BRANDON J. WEICHERT | THE WEICHERT REPORT
The reports have come in from disparate sources over the last few weeks about fundamental changes occurring within the makeup of the police and military forces that Beijing has deployed against the pro-democracy movement currently protesting in Hong Kong. China has deployed more and more overt military units against the innocent people of Hong Kong, sending them from Shenzhen into the core of Hong Kong. Meanwhile, the Hong Kong police force has been effectively coopted by elements from Beijing. And, the Chinese Communist Party has covertly infiltrated much of the pro-democracy movement with their spies. Many in the West have come to believe that China’s response to the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong will be somehow different or less severe than the regime’s response to a similar youthful protest that occurred in the early 1990s in Tiananmen Square.
These analysts are wrong.
In fact, the Chinese regime understands fully that, as American pressure in the “Trade War” ratchets up, and as China’s footprint in the world becomes larger and larger, the autarkic Chinese Communist Party has never been weaker to internal disruption. For the last few years, China’s authorities have cracked down harder on the Falun Gong and moved with great alacrity to ensure that the seemingly endless rebellion of Tibet is finally broken by encouraging larger numbers of ethnic Han Chinese to emigrate to Tibet at faster rates. Beijing has also built a network of concentration camps meant to imprison and torture the large Muslim populations of their westernmost Xinjiang province (the Muslim Uyghurs). What’s more, since Xi Jinping’s ascendancy to power in 2012, he has spent considerable time breaking apart the incredible (and growing) Christian communities that have arisen over the years in China. In November 2017, Chinese authorities leveled the largest Christian megachurch in China on the grounds that it was preaching ideological deviation from Chinese Communist Party teachings. For their part, the Catholic Church has effectively allowed itself to be annexed by China’s government, in order to gain access to the Chinese populations, thereby allowing for Catholic doctrine to be watered down into something that the CCP can manage.
Hong Kong and Taiwan
Throughout all of these moves, the twin issues of what to do about British-built Hong Kong and Taiwan, the tiny island democracy that Beijing views as nothing more than a breakaway province, have proven to be a dire concern to China’s leadership. Indeed, Hong Kong is viewed as a testbed for how the regime will ultimately act against the U.S. ally of Taiwan. Some analysts have assumed that the absence of bold and provocative actions against Hong Kong’s increasingly brazen displays of independence implies that Beijing will neither act too aggressively against the protesters in Hong Kong nor will they move too harshly against Taiwan, out of fear of provoking the West’s ire (especially as tensions continue to grow between the two sides over issues related to trade and technology transfer).
The absence of overt violence does not indicate intention, though. The steady increase of Chinese military and CCP-friendly police and internal security forces into Hong Kong over the past month belies a larger truth: China intends to strike. And, when they do, it will be swift and the West will be caught unawares. The CCP learned its lesson from the Tiananmen Square protests. A cumbersome and bloody show of force will not help the long-term objectives of the regime. Western governments will impose sanctions and seek to make China pay for its violence. So, if China can prevent the powerful images of pro-democracy resistance in the face of overwhelming autocratic force, their objective of preventing a sustained Western backlash in the economic realm will be achieved.
This explains why, despite the brazenness of Hong Kong’s protesters, the Chinese authorities have not yet used force against them. Better to let the protesters exhaust themselves as Beijing settles in for the long-haul. And, unlike the 1990s, when China was still a developing economy, the China of today is a modern economic juggernaut. Media outlets have cautioned Beijing against acting to harshly against Hong Kong lest Beijing effectively kill the goose that lays the golden egg (the Heritage Foundation ranks Hong Kong as the most economically free place in the world, with the United States being ranked much less economically free than Hong Kong). But, in anticipation of these events, President Xi has striven to diversify the economic miracle of Hong Kong away from Hong Kong and into other places that the CCP has firmer control of, such as nearby Shenzhen, which is a leading hub of technological innovation in China today. Xi likely hopes that whatever economic damage will be incurred from his persistent, if silent, war against Hong Kong can be mitigated through this diversification strategy.
China in Hong Kong Will Be Silent But Deadly
As the situation continues to deteriorate in Hong Kong, one should not expect to see tanks mowing down the protesters in the ways that they did to the protesters in Tiananmen Square. Instead, one should expect a more shadowy approach. The leaders of the protest movement have already identified themselves. With each public outcry against Beijing, the Chinese authorities gather more intelligence on the ringleaders, and they determine who must be arrested. Already, two prominent democracy leaders have been arrested in Hong Kong. Judging from how little Western press has followed these developments, it stands to reason that this drip-drip approach to tamping down the democrats of Hong Kong will be Beijing’s preferred method. Once the ringleaders are gone, the body of protest will wither, and Hong Kong will be brought to heel. In the run-up to the current crisis, Beijing had spent years under President Xi replacing Hong Kong leaders with more pro-CCP leaders, as a way of strangling the protest movement before it could begin. The relatively silent death of the Hong Kong protest movement will be followed on with the total cooption of Hong Kong’s leadership by the CCP.
The Chinese took the wrong lessons away from their experience to the Tiananmen Square protest. They did not learn from years of sanctions that they should not slaughter their own people en masse. Instead, China’s leadership learned that, to avoid Western backlash, destroy the dissidents silently and slowly. Without the splash of a man standing in front of an oncoming tank, as had happened during the Tiananmen Square protests, the Western media will not be so focused on the painful death of democracy in Hong Kong. Besides, President Donald J. Trump has mistakenly praised President Xi’s leadership during the crisis. He did this probably because Trump was solely focused on resolving the ongoing Trade War with Xi, and he rightly recognized that inflaming the situation by going after Xi’s tyranny in Hong Kong would be an unwise move. But, on the matter of Hong Kong, one cannot simply mind the possibilities of a better trade deal (there is no such thing with the Chinese leadership, by the way). Instead, the U.S. president should have recognized that, as Hong Kong goes, China will be ineffably strengthened to further resist American will. And, as Hong Kong goes, Taiwan will soon go as well–and that conflict will inevitably draw in large number of American forces in a very bloody and dangerous conflict.
Right now, Xi is learning how to pacify the West in Hong Kong. His strategy is working. I fear the pro-democracy protesters are doomed. They must continue to protest for quitting now would only allow the Chinese authorities to squelch them with relative impunity. The continued protests at least offer the chance of global attention, which just might slow the inevitable down. Whatever lessons Xi learns in Hong Kong will most certainly be applied to Taiwan. Already, Xi has promised that he will reunite Taiwan with the rest of China under his rule, it is merely a question of when and how. Also, Xi has indicated a time table that, while imprecise, belies a time period closer to now than down the line. None of this is in America’s interest. Therefore, the president should do a better job of standing in solidarity with the Hong Kongers and he must understand that China’s ultimate goal is to first dominate Hong Kong fully and then take Taiwan.
Be sure to follow Brandon J. Weichert via Twitter @WeTheBrandon.