18 February 2019
The People's Armed Police could be used if the local police are unable to clear the streets of the protesters. Photo:
The People's Armed Police could be used if the local police are unable to clear the streets of the protesters. Photo:

Beijing’s options: sacrifice CY Leung or call in the troops

As the leaders in Beijing watch the images of clashes and arrests in Mong Kok, they are increasingly angry and uneasy. They ask if the police have the means and the Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying has the ability to control the long-running protests.

As the demonstrations enter their fourth week, they increasingly follow the script of the mainland media — not a simple cry by Hong Kong students for a change to the electoral system but a challenge to the central government.

The strongest rhetoric came last Tuesday in a speech by Zhang Xiaoming, the director of the Liaison Office in Hong Kong. “The illegal assembly violated the ‘one country’ system, challenged Beijing’s authority and ignored the Basic Law. The demonstrators have jeopardized the foundation of the rule of law and the relationship between Hong Kong and the mainland,” he said.

Speaking in Moscow on Oct. 11, Vice Premier Wang Yang said the west supported the protesters to make a “color revolution” — like those that brought down the Communist regimes of eastern Europe — and the best response was for China and Russia to improve their strategic partnership. This was music to the ears of Vladimir Putin, who regards the break-up of the Soviet Union as the greatest tragedy of the 20th century.

All this indicates how seriously the leaders regard the events in Hong Kong — however normal is life outside the areas of protests. People go to work, children go to school and the horses race around the track, bewitching tens of thousands of spectators.

The leaders have different options on the table. One is to dismiss C.Y. Leung and appoint a new, more popular leader who can establish a better relationship with the students and the public and bring an end to the protests.

Beijing judges Leung like any other city or provincial leader. Obedience is the first criterion for approval: competence and efficiency are the second. While he has stuck meticulously to the script on political reform set by the National People’s Congress, he has failed to sell it to the majority of the Hong Kong population and has been unable to stop or diminish the protests.

When protests occur in mainland cities, the first priority for Beijing is to control them and clear the streets. The second is to ask how and why they occurred —  why didn’t the city mayor and Communist Party chief see them coming and take pre-emptive action? Like the protest leaders, these two also face an accounting of their behavior.

These are the circumstances that led to the resignation of Tung Chee-wah in March 2005. Like Leung, he was following the political agenda — Article 23 — as set for him by Beijing. But he did not make a persuasive case for it with the public or many local politicians. It provoked widespread protests — the peak was 500,000 on July 1, 2003. In December 2004, then president Hu Jintao criticized Tung in public for his poor governance.

By getting rid of him and withdrawing the bill for Article 23, Beijing was able to end the protests and start with a clean slate; it averted the crisis.

If it goes with this scenario, it will replace Leung with Carrie Lam or John Tsang; the latter is more likely, since he enjoys a higher popularity rating and has not been involved in the issue of political reform. The resignation would be enormously popular with the public; for many, Leung — more than universal suffrage — has become the issue.

Tsang would talk to the protesters in exchange for their ending the protests and agree to represent their views to the NPC. He could be seen as both the representative of Hong Kong as well as the appointee of Beijing.

That is the best-case scenario — clearing the streets, dialogue between the government and the Hong Kong people, no more bloodshed and no intervention by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) or the People’s Armed Police (PAP).

But there is another option. If the leaders truly believe that the protests are an international conspiracy funded and organized by the west to destabilize Hong Kong and stop the peaceful rise of China, then it is a more serious matter. Changing the chief executive and having a dialogue are too soft and a concession to the students — and the “western anti-China forces” which the mainland media refer to so often.

Under this option, the PLA or PAP would have to be used because the police are unable to clear the streets. This is a threat to the authority of state and the government. The protestors must see the iron fist — the machine guns and the tanks — and realize their impotence and be taught a lesson.

God save us from this scenario and all the terrible consequences that would result. But it is on the table. The longer the protests continue, without a resolution, the more likely it becomes.

– Contact us at [email protected]


Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker

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