- The protests in Hong Kong represent an embarrassment for China, whose usual tools of crushing dissent have fallen short, Evan Fowler, an associate fellow at the Henry Jackson Society and life-long Hong Konger told Business Insider.
- Protests in Hong Kong that started over the narrow issue of a bill that would allow the communist party to extradite its citizens to the mainland have now fanned out into a wider reckoning on the very foundation of the city’s governance.
- “China’s in a position where its usual ways of dealing with unrest have failed” in what Fowler called a “massive loss of face” for the party.
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China’s People’s Liberation Army on Thursday released an over-the-top propaganda video showing its troops forcibly suppressing unarmed protesters and firing both hand-held guns and anti-air missiles in an overt threat towards Hong Kong’s 7.3 million people.
But that hasn’t intimidated the Hong Kong protesters, who continued to march and square off with police the following day.
The protests in Hong Kong represent an embarrassment for China, whose usual tools of crushing dissent have fallen short, Evan Fowler, an associate fellow at the Henry Jackson Society and life-long Hong Konger told Business Insider.
In mainland China, the communist party can simply censor any news it doesn’t like from reaching the public. If members of the public have stories that make the party look bad, it can censor them. China’s communist party detained Huang Qi, a prominent advocate for human rights, to 12 years in prison on Monday.
In 2017, Nobel laureate and democracy campaigner Liu Xiaobo died in a Chinese prison for advocating nonviolent resistance against the party.
In China, if censorship and detention fail, violence is always an option. In Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 1989, the party took this to an extreme, rolling in tanks to kill peaceful pro-Democracy protesters.
Hong Kong’s fight for freedom
Hong Kongers have already tasted the party’s violence, according to Fowler. On July 21 in Yuen Long, a township in Hong Kong, a gang of men in white shirts carrying metal poles descended on a metro station and started indiscriminately beating commuters, leading to the hospitalization of 45, including lawmakers.
Between violence and imprisonment lies intimidation, a tool the party uses well to keep citizens in line. But in Hong Kong, protesters have come up with elegant, low-tech solutions to foil China’s ubiquitous facial recognition software, which could be used to single out and punish individuals in the crowd.
Fowler said it was an open secret that Beijing had been behind the attack.
“The situation in Yeun Long when the triads were unleashed was an attempt to intimidate” the protesters, said Fowler. “It’s a tactic you see on the mainland. Not something that was that unexpected, but the ferocity of the attack was unexpected.”
But the violence didn’t work. Hong Kongers still thronged the streets, demanding the release of detained protesters and pushing back against police and seemingly police-sanctioned violence.
The attack “backfired,” according to Fowler. “All it lead to was people feeling even more angry, even more frustrated with the police.”
“China’s in a position where its usual ways of dealing with unrest have failed” in what Fowler called a “massive loss of face” for the party.
China’s empty threats
Fowler, like most experts on the topic, doesn’t think the party will make good on its threat to send in the troops, precisely because it would be so humiliating, and the party has other tricks up its sleeve.
“I do not think it likely that the PLA will be used, given symbolically what this would represent, that overt action needs to be taken by Beijing to enforce its sovereignty on a Chinese populace,” he said.
Protests in Hong Kong that started over the narrow issue of a bill that would allow the communist party to extradite its citizens to the mainland for show trials over issues of speech and differing opinions have now fanned out into a wider reckoning on the very foundation of the city’s governance.
Fowler called the latest uprisings as “a protest much more in desperation” as “nobody has any hopes of there being any changes or a change of direction.”
Still, the protesters march and demand accountability from their government. They show no signs of backing down, just as China does not.
But sicking the military on citizens could remind mainland China, and the world, that the party’s military, which is the biggest in the world, pledges allegiance only to the party, and not to the people of China.
Elsewhere, China’s reliance on violence has spooked the international community. In Xinjiang, in China’s west, around one million ethnic and religious minorities have been detained in reeducation camps.
At sea, Chinese vessels enter its neighbors waters and often clash violently with fishermen. The party has actually enjoyed remarkable success in de facto grabbing one of the world’s most valuable shipping lanes in the South China Sea and intimidating its neighbors into silence and acceptance, but the Hong Konger’s didn’t fold so easy.
On Friday, Hong Kong’s government workers marched by the tens of thousands. Protesters have announced new plans for further protests reaching into August.
Nobody knows which side will back down or how this crisis could find a resolution, but for now, Hong Kongers remain committed to the fight, and the party has only offered violence in response.