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Oct. 3, 2014

Hong Kong and Exporting Liberty

The standoff between Hong Kong and China is heating up.

Pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong are heating up again after several days of relative calm in the streets. Protesters and police seemed to hunker down for a protracted standoff after Sunday’s violent clashes that included tear gas, truncheons and numerous arrests. But the Friday deadline calling for Hong Kong’s chief administrator to step down has come and gone, and Leung Chun-Ying has refused to leave his post. Additionally, the city is coming out of a holiday that had many financial and government services shut down, and the city’s leaders now want the streets cleared so that people can return to work.

A number of city residents clashed with protesters early Friday morning, voicing their support for the Chinese government and demanding that demonstrators clear the streets so that they can go about their day. Police had to break up the fights, but it’s unclear whether or not the residents were prompted by the city’s administrators, who take their orders directly from Beijing. The Chinese government has been known to hire criminal gangs in the past to infiltrate protest movements and commit violent acts to give police pretext to quash otherwise peaceful demonstrations. Deception is a tool Beijing wields with skill.

The whole reason the “Occupy Central with Love and Peace” movement came about was because China went back on its word to allow universal suffrage in Hong Kong. It was announced on Aug. 31 that only candidates who were pre-approved by Beijing would be allowed to run for public office in Hong Kong. The former British colony has enjoyed a wider degree of political autonomy than the mainland since China assumed control in 1997. It was part of the deal returning the territory to China in the first place that Hong Kong residents maintain the freedoms they enjoyed under British rule. A 50-year grace period was put in place to keep the status quo. The formula came to be known as “one country, two systems.” The hope at the time was that Hong Kong would influence the mainland to become more democratic. But the mainland had other plans and has decided to ramp up the pressure.

China has been emboldened in recent years to establish a regional hegemony in which it does whatever it pleases in Asia. Whether it be flexing military muscle over Taiwan, reigniting decades-old territorial disputes with Japan over small islands in international waters, or tightening its authoritarian grip over Hong Kong, the Chinese are seeking a path to greater power. And why not? Despite economic hiccups that much of the world is suffering, the Chinese financial picture has improved tremendously in the last 20 years. The country has the world’s largest workforce, and it manipulates its currency for its own benefit while no other nations are willing to do anything about it.

America’s own lack of will under Barack Obama has certainly emboldened the Chinese. On a swing through Washington this week, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi made a point of sending a message to Secretary of State John Kerry: “Hong Kong affairs are China’s internal affairs. All countries should respect China’s sovereignty.” In other words, butt out.

The only element working in the pro-democracy movement’s favor now is world opinion and China’s fear of it. It’s unlikely Beijing wants a repeat of Tiananmen Square, particularly in an era dominated by social media. Yet, from China’s perspective, they cannot afford to do nothing. If Hong Kong remains shut down, or at the very least in turmoil, China’s economy will take a big hit. The Hang Seng index in Hong Kong dropped 7.3% for the month of September. Worse still, pro-democracy demonstrators on the mainland could be inspired to take action.

The future of Hong Kong remains uncertain, and it’s difficult to know how Beijing will worm its way out of this situation. No one really knows how long support will continue for the “Occupy Central” movement, either. Protesters’ only strategy now can be to let people know just how despicable Chinese rule is, and to keep the world’s attention on events.

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