Garvan Walshe was National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party until 2008.
Another year, another uprising.
This one began mildly. The protestors did not, as in Egypt, demand “the downfall of the regime” just the chance for a free choice of local administration. Nor, as in Ukraine, do they aim to change the geopolitical orientation of their government. Their demands are simple, almost old fashioned: one person, one vote.
Their demands are explicitly constitutional. Hong Kong’s Basic Law, agreed when Britain handed the colony over to China in 1997, allows for the election for Chief Executive to be conducted by universal suffrage from 2017 onwards. The pro-Beijing authorities have, however, interpreted that to mean that they can present the people with a list of candidates from which voters can choose and from which troublesome candidates can be excluded.
Behind the protests is fear, a fear that shows itself on June 4th, when huge crowds gather to commemorate the massacre at Tiananmen Square, that ‘one country, two systems,’ as Beijing calls the system by which the former British colony is ruled, will come to an end, and China’s authoritarian rulers will extinguish their freedom.
Beijing is also afraid. Afraid that successful protests in Hong Kong would inspire others in mainland China; or revive a Chinese democracy movement that so very nearly toppled the Communist Party’s rule in 1989.
On Sunday night an attempt was made by Hong Kong’s authorities to disperse the protests. Paramilitary riot police wearing green uniforms, tear gas grenade launchers held at a 45 degree angle, pointed upwards, attacked the crowd peaceably assembled, and failed. Their only effect will have been to draw more people to Monday’s protests.
Nobody doubts China’s capacity to supply Hong Kong’s authorities with the wherewithal to suppress the protests. Its own forces are experienced in the control of riots. But mainland methods will not be available to them. This one will play out in front of the world’s TV screens and stock markets.
Expect to read, over the coming weeks, that it would be “wise” and “rational” for Beijing to make concessions. The immediate cost: both directly financial, and diplomatic and political, of defeating the protests is surely great. The danger that the Hong Kong democratic spirit would spread to Shenzen and Shanghai let alone inland cities, though not zero, is certainly remote. And besides, the Chinese state has a powerful apparatus of repressive institutions at its disposal. Though never entirely secure as it is in the nature of these systems that they are brittle, any serious threat to its stability belongs either to the future, or the aftermath of some powerful economic shock yet to be administered.
Beijing is not averse to making concessions when necessary — it allowed the village of Wukan to administer its own democratic elections — so long as they can be kept relatively discreet. Free elections in Hong Kong would be impossible to conceal from the Chinese population, and the fact that they had been wrung from Beijing by popular protest almost as difficult to hide.
Rationality, however, is not always in plentiful supply (though it is fortunate that Bo Xilai, the most unpredictable of Chinese leaders, is now out of the way). A rational Yanukovich would not have tried to clear the Maidan last December, relying on draconian laws so similar to Russia’s that they appeared to have been photocopied in the Kremlin. A rational Mohammed Morsi would not have alienated both Egypt’s military and its liberals at the same time.
As I write, tactical common sense appears to have prevailed and Hong Kong’s authorities have withdrawn the riot police from the streets. This still leaves the authorities without much of a strategic plan. The best, from their point of view, might be to try and outlast the protesters, who, they hope, will not be able to convince large numbers of people to demonstrate indefinitely. If the students erect a permanent protest camp, it might start to irritate ordinary people going about their business. “Move along” onlookers can be told, “nothing to see here.”
Whether this restraint will succeed in dampening demands for democracy is another thing entirely.