By John Schaus
Hong Kong has been gripped by protests since Friday, September 26. The protesters are demanding direct election of the Chief Executive of Hong Kong – which Beijing has agreed to — beginning in 2017. The catch is that at the end of August, Beijing released a report permitting the direct election, but only from a list of candidates approved by a Beijing-selected committee in Hong Kong.
The unexpected scope of the protests combined with hardening rhetoric from the protesters, Hong Kong government, and from China, is leading to comparisons with the 1989 Tiananmen protests in Beijing. China’s leadership has more confidence and tools at its disposal now than it did in 1989 though it faces higher stakes both domestically and abroad. Many westerners are reflexively supportive of groups perceived as pro-democracy, however U.S. long-term interests may be better served examining three broad hypothetical scenarios for resolution of the Hong Kong protests: the empire strikes back; business trumps politics; and one country, two systems.
The first scenario, the empire strikes back, would look frighteningly like the resolution to the 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square. It would involve police, paramilitary, or military forces using live rounds and force to compel an end to the protests. The decisive and immediate end this course of action offers has clear benefits to those in Beijing who seek to demonstrate once and for all that the Chinese Communist Party is in charge, and that dissent is to be limited, courteous, and behind closed doors. It would send an obvious signal to activists throughout China regarding how (or whether) their activities will be tolerated. However, the human and institutional tragedy caused by this approach would fundamentally undermine Beijing’s administration of Hong Kong, and its recent charm offensives with Taiwan and Southeast Asia. It would undoubtedly result in condemnation from numerous countries in the world; could jeopardize short term objectives — a successful APEC Economic Leaders Meeting in November — and longer term interests such as enhancing China’s relations throughout Asia and retaining Hong Kong’s status as a vibrant global business capital. This scenario would likely lead to strong sanctions or other bilateral consequences.
The second scenario, business trumps politics, would stem from Hong Kong’s focus on markets and business re-asserting itself over politics and result in Hong Kong residents returning to work or school. This would require some level of compromise from both Hong Kong and Beijing authorities, as well as from protesters in Hong Kong. A possible deal may include establishing 40 percent of the 1200 seats on the CEO Election Committee to be selected by direct ballot. Likely this would be an agreement brokered by Hong Kong’s business community with the relevant parties. This scenario would result in an agreed-upon outcome, would limit the duration of the protests, and would leave the status-quo largely intact in Hong Kong — with whatever changes required by the agreement. Under this scenario, confining the resolution to Hong Kong-based interlocutors provides Beijing political distance to appear magnanimous, and capitalizes on China’s existing internal political framework. It would likely have the least spill-over to other important elements of China’s domestic or foreign policy.
The third scenario, one country two systems, would involve a change in direction and tone from Beijing, embracing the concept of one country, two systems that has been in place since Hong Kong reverted to China in 1997. Under this scenario, leaders in Beijing would accept an agreement negotiated between Hong Kong protesters and the Hong Kong government, noting very specifically that this is only possible because of Hong Kong’s unique status. A deal under this scenario would involve some combination of an orderly timetable for power transition within Hong Kong, possibly to a caretaker CEO, and a clear set of rules that would allow all parties to freely contest for the CEO position in Hong Kong during the 2017 election. This scenario includes risks to China’s domestic stability, if it is seen as an opening for other activist groups, including those championing human rights or those fighting land seizures, or for separatists in Xinjiang or Tibet (both named as autonomous regions in China). It offers the benefits, however, of ending the protests and returning Hong Kong to normalcy; providing an experiment in democracy for mainland China to study; and of sending a message to China’s neighbors that China is willing and able to creatively solve tricky problems through negotiation.
Avoiding the hypothetical use of force scenario, the empire strikes back, will require creativity and flexibility from both authorities and protesters. The stakes in this ongoing situation are high for Hong Kong and China, and for Asia as well. The United States has been appropriately neutral in comments so far. This situation in Hong Kong will likely get more complicated before it is resolved. Peaceful resolution provides the basis for continued progress in the crucial U.S.-China relationship. A coercive response will likely set in motion constraints that will far exceed those adopted by countries following Beijing’s response to Tiananmen in 1989. Whatever course of action is chosen, navigating U.S.-China relations in the coming months will be even more complicated than normal. The United States will have to rely on experienced, influential advisors to ensure the intended messages are both delivered to and received by China.