Adam Ni, China researcher at Macquarie University in Sydney.
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What is going on? China’s top Hong Kong policy office, the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office (HKMAO), has just held a press conference in Beijing (3pm) on "the continuing protests in Hong Kong.
The press briefing reiterated Beijing’s position: strong support for the HK government led by Carrie Lam and law enforcement, denunciation of protests, and “one country, two systems” as Beijing’s bottom line. However, HKMAO also acknowledged the economic grievances of young people, which is an important factor behind the public unrest gripping HK.
All in all, Beijing’s tired rhetoric on the rule of law and “one country, two systems” is just simply that. The Chinese Communist Party rules by law, and does not respect rules of law, including China’s constitution itself. On “one country, two systems”, Beijing has been undermining this model by tightening its grip on HK for some years. The current wave of protests is partly a response to this.
Beijing is unlikely to send in its military to suppress the protesters anytime soon. The PLA was not mentioned at the press conference at all. The crisis can only be solved politically, any military response short of overwhelming force would lead to further resistance. Also, the political risk of sending in the PLA for the CCP, both domestically and internationally, is simply too high at this point.
Essentially, Beijing just doesn’t have any simple short term answers to the current impasse. Heavy-handed responses will likely back fire, but responses that are perceived to be weak may provoke more resistance. Faced with determined protesters, the incompetent HK Government, and international pressure and attention, Beijing is trying to exert all its leverages in the hope of muddling through. But really, the situation on the ground is very fluid and Beijing is finding it hard to come up with an effective strategy.
Ongoing crisis and escalation: the continuing mass protests is in its eighth week. Clearly, a broad cross section of HK society has lost confidence in the HK and Beijing Governments. They are not happy with how things are going. There is no end in sight to what is the biggest political crisis since the handover of HK to China. In fact, the likelihood of continued escalation is rather high.
Heart of the contradiction: Beijing wants to integrate and assimilate HK into the PRC’s political system while Hong Kongers wants to keep the limited political independence and civil rights that they current have. These goals are fundamentally incompatible.
Beijing’s HK problem is here to stay. Beijing has contributed to it by systematically undermining the “one country, two systems” in recent years. In doing so it has provoked a stronger local identity and a culture of resistance. For the Chinese Communist Party, the continuing crisis in HK is not only a direct challenge to its authority but also damaging to its domestic prestige and international reputation.