October 26, 2020

China on the brink

IMMEDIATE RELEASE 2 October 2014

WASHINGTON MERRY-GO-ROUND

Today’s Events in Historical Perspective

America’s Longest-Running Column, Founded 1932

China on the brink

By Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift

WASHINGTON – The Chinese government says it will not send in the army to disperse the hundreds of thousands of protestors who have immobilized Hong Kong for the last week. At present, their plan is to out-wait the protestors, but historically, unopposed protests often morph into revolutions. So China has a problem. Local forces did use tear gas and pepper spray, and they are stockpiling riot gear in public buildings should protestors attempt to force entry. Still, with rare exception, these massive demonstrations with 300,000 people crowding Hong Kong’s central streets have remained peaceful.

The central government in China has cracked down on Internet access wherever they could, but in the modern age that’s a losing strategy. For now, it looks like Beijing is sitting tight in the belief that the protestors will soon wear out their welcome. For their part, the protestors are putting procedures in place to ensure they can stay for a good long while, establishing buffer zones around some businesses and neighborhoods, and clearing routes for ambulances and other emergency vehicles to get through.

Each side is betting that they’re correctly reading the crowd dynamics, and whoever is wrong will pay the price.  Hong Kong’s chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, said he would meet with student leaders to discuss their ideas for democratic reforms, but that he would not step down, which tops their list of demands. Leung was put in place two years ago with China’s blessing, and the process that will select his successor is at the heart of the rebellion.

Reformers want to be able to nominate candidates who would then run in a free and open election instead of being handed a slate of candidates pre-selected and pre-screened by a committee of elites in Beijing with close ties to the Communist Party. Hong Kong was a British colony and a democracy before the handover to China in 1997, and it has always enjoyed a measure of freedom that is unthinkable in mainland China. That was part of the handover deal.

It must be excruciatingly difficult for Chinese leaders to stand down and allow the protests to continue unabated in Hong Kong. The last time anything remotely like this occurred was in Tiananmen Square in 1989 when the world watched in horror on live television as Chinese tanks rolled over unarmed protestors in the street.

That incident gave China a black eye from which they have not recovered, and it haunts their decision-making to this day. Sending in the army and rolling over protestors with tanks is not a scenario China wishes to employ. Hong Kong is home to the Hang Seng Index, the Chinese version of the Dow Jones, and the Hong Kong Stock exchange. It is a financial jewel, China’s New York, and Chinese leaders don’t want to do anything that would kill the golden goose.

Hong Kong brought the capitalist spirit to China where it took root and was instrumental in catapulting the Chinese economy into the second largest in the world. What happens next in Hong Kong rests almost entirely on the business community and how it handles the protests, which, because of their size, are making normal commerce impossible and damaging the economy. Chinese leaders are counting on business people as well as ordinary citizens, a silent majority if you will, to tire of the disruption and demand an end to the protests. It is a though they are taking a page out of “Les Miserables” that depicted shuttered doors and windows as an answer to French revolutionaries. But that revolution came to a violent end at the hands of the French Army.

The protestors say they have momentum on their side, and that they are building support, not watching it dissipate. If they are right, Beijing has a big problem. Making major concessions would likely set off a ripple effect throughout mainland China, perhaps fatally undermining the fragile central government’s control over China’s vast population. Opening up the next election in Hong Kong to more than a few of their handpicked buddies would be such a concession. And absent force or concessions, it is difficult to see how the government is going to manage this crisis and remain in power.

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© 2014 U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.

Distributed by U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.

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