What will Beijing do now?

August 09, 2019 11:03
People watch the dots of laser pointers move across the facade of the Hong Kong Space Museum during a protest action on Aug. 7. The city’s youth have refused to be cowed down by warnings from the establishment. Photo: Reuters

What are Beijing’s real intentions in Hong Kong? Although many pundits claim to know the answer the reality is that in the hermetically sealed world of a Communist dictatorship access to information from the top is severely limited.

Instead of guessing, it makes much more sense to listen carefully to what Chinese officials say in public and to pay attention to what they do. As matters stand what’s being said and what’s being done is extremely worrying.

First, let’s look at the visuals because they are designed to make an enormous impression. The mobilization of 12,000 police personnel in Shenzhen to display their prowess in a mass anti-riot exercise sent a clear message about who was available to back up the Hong Kong police if and when required.

Shortly before this exercise the People’s Liberation Army released a terrifying video showing how the army would operate in clearing protests on the streets as well as from the air and the sea. In case anyone in Hong Kong was confused about the message the video showed a loudspeaker blaring out the words in Cantonese saying: ‘all consequences are your responsibility’.

Nonetheless the official line is that the Hong Kong police can handle the protests. Beijing is giving unqualified support to the police, but no one else in the embattled Carrie Lam administration. As Zhang Xiaoming, the head of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, put it on Wednesday, only the police can uphold law and order right now. Beijing is clearly indicating that the force can do whatever it takes to restore order. Niceties relating to rules and regulations can be overlooked.

However the threat lingers: should the police falter, Beijing has the resources and willingness to mobilize even more terrifying force from across the border by using the PLA garrison in Hong Kong.
Having made a concession by suspending enactment of the extradition bill, Beijing officials simply refuse to even discuss any other concessions. Zhang vaguely suggested that an independent inquiry might be possible sometime in the future, a promise so vague as to be meaningless. His main theme, as has been the line for some weeks, was the characterization of protests as riots.

Meanwhile a firm veto has been placed on any suggestion of allowing the resignation of any of the headless chickens who make up the Lam government. Instead the Chief Executive in Name Only, or CENO, is kept in place and so-called loyalists have been ordered to give her their support, not because she deserves it or can even vaguely be described as doing a good job but because to let her ago would be a stunning admission of failure, making a total of four out of four failed hand-picked SAR Chief Executives.

Being allowed to stay as CENO means no more than Carrie Lam being largely confined to her office, only allowed out intermittently to read out statements evidently drafted in Beijing that lack even the pretense of using normal Cantonese. A bizarre secret district visit was held this week to try and prove that business as usual prevails, but the unconscious satirists in the government’s propaganda department failed to spot the ridicule provoked by visiting the site of a shopping center not yet built as opposed to going to one where Hong Kong people might be found.

Sometimes the Beijing narrative of what’s going on in Hong Kong sails perilously close to parody as it did at last Tuesday’s State Council press conference when one of the three carefully coiffured spokespeople said with a straight face that it was clear the majority of people in the SAR did not support the protests.

Hitherto Beijing had been toying with the idea of simply allowing time to do its job of exhausting the protests. How do we know? Thankfully we have Maria Tam, the most loyal of loyalists, to have said precisely this. Tam never even scratches her nose without explicit permission from Beijing and is often used as an ‘unofficial’ means of communicating the party’s thinking.

So, here we are: Beijing is hardly offering a carrot and stick approach; the current choice is between either a longer or a shorter stick. The short stick approach allows Hong Kong time to sort out this mess, accompanied by heavy doses of police violence accompanied with lashings of punishment – a word used frequently by Beijing’s mouthpieces. The long stick is significantly more brutal, it can be wielded by the PLA and once that’s done all bets are off. One Country Two Systems, what remains of it, can be consigned to a deep hole in the ground.

Is there a glimmer of light here? Remarkably there is and it sits in plain sight. In case you are wondering, I am referring to the people of Hong Kong, who have stood up to the bullying that was supposed to work when the extradition law was first mooted. Don’t dare oppose it, said those who are always on the wrong side of history, arguing that there was no point in challenging the juggernaut of the Chinese state. Yet Hongkongers were brave enough to challenge and the bill has been withdrawn.

The one thing that bullies find hard to cope with is when their victims turn on them and fight back. Look what happened to the armed thugs who went to North Point to give protestors a good bashing, expecting that, as in Yuen Long, the protesters would be defenseless. They were not, and as soon as they started fighting back the bullies fled.

Those who have no confidence in Hongkongers should keep this image in mind.

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Hong Kong-based journalist, broadcaster and book author. His latest book, Defying the Dragon – Hong Kong and the world’s largest dictatorship, will be published by Hurst Publishers in early 2021.