How Hong Kong Protests Impact U.S. Strategy

History is critical in helping understand geopolitical stakes and what the future may hold

By Perry Gershon - Warrior Maven Contributor

Hong Kong Protests – America and Allies Need to Set Clear Expectations

(Washington, D.C.) Hong Kong – long a cosmopolitan and international city open to global travel, trade, and commerce – saw a new round of demonstrations this week, where police used tear gas and water cannons to suppress protestors engaged in an “unauthorized” march. In fact, as of mid-September, Hong Kong had endured 15 consecutive weeks of unrest. Hong Kong – a “Special Administrative Region” of China, subject to “one country, two systems,” is what you might call the eye of the hurricane – but not just because of chaos in the streets.

In fact, the most important thing to recognize about these protests are the roles they are playing in the context of a number of much larger geostrategic issues – from the trade war between the U.S. and China and the weakening Chinese economy to wider regional implications, including China’s future role as the dominant power in Asia.

History is critical in helping understand geopolitical stakes and what the future may hold. More to the point, what happens in China now will affect all Americans.

In 2014, Hong Kong’s non-violent protests were suppressed by China. At that time, the protestors simply sought universal suffrage in electing Hong Kong’s chief executive. They lost. They got no debate, prosecution of non-violent protestor leaders, banning of a democratic party, and then China began kidnapping pro-democracy booksellers.

Since 2014, something has changed. Many in Hong Kong now see the struggle as existential, worth high risk. They believe Hong Kong is at a tipping point. They are watching the terms and conditions surrounding Hong Kong’s relative independence slip away. Promises made during Deng Xiaoping’s rule are vanishing, and President Xi has no term limits.

To China, the protests represent a different kind of threat. In the context of China’s deepening economic woes, the U.S.-China trade impasse, China’s outsize global ambitions, and an absence of priority on human rights, democracy in Hong Kong is taken by China as a security challenge.

Like all totalitarians, the Chinese Communist Party fears People power, or the advance of individual liberty at the expense of government control. If Hong Kong were granted suffrage, they may fear Macau, Xinjiang and Tibet would be next. Taiwan might feel emboldened. Even the Chinese heartland, held down to now, might become restless.

In short, Communist China is gripped by events in Hong Kong – and what they mean for other parts of China. In August, the protests looked so threatening that China prepositioned – and seemed ready to deploy – the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) on Hong Kong’s border.

Using the Army to suppress Hong Kong’s protestors would have sent a global chill – and still could. Human rights abuses would stack up quickly. China’s ability to regain a reputation for which Xi has strived would suffer. Moreover, such a move would – or should – unify the West. The president’s trade gambit notwithstanding, a crackdown would have to be roundly condemned – triggering sanctions, severing supply chains and commercial relationships.

China’s economy would have taken a major hit if Hong Kong were subject to martial law, which is in effect what would happen if the PLA intervened. Fully 72 percent of China’s direct foreign investment runs through Hong Kong. It is the center for trading Chinese currency and Hong Kong’s stock exchange is capitalized at $4.2 trillion.

At present, China’s GDP growth is the slowest in almost 30 years, debt high and margin for error narrow. The country has also been hit with a massive swine flu epidemic, killing 100 million head of swine – a Chinese diet staple. Recent numbers suggest slowing growth from industrial output to retail sales.

In many ways, the Hong Kong protests could not have come at a more inopportune time. They complicate trade, security and global relations for China. But there may be a silver lining. If the Administration and Congress can be clear about expectations, including preserving basic rights and promises for Hong Kong – not sabre rattling but a clear defense of freedom – China might see value in pulling back.

The result would be – or could be – peace and a restoration of democratic norms for Hong Kong, respect for China’s restraint, and by China for Western aims, as well as that long-overdue trade deal. This would make resolving Hong Kong peacefully a win-win, saving American farmers and supply chain members their jobs and incomes, while sending a signal to China that the world expects human rights and kept promises.

Will this logical course be followed? Will diplomacy, peace and a win-win be pursued to closure? No way to know, but level heads would say – that is the way America should be going, seeking a peaceful resolution by setting clear, idealistic but workable expectations.

Perry Gershon is widely-recognized business leader and national commentator on business, trade, policy and politics. A former congressional candidate for New York’s first district, he holds a BA from Yale and an MBA from Univ. of California.

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