An estimated 1.7 million mostly peaceful protesters took over the streets of Hong Kong during Sunday’s rally for freedom from the Chinese government’s “one country, two systems” control. Many of them were waving the American flag and holding signs demanding a future governing system that is officially democratic rather than a proxy “self government” under threat of increasing encroachment from Beijing. And their movement has the ingredients for success. This symbolic appeal is a clear indicator of the direction that the protesters want to go —despite China’s efforts to paint them as a violent mob— as much as it is an appeal for external support which Taiwan has thus far stepped up…much to the ire of China which has since accused Taiwan of “undermining the rule of law” and aiding and abetting an angry mob in Hong Kong.
One Country, Two Systems, Three’s a Crowd
In 1997, Hong Kong was “returned” to Beijing by Great Britain (colonialism is generally frowned upon in the modern world order) within the “one country, two systems” framework in which Hong Kong could exist as at least a quasi-democracy, with freedoms actual residents of mainland China were not afforded—at least until this framework’s official expiration date in 2047. Except now, Hong Kong en masse apparently prefers freedom over communism, censorship, and social scores and does not plan on going quietly. Instead, pro-democracy activists —seeing the writing on the wall for how this one’s gonna end— have begun to push back against increasing Chinese influence on their government. (This includes “loyalty tests” for candidates running for office, for example.) Earlier this summer, protests began escalating against proposed legislation allowing for the extradition of criminal suspects to mainland China. At least that’s what China was trying to sell it as, even as it came in the wake of arrests of peaceful protest leaders (including professors and a retired pastor) from the Umbrella Movement, a 79-day occupation of major roads in Hong Kong that was eventually broken up with police violence.
While this movement has been compared by some as akin to the build-up of Tiananmen Square —waiting with bated breath for whether or not China will roll out the tanks or other lethal violence against peaceful, pro-democracy protesters— this current wave of protests has advantages aside from not taking place in mainland China. For instance, in addition to the sort of “buffer” protections preventing China from extraditing protesters under whatever pretenses to expediently “disappear” them, ongoing U.S.-China trade talks are hamstringing China’s ability to respond violently to Hong Kong protesters.
When asked Sunday about the protests, President Trump said the deployment of Chinese troops against protesters would hurt the U.S.-China trade negotiations.
“I mean if it’s another Tiananmen Square, I think it’s a very hard thing to do if there is violence,” Trump told reporters. “I think there’d be tremendous political sentiment not to do something.”
Trump also suggested that Chinese President Xi Jinping meet with protest leaders, perhaps knowing that such a meeting would lend a legitimacy factor to the protest and which the Chinese government refuses to do while also reminding the world of President Trump’s earlier remarks acknowledging that Hong Kong is part of China and that they must solve it themselves and “do not need advice.”
Brookings’ Senior Fellow Thomas Wright regards this as President Trump’s foreign policy crisis with sweeping superpower engendering political and economic ramifications. However, whether or not the U.S. plays its Trump card, the 1992 Hong Kong Policy Act which allows an administration to change its approach should Hong Kong become less autonomous in its “two system” situation, may depend on how nicely China wants to negotiate on trade.
With at least fledgling shows of international support from the U.S. and Taiwan, the worst moves the protesters could make is turning to violence (Chinese agitprop is in full-swing to lend this appearance and “excuse” for interference). Right now, the most pressing question for believers in Social Movement Theory may be whether the loyalty of the Hong Kong police force lies with one state or two, and whether or not China will send in its own paramilitary forces to crackdown on those protesters flying the most iconic symbols of political revolution and freedom: Red, white, and blue…sending very bad optics for its relations with the United States.