It’ll All End in Tears

tiananmen squareWhile much of the world has been looking on in admiration at the events unfolding in Hong Kong, on Friday the China People’s Daily, which is essentially an official publication of China’s ruling Communist Party, offered this stark warning: The protests are “against legal principles, and doomed to fail. There is no room to make concessions on important principles.”

In direct terms, that means the protestors’ immediate demand that Chief Executive Leung CY step down will not happen, nor will Hong Kong be granted the full democracy supposedly “promised” by Beijing when Great Britain handed the colony back to China in 1997. Those things simply will not and cannot even be considered by the Chinese government, and in fact, beyond perhaps making some very minor concessions such as not punishing the “Occupy Central” organizers and participants too harshly in the aftermath, the government cannot afford to allow any outcome that looks like a positive result.

Most news analyses of the “umbrella revolution” have pointed out, correctly, that its chances of success are slim because the Communist government needs to avoid the risk of similar protests erupting in other parts of the country, particularly in already-restive regions like Tibet and Xinjiang. But the assessments have overlooked the biggest factor: Hong Kong’s history, and the Chinese attitude towards it.

Hong Kong Island became a British colony as a result of China’s losing the First Opium War in 1839-1842; in effect, the city was a war prize. During the Second Opium War (1856-1860), British control extended into Kowloon, and in 1861, after the Convention of Peking between China and Britain, France, and Russia – one of the “unequal treaties” signed during the “Century of Humiliation,” when China’s sovereignty was progressively eroded by the Western powers and Japan – Great Britain formally took over all of Kowloon Peninsula. The Second Convention of Peking in 1898, in which Britain signed the 99-year lease for Hong Kong, Kowloon, and the New Territories, came about as a result of China’s losing the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895; the British simply took advantage of China’s weakened position to expand their foothold.

The concessions made to retain much of Hong Kong’s “uniqueness” after the handover from the United Kingdom to the People’s Republic of China in 1997 were pragmatic – necessary at the time to ensure the turnover went smoothly and happened on scheduled – but never really intended to be permanent. In effect, the Chinese perspective towards Hong Kong is the same as it is towards Taiwan: The metropolis is part of China and always has been, and sooner or later, the opportunity to take it back in proper fashion will present itself.

The “Umbrella Revolution” may very well have just provided the PRC that opportunity. And the assumption that China could not or would not put an end to the protest in an aggressive manner really has no basis in reality.

The common belief that China wouldn’t dare handle Hong Kong in the same way it handled Tiananmen Square in 1989 because of the risk that it would suffer the consequences of global opprobrium overlooks a couple critical points. China is much stronger economically and much more integrated into the global economy than it was 25 years ago, and is certainly aware that anything more than rhetorical condemnation on the part of the world’s other developed economies would be self-destructive for them. It’s not a difficult inference for the Chinese to make, because in the years since Tiananmen, the West has provided numerous demonstrations of its willingness to subordinate political ethics to economic objectives; for example, the first Gulf War, the Iraq War and the so-called “War on Terror,” and the handling of the global financial crisis.

Beijing’s ‘Plan A,’ presumably, is to achieve its objectives in Hong Kong without having to resort to violence. But the operative process is “achieving its objectives.” What is worrisome about the “Umbrella Revolution” – spooky, actually, in a way – is the way the protesting mass is similar to the one that was eventually dispersed with extreme prejudice in Tiananmen Square a quarter-century. The crowd in Hong Kong comprises people from many different sectors and of all ages, but it is dominated by youth, and does not have clear leadership, but rather is a collection of loosely-associated groups. People here and in other countries that still have an unreasonably romantic notion of democracy find the “grassroots” character of the Hong Kong protest charming, but it may be its biggest flaw, because it was exactly that kind of situation the PRC was able to exploit 25 years ago to break up the embryonic democracy movement in Beijing, and then impose tough measures to prevent its recurrence.

Go home, kids. It was a good effort and we admire your enthusiasm, but this is not going to end well if you hang around.