As the People’s Armed Police gather with their vehicles in Shenzen, it looks like Hong Kong’s semi-autonomy may soon be at an end.
I haven’t exactly been shy about casting the Red Chinese as villains in the past. Despite the propaganda that they’ve been spreading around, and that has been often parroted by those with financial ties to Beijing, they’ve certainly earned it over the years. (Try to get any official Chinese outlet to talk about Tianamen Square sometime.) While it might be tempting, given the sheer weight of Chinese products sold to the West, to think that China has truly “embraced” the free market, the Chinese Communist Party is still firmly in charge.
The CCP has been eminently practical over the last few decades. Rather like Lenin’s New Economic Program in the ’20s, they have opened the country up to trade with the West, and profited handsomely from it. They have become an economic powerhouse since the ’90s. And yet, Beijing still controls that powerhouse with an iron fist. The recent drop in the Chinese stock market a couple years ago has been speculated to have been a planned correction. The planned and supervised nature of the Chinese economy is nowhere more evident than the “Ghost Cities,” entire metropolises built purely to give workers something to do.
Hong Kong has been a useful tool in this program since it was handed back over to Beijing by the British in 1997. Allowed a certain amount of political and economic autonomy, as StrategyPage summarizes, it has made the Chinese (and therefore the CCP) a lot of money, while also providing an example to Taiwan of unification without loss of democracy. But that democracy has been sharply curtailed and controlled by Beijing. The CCP decides who can run in Hong Kong elections.
The recent 30-year anniversary of Tianamen Square appears to be making the CCP nervous. More information about the massacre has been getting out among the Chinese people. The CCP has ruthlessly quashed any talk about Tianamen for decades. A loss of control in Hong Kong could not only cause further unrest in the rest of mainland China, but it could make dealing with Taiwan even more difficult. At the same time, a crackdown could hurt the economic powerhouse that is Hong Kong, therefore affecting China’s standing in the rest of the world, and her plans for attaining true superpower status.
China’s push for regional dominance and global economic hegemony are largely based on economics. While the PLA has been built up and modernized a great deal in the last couple of decades, it is still relatively fragile, and incapable of the kind of force projection the US can exert. While the Chinese are clearly busy expanding that capability, they have long used indirect and irregular means to get what they want, going back to ancient times. A large part of this has involved massive loans and infrastructure projects in countries that have natural resources that China can use, causing those countries to incur massive debts they can never pay back. With the current trade conflict with the US pinching some of their economic power, a loss of Hong Kong’s productivity could hurt the program.
It appears that right at the moment, the Chinese are playing things carefully, playing up the violence of the street protests while allowing the local Hong Kong police to handle things as much as possible. Some of the reports have been exaggerated, as Michael Yon documented from the Hong Kong airport. However, the above documented massing of the PAP in Shenzen suggests that this won’t last forever. For now, the PAP seems to be there more as a warning to the protesters than anything else. But that could easily change.
A Tianamen-style crackdown on Hong Kong could have far-reaching implications. It will likely make other countries in Southeast Asia, already leery of China’s expansion, even more standoffish. The loss of Hong Kong’s economic power would hurt a Chinese economy already reeling. And yet, the CCP cannot afford to allow Hong Kong to become more autonomous. Because the more Hong Kong is allowed to float somewhat outside of the harsh control of the People’s Republic of China, the more the residents want to get even farther away. Which would entail the loss of the economic advantages altogether.
The future of East Asia will be greatly affected by what happens in the next few months in Hong Kong.