By Trevor Busch
Anyone watching the escalating anti-government unrest in Hong Kong over the past six months might not have considered a rather ominous anniversary that passed the world by in early June. It has been 30 years since Beijing ordered a military crackdown on another group of pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989, claiming hundreds if not thousands of lives (estimates vary widely even today) across China as the communist leadership rolled tanks and troops on its own citizens.
Hong Kong in 2019 is a markedly different situation, with the semi-autonomous Chinese territory only being handed back to China by the British in 1997 after a long period of colonial occupation which dates back to the 19th century. This alone has probably given the Chinese leadership pause before spilling blood in the streets, but anyone who believes that Beijing lacks the will if push comes to shove hasn’t been monitoring the region’s recent history very closely.
Over the weekend, we saw signs that the mainland government — still an authoritarian communist regime as in 1989 — has had quite enough of anyone advocating for such paltry and trifling things as democracy, due process and rule of law. At Hong Kong’s Polytechnic University, student protesters — who to be fair have upped the ante with authorities by utilizing Molotov cocktails and other escalating violence — were met with a hail of rubber bullets and salvos of tear gas as city police began attempting to clear out the student occupation. Even more troubling was the first appearance of troops from the People’s Liberation Army (PLO) on the streets of the city, nominally involved in clean-up and other non-aggressive activities, but certainly a clear message that should rubber bullets fail, lead will soon be substituted in their place.
At the same time the university was becoming a pitched battleground, Beijing was signaling that its patience is now at an end: “No-one should underestimate (its) will to safeguard its sovereignty and Hong Kong’s stability”, and its UK ambassador has said the central government will not stand idly by if the situation becomes “uncontrollable.” For a now-superpower that wasn’t in 1989 when the world community was a much different place, should any of us really believe the Chinese regime doesn’t now have the stomach to mow down protesters in the streets when its position in the world today is much stronger than it was three decades ago?
While that is an increasingly-stronger argument as the weeks pass by, Hong Kong is still a political hot potato for Beijing’s leadership. A former British colony, the territory enjoys special freedoms, and its citizens are used to living under a system that safeguards many of the rights and privileges that are common in the West. Part of the origins of the protest movement has centered on the perception that many of these freedoms are now being eroded by the central Chinese government. Cracking down on former British citizens protesting for the preservation of their democratic rights isn’t likely to play well for the Chinese in the Western press, or in the West in general for that matter.
But that doesn’t mean the Chinese won’t reach the breaking point, as they may have already. And there have been developments in recent years on the world stage that just might make the conditions ripe for some Tiananmen-style oppression. For one, the UK is now a shadow of its former self — even in 1997 — and bogged down in a Brexit nightmare. The British bulldog is unlikely to physically tangle with the Chinese dragon over the deaths of a few thousand civilians in a former colony, no matter what colourful verbiage issues forth from London. And although Trump’s America is engaged in a full-on trade war with China and relations between the two are at a recent low, there would probably be little more than condemnation on the part of the White House if the Chinese started gunning down civilians.
Added to all of this is the economic and military expansion of the Asian giant in the years since 1989 — now one of the world’s largest economies, certainly a modern military powerhouse — and going to bat for the protesters of Hong Kong would seem to be a rather forlorn prospect. Challenging China — either militarily or economically, as Canada learned recently — isn’t something that doesn’t come without repercussions. Sad as it might be to say, if today’s protesters in Hong Kong believe the world will come to their aid if the Chinese begin a military crackdown, they’d be well-advised to reassess that little trip to cloud cuckoo land.
China itself is really the region’s great conundrum, virtually a capitalist factory for the world clothed in a totalitarian communist regime that tolerates no criticism and is responsible for wide human rights abuses. And it has a rather checkered history with the west and its attitude of modern moral superiority, for good reason.
It has only been in the past 30 years that China has emerged as a modern superpower. Before that, the agrarian flavour of communism endorsed by Mao Zedong hamstrung the new country that emerged post-civil war in 1949 until the loosening of economic restrictions in the 1990s. Starting in the late 18th century and progressing through the 19th, China suffered a series of humiliations at the hands of the Western powers — the Opium Wars in the 1840s, which forced an addicted populace in China to continue allowing Britain’s lucrative opium trade into the country, and the West’s suppression of the anti-imperialist 1901 Boxer Rebellion, are but two examples — and the final pre-WWII indignity of Japanese occupation and later Cold War isolation have taught the present Chinese leadership that when the West comes calling with flowery words they almost certainly always have an ulterior motive in mind.
Coupled with increasingly-aggressive territorial moves in the South China Sea and other signals that the Chinese are ready to take a more active role in throwing their substantial weight around are only more nails in the coffin of the idea that democratic preservation is destined for longevity in Hong Kong. From the perspective of this observer, protesters in that city really have little conception of just how dangerous their situation is considering the wider geo-political implications.
Famed for his blunt statements, it was Chairman Mao himself who once said, “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” If the Chinese leadership decide to take that phrase to heart on the streets of Hong Kong, the pro-democracy movement will be the first to learn a bloody lesson about how power politics are still played in Beijing.