WASHINGTON – As Hong Kong recovers from a general strike that paralyzed transportation and led to mob violence and tear gas fired on protesters, the Beijing-controlled government’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, 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 news conference 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 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’s 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 atop it, and billions of barrels of oil and trillions of cubic feet of natural gas lie below. And 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 fled in 1950 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 it would create an even stronger independence movement in Taiwan. The politics of the island state tend to swing between two parties: the Democratic Progressives, who favor continued independent status; and the Kuomintang, 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 election, 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 President Xi Jinping, it is becoming the world’s largest and most capable police state. Allowing uncontrolled protests over a lengthy period of time, even in the exceptional case of Hong Kong, diminishes the public’s sense that authorities are firmly entrenched, which in turn further emboldens the protesters. This is a highly unvirtuous cycle from the perspective of the Chinese authorities, naturally.
Unless the protests dissipate of their own accord, expect Beijing to adopt a kind of “rope-a-dope” strategy: shifting the blame to Lam and choosing to allow the demonstrations to proceed within limits, particularly if they focus solely on the initial target of a highly unpopular new extradition law. But if things don’t simmer down by early fall, China will likely replace Lam with a more authoritarian figure.
Thematically, if the protests begin to shift from just demanding a retraction of the extradition law to a broader call for increased self-governance, or even a return to quasi-independent status, Beijing will almost certainly react rapidly and drastically.
The likely first step would be stepped-up use of “gray zone” activities — sending unmarked police and military personnel into the former colony for intelligence gathering; cyberattacks on the protest organizers’ finances and reputations; employing more militias and criminal organizations to beat up demonstrators; and physically cutting communications networks binding protest groups. This is basically a domestic version of the hybrid warfare techniques used so effectively by Russia’s Vladimir Putin in Ukraine in 2014. Only if such actions don’t succeed in quelling the demonstrations will China play its ultimate card: sending military forces to take control of the city.
The United States and its allies, unfortunately, have few options in this situation. In the end, Hong Kong is part of sovereign Chinese territory and — despite the special status it holds — ultimately falls under the laws and governance of Beijing. The West will continue to decry human rights violations and support the right of free peaceful demonstrations.
If there is a brutal military crackdown, the response should be to mobilize international support for sanctions. But in terms of U.S. national interest and global security, the longer term and more complex issue will be the impact Hong Kong’s crisis has on Taiwan’s status. It is vital that Washington stand strong for Taiwan’s self-determination; cooperate with it militarily through joint exercises, freedom-of-navigation operations through the Taiwan Strait, and sales of sophisticated missile-defense systems and aircraft; and increase commercial activity with its vibrant economy.
All of this is complicated, of course, by ongoing U.S.-Chinese trade talks, which have stalled as the U.S. increases sanctions and the Chinese respond with both trade and currency moves. Still, China’s determination to control both Hong Kong and Taiwan is integral to its broader “One Belt, One Road” strategy to extend economic and military dominance across Asia and beyond. The U.S. and its allies need to understand that the protests of 2 million people of Hong Kong echo well beyond that tiny enclave.
James Stavridis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a retired U.S. Navy admiral and former supreme allied commander of NATO, and dean emeritus of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He is also an operating executive consultant at the Carlyle Group and chairs the board of counselors at McLarty Associates.