Hong Kong protest, June 16, 2019. Photo courtesy Voice of America (VOA).
If we want a preview of how this summer of unrest in Hong Kong might end – and in some ways, how it is surely destined to end – we need only look back to another August uprising, one that occurred in Europe 75 years ago.
With Soviet encouragement, the underground Polish “Home Army” attacked German troops occupying Warsaw on Aug. 1, 1944. Within a few days, the Poles had gained control of most of the city. Their goal, paradoxically, was to prevent the advancing Soviets from gaining control of the once and future capital of an independent Poland.
But it was a trap. The reeling Third Reich forces could not stop the advancing Red Army, but had more than enough firepower to crush the Poles. So, while the Soviets simply waited in the nearby suburbs (and prevented the western Allies from sending supplies to the Home Army), the Germans bombarded and ultimately leveled the city. The uprising destroyed any Polish capacity to resist the ensuing Soviet occupation and communist takeover of the postwar government.
Like the Polish partisans, the Hong Kong protesters are courageous but doomed to failure. They don’t even have the hope that an advancing military force might help them overpower their adversaries. There is no force analogous to the Red Army that sat across the Vistula River while the Nazis crushed the democratic Polish forces. There is only the Hong Kong police force that the protesters are challenging and, beyond that, another Red Army – China’s. While the Hong Kong protesters might force Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, out of office, there is no scenario in which they ultimately succeed in preventing mainland China from exercising its sovereignty over the city.
At a minimum, the exercise of that sovereignty will entail tracking down and punishing leaders of or scapegoats for the protests. It will also involve increased surveillance of Hong Kong’s population to deter similar future embarrassment of Beijing. In a worst case, the crackdown will involve significant casualties, damage to Hong Kong’s infrastructure, and even worse damage – some of it likely irreparable – to the territory’s position as a regional and global business hub.
As Stalin and his generals recognized 75 years ago, when an outcome is inevitable, it is only a matter of time until it occurs.
The inevitability of Hong Kong’s fate was actually sealed back in 1997, when the United Kingdom handed over sovereignty to China. The agreement between the departing British and the incoming Communists called for a 50-year period in which Hong Kong would exist with China as “one country, two systems.” Hong Kong would, in that time, keep its democratic institutions, its capitalist economy and its independent judiciary, as long as it acknowledged that it was an integral part of China. But the British did not grant their erstwhile colonial subjects the right to apply for United Kingdom passports or otherwise freely emigrate if they chose to extend their time horizon as free people beyond the half-century in which Beijing promised forbearance.
From that point, it was only a matter of time until China began to inject itself into Hong Kong’s political and legal affairs. It has increasingly done so, sparking protests including demonstrations in 2003 and 2014. This year’s much more extensive uprising initially focused on Lam’s legislative proposal – since suspended, but not withdrawn – to allow extradition to China’s court system. That system is not so much a forum for adjudication as it is an instrument of control by Beijing and its strongman, Xi Jinping.
Like the protest leadership itself, the protesters’ demands have been a moving target. At various times they have sought Lam’s resignation, punishment for police they believe acted with undue force, and less overt interference in the city’s politics. As the protests became angrier and more disruptive this week, the likelihood of direct intervention by Beijing steadily increased. Chinese officials have set the stage by likening the protesters’ actions to terrorism. The People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Communist Party, called for “using the sword of the law” to restore order in Hong Kong.
There is no endgame here that is good for the protesters. A harbinger was the reversal of Cathay Pacific’s initial tolerance of its staff’s participation in the protests. Under pressure from the mainland, the company promised instead to penalize protesters who are on its payroll and to bar them from serving on flights to the mainland. According to Reuters, the airline has fired two pilots in connection with the protests. Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific faced the reality that mainland China was simply too important to its business to ignore.
Everything that happens in Hong Kong should be viewed through the prism of Beijing’s top two long-term goals. The second most important objective is to reunify Taiwan under Beijing’s administration and on Beijing’s terms. Allowing successful resistance in Hong Kong would send Taiwan the message that it can control the terms of a future reunification. Beijing is determined that it can’t.
The most important goal is to maintain Communist Party control of China itself. Today, as in Tiananmen Square 30 years ago, this means any hint of rebellion must be firmly put down. If it takes sending 1 million Uighurs to “schools” in western China that have barbed wire and watchtowers, so be it. If it means sacrificing Hong Kong as a bridge between Chinese and Western finance, so be it. Xi’s administration is not going to allow any form of internal rebellion to succeed. A harsh crackdown could bring international censure, but Beijing may see that as the lesser of two evils.
The two sides may ultimately agree to stand down in Hong Kong. Maybe widespread destruction and bloodshed can be averted. That is all the city’s citizens can realistically hope to achieve from here on. While there may nominally be one country, two systems, in China – including Hong Kong – there is only one system that counts.