By P.K.Balachandran/Daily Express
Many see the on-going pro-democracy agitation in Hong Kong as a prelude to a massacre of protestors of the kind one saw in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989. This expectation is based on the theory that history repeats itself.
But for history to repeat itself, the objective conditions must be similar or comparable. However the fact is that the conditions in 1989 and 2019 are not comparable. The world in 2019 is not the same as it was in 1989 when tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square and carried out a massacre of youthful protestors.
China under Xi Jinping is unlike what it was under Deng Xiaoping. Though both regimes are undemocratic as per the Western yardstick, China is no longer as tightly controlled and as ill-liberal as it was under Deng. China in 2019 is not as closed and insecure about being part of the larger world as it was in 1989, though Deng had by then initiated liberal economic reforms.
Under Xi, China is now wanting to be an economic model as shiny as the Western one is. It wants to be a global power primarily by portraying itself as a dispenser of high quality infrastructural development across the developing and developed world.
Xi apparently realizes that the brutish response of the government of China to the pro-democracy agitation in the late 1980s is not suited to the image China he is creating now – a China which is a harbinger of peaceful global development with mutual gain as the motto in contrast to the Western colonial model which was iniquitous and exploitative. Such a world view militates against brutish internal and external policies.
Under Donald Trump, the US of 2019 is not the US under George W Bush in 1989. Bush pursued an aggressive foreign policy with military interventions. But Trump wants the US to withdraw from overseas commitments which have been draining the Treasury.
And in contrast to his predecessor, Barack Obama, Trump is turning a blind eye to human rights violations in various countries. He has left it the media and human rights organizations to protest against rights violations in Kashmir and Xinjiang. These bark but do not bite and have little or no impact.
Under Trump, the US has been withdrawing from international responsibilities, which the US had taken upon itself to underscore its post-World War II global power status. Currently it is desperate to withdraw from the 18-year long imbroglio in Afghanistan. As regards Hong Kong, all that Trump has said is that the Chinese are massing the military on the China-Hong Kong border. But he followed this with another tweet which appealed to Hong Kongers “to be calm and safe.”
With Washington under Trump and Beijing under Xi being what they are, there is little likelihood of pro-activity in regard to the brewing crisis in Hong Kong. The two capitals may allow the agitation to dissipate itself out of economic necessity rather than subject it pro-active measures and worsen it.
In the past, Hong Kong’s authorities have assuaged protest movements with direct political concessions or let them fizzle out on their own. That was the case with the 2014 “Umbrella Revolution”, when the public started to lose sympathy for the protesters who had camped for weeks along a major thoroughfare and “occupied” areas close to Hong Kong’s legislature. This time too, the Hong Kong government has withdrawn the controversial “Extradition Bill” which allowed the Hong Kong government to extradite persons to China if China considered them to be politically undesirable.
Michael C. Davis of Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a Washington D.C. think tank, told Today’s World View that the hardliners in the Beijing might want stern action bypassing the “autonomous” Hong Kong regime of Carrie Lam, but they know that the costs would be high. A head-on clash between the Chinese army and Hong Kong’s citizens would not only end up in a bloodbath but have devastating consequences for the city’s economy. And givenits place as a global logistics and financial hub, world too will suffer.
An AFP story quoting Wu’er Kaixi, one of the leaders of the 1989 Tiananmen protests, said that China has learned the lesson that the price of using the military is “very high”.
The US may, however, use the US-China trade talks to pressurize Beijing to be accommodative to the democratic demands of Hong Kongers. US Vice President Mike Pence said on August 19, that “it would be much harder for us to make a [trade] deal if something violent happens in Hong Kong.” Mike Pompeo, US Secretary of State, said on August 20 that Beijing and Washington may not reach a deal if the China violently cracks down on the mass protests in Hong Kong.
But according Global Times these threats will not work. In a recent opinion piece the official organ said: “China-US trade negotiations will have to take diverse interests into account, ranging from finance to technology. Amid the current China-US strategic competition, the Hong Kong problem is a US bargaining chip to negotiate with China, but not a decisive one.”
“Although the Chinese central government hopes the chaos in Hong Kong can end as soon as possible, it will not make concessions in trade talks with the US with regard to the Hong Kong affair.”
The Global Times further said: “The Chinese central government has made it clear that it firmly supports the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) government in governing the city according to law. The Hong Kong police in strictly enforcing the law and the Hong Kong SAR judiciary in punishing violent criminals.”
“It has constantly warned the US and other Western countries not to meddle with Hong Kong affairs. Though the chaos may not end very soon, the probability of violence waning is high, but for the odd flare-up at critical moments. The escalation of violence over the past few months has upset many ordinary Hong Kongers and the public will voice louder opposition to violence.”
In an atypical move, China kept in abeyance the contentious Extradition Bill even in the early stage of the protest movement. And the SAR Chief Executive Carrie Lam had called for talks. But no talks were held with the leaders of the protest movement. This is because Beijing will not be able to accept their demands. The demand is for full democracy with universal adult franchise. In 1997 Beijing had solemnly pledged that when Hong Kong becomes part of China, it will be allowed to have an independent democratic political system under the policy of “One Country Two Systems.”
But, as a Hong Kong columnist pointed out, after 22 years, there is still no sign of a legislature elected by universal suffrage, promised to Hong Kong under the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s constitution. In the long term Beijing will not like Hong Kong to enjoy more rights than other Chinese provinces. The secret hope may that by the time Hong Kong gets fully integrated into China in 2047, its political system will be similar to what is there in the other Chinese provinces.