GP Insights # 120, 10 August 2019
The Hong Kong protest assumed a robust political significance with China issuing a strong warning to the protesters, saying their attempts “to play with fire will only backfire”. Until now the silence of the mainland Chinese administration was only watched for but when on 7 August, Yang Guang, a spokesperson for the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office (HKMAO), said "radical demonstrations" have pushed Hong Kong "to the verge of a very dangerous situation", it is a warning that the silence is now wearing thin.
He warned the protesters not to "mistake restraint for weakness". Since the beginning of this week, a call for a general strike has caused severe disruption with more than 200 flights cancelled.
What is the background?
The protest in Hong Kong is now in its ninth consecutive week. The agitation which started with a demand for an independent inquiry into alleged police brutality and the complete withdrawal of a controversial extradition bill has now widened its demand to seek the resignation of Hong Kong's leader Carrie Lam and freedom and protection from mainland Chinese authorities. The demonstrations have led to violent clashes with police. The protests are seen as a challenge to Beijing's authority in Honk Kong.
What does it mean?
The strong warning could imply several possible Chinese interventions. Firstly, it is essential to note that Guang’s voice in support of Lam and warning on the serious impact of the protest on Hong Kong’s economy is the second briefing in two weeks. Thus, strongly indicating Beijing's waning patience. The tone and remarks by the state media are getting harsher by the week extending support to the Hong Kong’s police and authorities. Since then the protests have also expanded and seen more violent clashes with police, culminating into a rally and continued strike in the international airport.
Secondly, even though a possible military intervention has been anticipated, China has only limited itself in conducting police drills for example as Guang’s warning came by more than 10,000 mainland police officers gathered for antiriot drills in Shenzhen just across the border from Hong Kong. Police with riot shields practised on mock protesters—firing tear gas, blocking blows from improvised weapons and extinguishing flaming wheelbarrows. The messages are getting stronger, but Hong Kong may not walk the Tiananmen square memory because protest has come in the backdrop of an escalating trade conflict with the international world, including Trump and Taiwan, watching to see if China mishandles itself.
Thirdly, the protests have appeared mainly leaderless and unpredictable, involving "flash mob" style civil disobedience and voting through social media apps. This has made it impossible for PLA to arrest anyone group or leader to throttle the movement. Thus PLS is limited to only stationing its troops and not interfere in the local issues.
Lastly, the other implications of the protest have been on the economy and connectivity. More than 200 flights into and out of the city have been cancelled as the airport workers joined the strike. Besides, the state-run tabloid Global Times has come out strongly on the multinationals saying that if they do not appear in support of Beijing over the Hong Kong protests, they will suffer business consequences.