based on instantaneous messaging. If Chinese troops head across the border, Hong Kongers will know instantly.

Beijing is technically advanced, using both social and official media to spread propaganda, plant competing narratives, post favorable images, instill fear, spew spam and spark rumors. It has an arsenal of options that include thuggery but so far come up short of taking up arms.

The Hong Kong's government's messaging often resembles preaching to the choir. On Monday, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam offered up a "platform" for negotiation that was superficially conciliatory, but compromised on nothing and was promptly rejected.

NOT A RAGTAG GROUP

Which leads to another reason to temper worry: public perception.

The throng in Hong Kong's streets was not some ragtag assemblage. It included office workers, lawyers, chambers of commerce, domestic helpers, students and even civil servants.

When Beijing declared that Cathay Pacific Airways crew who backed the demonstrations were barred from flying in China's airspace and demanded their names, it was sent a list with only one name — Cathay's CEO, Rupert Hogg, who resigned instead.

Hogg is being lauded as a hero.

At the moment, Beijing's is occupied by a trade dispute with the U.S., and Washington's announcement of arms sales to Taiwan.

The Chinese army soldiers in Hong Kong remain barracked.

Francis Moriarty was the senior political reporter for public broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) covering the return of Hong Kong from British to Chinese sovereignty in 1997.


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