Not since the eve of the 1989 Tiananmen slaughter have we seen China’s communist regime more clearly girding to demolish a vibrant democracy movement. Thirty-one years ago, China’s Communist Party shut down democracy protesters in Beijing by shooting them in the streets. This time the CCP’s target is the former British colony of Hong Kong, where protesters turned out in huge numbers last year to defend the rights and freedoms that China promised them for at least 50 years after the 1997 British handover. Now, while the world grapples with the China-spawned coronavirus pandemic, China is preparing a national security law that would override Hong Kong’s semi-autonomous system. Under this law, as previewed by China’s authorities, Beijing could criminalize any activity in Hong Kong it deems a threat, and send mainland security operatives into Hong Kong as enforcers. Hong Kongers have richly demonstrated that they are a freedom-loving people, unlikely to bow down en masse and obey. The stage is set for a nightmare showdown.
Precisely how that’s likely to play out is a sickening question. Over the past year, Beijing’s quisling administration in Hong Kong has made copious use of tear gas, water cannon, threats, bans, beatings, and arrests (more than 8,000 to date). All this has failed to quell Hong Kong’s democracy movement. Is it likely that China’s dictator, President Xi Jinping, brandishing his new security law, would go so far as to reprise in Hong Kong his Communist Party’s 1989 Tiananmen tactics, and default to wholesale gunfire? Don’t rule it out.
Last year, especially among those with vivid memories of Tiananmen on June 4, 1989 (myself among them) there was plenty of worry that a Hong Kong massacre was in the cards. But perhaps it was a serious deterrent to Xi that the world was watching, bigtime, and he was in no hurry to sponsor a bloodbath so horrifying that it might end Hong Kong’s role as China’s chief financial portal to world markets.
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What transpired in Hong Kong last year was a spectacular human story: the enormous protests, the determined and resourceful people of Hong Kong defying the world’s most powerful tyranny, the test of whether China would compromise and honor its promise of “one country, two systems” (no such luck). Hong Kong has long been wide open and welcoming to travelers, a major hub of commerce, easy to navigate, and compelling to explore. The international press arrived in droves. Hong Kong was routinely in world headlines. China’s central government in Beijing settled for such moves as issuing mortal threats, drilling its People’s Armed Police just north of the Hong Kong border, and denouncing Hong Kong’s homegrown democracy movement as a sinister plot orchestrated by foreign “Black Hands.” Xi left it to his handpicked chief executive in Hong Kong, Carrie Lam, to punish the protesters and stonewall their legitimate demands.
Then came the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, now a pandemic. Don’t expect the international press to descend on Hong Kong this time. Quite simply, most foreign reporters can’t get in (and reporters based there must compete with global news of the virus). Since March 25, Hong Kong’s administration has substantially cut off the territory from outside visitors, with a coronavirus lockdown that permits movement within the city, but forbids entry, or even transit through the airport, to non-residents. There are some exceptions for visitors from mainland China, Macau, and Taiwan, but that’s it. Anyone who does qualify to enter must go through a strict two-week quarantine. Violation can incur criminal charges.
Hong Kong’s lockdown, coupled with the diligence of Hong Kong’s people, appears to have been effective in curtailing the virus. Hong Kong, with its densely-packed population of 7.5 million, has held the line at 1,066 confirmed cases of COVID-19 to date, and four deaths. But as the threat of COVID-19 wanes, the anti-pandemic restrictions — convenient for Beijing — are doubling as part of China’s tightening chokehold on Hong Kong’s people. They are safer from the virus, but less shielded from the political furies of Beijing.
Bear in mind that one reason the street protests became so big last year, and continue to flare up, is that due to Beijing’s relentless bad faith, Hong Kong’s people have almost no way other than protests to try to influence the decisions of their government. As part of the 1997 handover, Beijing promised to allow Hong Kong universal suffrage, then reneged — leaving Hong Kong with a rigged pro-Beijing majority in the legislature, and a chief executive effectively chosen by Beijing. Then Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam tried to rush into law last year a bill that would have allowed extradition to mainland China. Hong Kongers, desperate to stop this, had no recourse except to physically block access to the legislature — which some did, on June 9, 2019, in the course of a million-strong protest march.
Now, Hong Kong’s vital freedom of assembly, also promised by China, is basically gone. On top of virtually automatic police bans these days on any pro-democracy protest, there are also severe coronavirus restrictions that limit the size of any public gathering. What used to qualify as legal, peaceful protest can now be punished as a transgression. Freedom of speech was already under assault. Under Beijing’s planned new security law, we can expect that “free speech” will mean whatever the CCP wants it to mean, but don’t expect it to be free.
None of this misery is necessary for the smooth running of Hong Kong, a city of enterprising people, steeped in individual responsibility and fully capable of running their own affairs in ways that could have been a great asset to China. But for Xi Jinping, as he takes China in an ever more totalitarian direction, Hong Kong’s vibrant culture of freedom evidently looms as a growing hindrance — by now so intolerable that Beijing is seeking ways not to live with it, and certainly not to benefit from it, but to destroy it, whatever the cost.
Perhaps Xi will limit Hong Kong’s torments to the grinding methods of CCP-style pervasive surveillance, intimidation, indoctrination, and continuing arrests. That would be quite awful enough. But given the courage and determination already shown by Hong Kong’s people, I am not sure even that will produce for China’s Communist Party its desired enclave of compliant serfs. Thus, my foreboding of a Tiananmen contingency in Beijing’s playbook.