Report

How Hong Kong’s Unrest Plays to Beijing’s Hawks

Hard-liners say the protests only prove that America’s hidden hand is everywhere.

Protesters hold placards and shout slogans as they take part in a rally against the extradition law outside the Legislative Council building in Hong Kong on May 4.
Protesters hold placards and shout slogans as they take part in a rally against the extradition law outside the Legislative Council building in Hong Kong on May 4. Anthony Kwan/Getty Images

BEIJING—“Tough fighter” was Carrie Lam’s nickname earlier in her career, based on her ability to get the job done. That steely reputation helped her snag Hong Kong’s top post as chief executive in 2017. But by then, Lam had a less flattering nickname, stemming from the 777 votes she won from the 1,194 mostly pro-Beijing business and political elites on the Election Committee who selected her. She was dubbed “Seven”—which in the local Cantonese slang could be an expletive meaning an impotent person.

Today even worse names —“traitor,” for one—are being hurled at Lam. Critics say the Hong Kong police used excessive force on June 12 by unleashing rubber bullets, water cannons, tear gas, and pepper spray against mostly young demonstrators protesting a controversial bill backed by Lam and her Beijing patrons that would allow extradition to mainland China. With her approval ratings plummeting, Lam was asked by reporters if she’d “sold out” to Beijing. She fought back tears and said: “How could I do that? I grew up here with everyone else in the city.”

The roots of the crisis lay not with Lam—nor even in Hong Kong—but more than 1,200 miles away, in Beijing. Hong Kong’s turmoil represented residents’ deep distrust of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s autocratic regime, which Hong Kongers fear is encroaching more and more on the “one country, two systems” autonomy that Beijing committed to for 50 years when China reclaimed Hong Kong from Britain in 1997. They see Beijing’s judicial system as opaque and politicized, and they fear the bill will allow people in Hong Kong to be extradited and tried in mainland China’s notorious courts for any reason, even political dissent. Right now, Hong Kong does not have extradition agreements with mainland China, Taiwan, Macau, and other places.

While the timing of the crisis took Beijing by surprise, there are signs that China’s leaders are looking to exploit it for their advantage. Already scrambling to resolve an escalating Chinese-U.S. trade war, Xi and a phalanx of senior foreign-policy aides were traveling in Central Asia when the violence flared. China’s heavily censored state-run media either studiously ignored the protests (focusing, say, on Kyrgyz agriculture instead) or spun it furiously. “I believe Beijing did not want this crisis,” said David Zweig, a scholar at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and director of Transnational China Consulting Ltd. “Carrie caused it” by resorting to tactics that were “unnecessary and ill-formed,” he said.

Even so, the Hong Kong unrest may be playing into the hands of Beijing’s hard-liners as they navigate escalating tensions with Washington, analysts said. The clashes emboldened Chinese hawks prone to see the invisible hand of foreign forces at work everywhere. On Wednesday, the Global Times, a Chinese state-owned newspaper that often airs nationalistic voices, declared that “without powerful interference from foreign forces, especially the U.S., opposition groups would not have the capability to enact such violent incidents” in Hong Kong.

As a result, the one faction that is clearly benefiting within Beijing’s leadership consists of the hawks who’ve been whispering in Xi’s ear that China needs to hang tough because the Americans are out to sabotage its rise anywhere they can. “Does this strengthen the hand of Chinese hard-liners? In short, yes,” Zweig said. “The events in Hong Kong feed the idea that the U.S. is out to undermine China’s stability, sovereignty, and national security.”

Even before the Hong Kong crisis, the more hawkish party mandarins seemed to be flying a bit higher, if official rhetoric is any gauge. Over the past month, China has ratcheted up its anti-U.S. sloganeering against the backdrop of the Chinese-U.S. trade war. It has dusted off Maoist-era accusations of U.S. “bullying” and shown films about the Korean War in which heroic Chinese and North Korean soldiers vanquish U.S. and South Korean troops.

Even earlier, tensions between China and the United States began spilling out of the trade realm into visa policies and travel warnings, restraints on academic exchanges, a dip in Chinese tourist numbers to the United States, and U.S. companies being subjected to nominally routine hassles such as inspections and audits. Then there’s the friendship between Xi and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. Xi was meeting Putin in Moscow as Western leaders commemorated D-Day at Normandy. The Chinese leader declared Putin  “one of my closest friends,” officially upgraded bilateral ties, and added his imprimatur to the Chinese firm Huawei’s unveiling of a new deal to help Russia launch its 5G network. Around the same time, Russian and U.S. military vessels nearly collided in the East China Sea, with video footage suggesting the Russian ship was at fault. “The rising hegemon needs a partner, it needs more weight,” Zweig said, “so that it can say to the U.S., ‘If you want a new fight, you’ll be fighting on two fronts.’”

Amid all these geopolitical shifts, Carrie Lam and the frustrations and fears of Hong Kongers may be little more than pawns. Since Hong Kong reverted to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, the chief executive’s job has increasingly become a mission impossible. Lam is trying to juggle the aspirations of local residents—accustomed to the capitalist economic system, independent courts, and press freedoms that Hong Kong had enjoyed under British administration—with Beijing’s increasingly domineering rule. In recent years, China’s Communist Party authorities have chipped away at Hong Kong’s judicial independence and freedom of the press, triggering fear and despair among many local residents, especially young ones. As many as 1 million people—nearly one out of seven residents—took to the streets Sunday in the biggest demonstration at least since the 2014 pro-democracy Umbrella Movement. The massive protests also revealed how much residents loathe the idea that Hong Kong is relentlessly morphing into just another Chinese city.

Lam clearly failed to read these passions well. Underestimating public sentiment about the extradition issue, she argued that Hong Kong needed the bill to avoid becoming a fugitive haven. But her unseemly haste in trying to bulldoze the bill through the local legislature enraged many residents. Mostly peaceful protesters returned Wednesday, but after smaller groups holding bottles, metal barricades, and other projectiles faced down police after dark, Lam called the resulting melee a “blatant, organized riot”—punishable by 10 years in prison—and the police cracked down. More than 70 people (both police and protesters) were injured, two seriously.

One U.S. consultant and longtime Hong Kong resident called the police tactics tantamount to “taking a sledgehammer to a walnut.” She said Lam has lost all credibility among Hong Kong’s youth: “The young kids feel abandoned. In the end Beijing’s going to win—and everyone knows it.”

By Friday, a tense calm prevailed on Hong Kong streets—though it easily could have been the calm before another storm. Hong Kong authorities were discussing a “pause” as opposed to a withdrawalin the extradition bill’s passage, which was virtually pre-ordained since pro-Beijing legislators have a majority. Protesters, meanwhile, called for a mass rally Sunday and a citywide strike Monday. Despite her earlier, defiant support of the bill, Lam may find it prudent to backpedal for awhile to avoid new clashes. Beijing doesn’t want a crisis in Hong Kong right now. China’s mandarins are superstitious and are especially anxious to prevent anything untoward from marring this year’s key anniversaries, in particular the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China on Oct. 1.

For Beijing and its hard-liners, the risk also remains that pushing Hong Kong too hard could further isolate China. Criticism of the extradition bill and police tactics has poured in from international capitals. The fallout could rattle business confidence in Hong Kong and impact the territory’s special trading status with Washington. Lam’s original aim was to see the bill passed within weeks. If that happens, warned U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, it raises the question of whether Hong Kong is “sufficiently autonomous” to be granted a special trade arrangement with the United States.

That arrangement is enshrined in the U.S.-Hong Kong Policy Act, which differentiates the enclave from mainland China in many commercial, economic, and diplomatic areas. “Hong Kong enjoys levels of technology transfer, tariff-free access, and other things that are quite valuable to Beijing,” Zweig observed. Depending on how intense the criticism of China becomes—and of course on his own whim—U.S. President Donald Trump could, if he wanted to, “take all that away with the stroke of a pen. Everything.”

Such a scenario would be a setback for Beijing and a virtual death knell for Hong Kong, which relies on its freewheeling, capitalist trading persona to survive. And the last thing Beijing wants is to enhance Washington’s leverage by giving it a new bargaining chip in the on-again-off-again Chinese-U.S. trade talks.

But for now it seems unlikely that Beijing is going to soften on Hong Kong. The Trump administration’s unpredictability continues to “discombobulate Chinese leaders, but their trade-war strategy clearly is to protect their flank, re-group, and reduce their dependence on U.S. tech and other products and services,” said James McGregor, a U.S. executive, author, and longtime China resident. “America should be using this as their ‘Sputnik moment,’ to re-energize our systems. Beijing will also use this as its ‘Sputnik moment.’”

This suggests Chinese leaders will remain ready to exploit a U.S. hidden hand in far corners of the globe—from Africa to the Arctic and everywhere in between—for a long, long time.

Melinda Liu is Newsweek’s Beijing bureau chief and the co-author of Beijing Spring, about the events of April-June 1989.

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