[OPINION] China’s soft underbelly

Jose Antonio A. Custodio

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[OPINION] China’s soft underbelly
For other countries with axes to grind against China, in the next several decades Hong Kong will always provide an opportunity to hit Beijing where it hurts

China is a formidable country. The world’s oldest continuing civilization. The largest population. An economy that is still very powerful despite recent negative indicators. Awash in cash. An intimidating military. It appears invincible.  

However, it has one very soft spot…and that soft spot is courtesy of British greed almost 200 years ago: Hong Kong.  

A slice of land that the British carved out of Imperial China and ruled for a century and a half, it was isolated from the strife of the decaying Qing Dynasty, the corruption of Chiang Kai Shek’s Koumintang, and the inhumanity of the Maoist era. It was that unique experience that molded the people of Hong Kong to what they have become: a cosmopolitan, quite entitled, and fiercely opinionated people. So very, very different from the rest of mainland China.  

Which is probably why that idea of one party, two systems has not really gone anywhere. There is, after all, a time limit to that full integration in less than 25 years. Although there are already people in Hong Kong who support that, it does appear that a very significant portion of the population think otherwise. For to accept it means losing the identity that set them apart from the rest of the People’s Republic. And the clock is ticking fast towards that day of full integration. 

It is true that British rule was no democratic paradise for the people of Hong Kong. However, it was not Imperial British colonial systems that engrained concepts of liberties in the people there but that of exposure to the world as a hub and portal to the East and the West, creating that peculiar brand of freedom that has proven to be a bane on the SAR Chief Executive and Beijing in particular. 

Some people in Hong Kong say that the society just has too much freedom. When one looks at the way the Hong Kong government handles the disturbances, it does seem to be a valid observation. An example: protesters have disrupted a number of times the operation of the Hong Kong International Airport. Yet, they are still allowed to occupy a section of the airport lobby following every disruption they caused. That would be unacceptable in many countries, the United States and the United Kingdom included. 

Protesters shout bloody murder and wish fire and brimstone at the Hong Kong police, but there have been no killings and no use of lethal live ammunition by the security forces. Contrast that to the Philippine National Police that is on a killing spree that has cost the lives of thousands of poor Filipinos in the nominally-democratic and universal suffrage-practicing Philippines.  

In fact, we can say that the HK government is paralyzed by indecisiveness for fear of committing actions that would provoke more unrest. This is then seized upon by the protesters, who take advantage of the indecision and further push, poke, and provoke the HK government and police. (READ: Memes and satire on Hong Kong’s frontlines)

This dismissive attitude by the protesters towards the HK government has evolved into challenging Beijing’s authority. The demand by the protesters for universal suffrage and the termination of the extradition bill are examples of the challenge thrown Beijing’s way. During the latest airport disruption, several Chinese mainland individuals were roughed up by the protesters in full view of the media. One can only imagine the overdrive being done by China’s 50-cent armies to paint what is happening in Hong Kong as a threat to national security. 

It would be the height of naivete to think that this entire crisis involves only the protesters, the SAR government, and Beijing. Quite predictably, other countries with axes to grind against China have joined the fray. Taiwan has been a source of materiel and moral support to the protesters. The United States is very much suspected by HK’s security officials to be a source also of considerable financial assistance to certain pro-democracy political groups in the territory. Unlike the rest of China, these official and unofficial support by foreign entities can be done overtly with little interference from the SAR government. All Beijing can do is watch in frustration and wish for the integration clock to move faster – not unless they can accelerate it unilaterally, which is what probably some hardliners in Beijing might want to happen.  

For such countries mentioned, in the next several decades, Hong Kong will always provide that opportunity to hit Beijing where it hurts, regardless of the integration policy. Beijing’s traditional paranoia of mass movements being threats to central authority will be stoked whenever Hong Kong goes into convulsions.

The problem for Beijing is that this is not a case of ethnic Muslims in a hidden secluded part of China. Nor is it a case of a traditional exercise group developing into a grassroots mass movement. Hong Kong is a territory of millions of dissatisfied but highly intelligent, skilled, capable, and influential people in a gateway to and out of China. It would be a disaster of great social and economic proportions to have a bloody crackdown done by Chinese forces on the protests, as it would result in international condemnation that would harm Beijing on all fronts. (READ: Chinese military personnel parade near Hong Kong border

At this moment, Beijing has to contend with a trade war with the US that it is not winning, and it would be foolhardy to rock the economic boat with unneeded economic sanctions from the European Union and elsewhere. If Beijing does commit forces, it has to do it in a forceful but careful, non-indiscriminate way, although American hardliners would love to see Beijing unleash armored units on a rampage in HongKong, which would only play into Washington DC’s hands.  

Of course, Beijing can consider waiting everything out until it completely integrates Hong Kong a generation from now, though that does not mean that people in the territory will sit idly by and just let that happen without frustrating it along the way. Or that foreign rivals of Beijing would not enact laws and introduce policies that would help the protest movement in Hong Kong just to keep China distracted with that persistent domestic problem. Among China’s foreign rivals, there is always that hope that Hong Kong could be a symbolic beacon that would encourage others in restive parts of the People’s Republic to act up and keep Beijing preoccupied. 

It is apparent that the protest movement is very much aware of that weakness of Beijing. The slick grassroots and international propaganda and information campaigns of the protesters highlight the need for international attention and support for them. Even the choice of places to congregate and demonstrate involves major tourist spots, like downtown Kowloon and the international airport. Protesters have waved both UK and US flags in order to attract the attention of the officials and public of those countries, which would ensure continued support. A combination of domestic issues in Hong Kong and geopolitical and international trade interests has transformed this crisis from a local one to one with global implications that may even threaten China’s future ambitions.

When China got Hong Kong back in 1997, it might have entertained the thought that it had obtained a priceless crown jewel. What it probably got instead was a piece of braised beef in a bowl of noodles that was simply indigestible. – Rappler.com 

Jose Antonio Custodio is a security and defense consultant. He specializes in military history and has post-graduate studies in history from the University of the Philippines. He occasionally teaches history and political science in several universities in Metro Manila.

Read other Thought Leaders pieces on the Hong Kong protests by the author:

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