international analysis and commentary

The Hong Kong protests and the art of war as applied by Beijing


The Chinese characters 以逸待劳 (or yi yi dai lao) translate into “make your enemy tire himself out while conserving energy” by the famed Chinese strategist Sun Tzu (The Art of War, Chapter 4). What follows on in the text might as well read as Beijing’s overall strategy for dealing with the ongoing student-led protests in Hong Kong, the most significant challenge to party rule since the seminal 1989 events in Tiananmen Square.

For Sun Tzu continues, “It is an advantage to choose the time and place for battle. In this way you know when and where the battle will take place, while your enemy does not. Encourage your enemy to expend his energy in futile quests while you conserve your strength. When he is exhausted and confused, you attack with energy and purpose.” And that is precisely what Chinese President Xi Jinping has done, and why the protestors are abandoning their reformist efforts. The Communist leadership has been using, not for the first time, a very old Chinese playbook to maintain order.

Step one: do nothing
In a sense, the current political crisis in Hong Kong is one where both sides were correct. Protestors are enraged that the city’s unpopular Chief Executive, C.Y. Leung, has proven so unresponsive to their demands that they began calling for his resignation. More importantly, they desire that the election of his successor (due to take place in 2017) allows for open nominations. In essence, what the protestors wanted is a democratic system as we would define it.

In turn, Beijing counters that it is for the first time allowing for universal suffrage to select the winning candidate (amongst the Party’s carefully vetted nominees), itself an unheard-of luxury. This loosened authoritarianism is what the Party has always meant by “democracy”, allowing some freedom of choice cocooned within continuing party control. This basic difference of opinion over the definition of democracy lies at the heart of the recent crisis.

Of course, the three month long Hong Kong protests – the first serious political questioning of the Party in a generation – plays into China’s larger domestic security concerns, particularly regarding halting “splittism” in restive Xinjiang province and Tibet, as well as renegade (in Beijing’s eyes) Taiwan. The Party leadership strongly feels that to acquiesce to the Hong Kong protestors would be to encourage similar revolts in the far-flung provinces. One of the pillars allowing the Party to maintain its political legitimacy is to be seen as a strong upholder of Chinese nationalism, not allowing the country to descend into chaos, as happened with the end of the Qing dynasty in the early 20th century.

But if proving strong is necessary, President Xi also desperately wanted to avoid a repetition of the Tiananmen Square massacre of a quarter century ago, which so badly damaged the government’s standing in the rest of the world. And so the Party’s overall strategy has been to do nothing, and let time take its course. The city’s communist-dominated leadership only met with student leaders once, in a meeting that simply revealed the two sides were canyons apart. As the protestors made it a centerpiece of their strategy to blockade busy downtown Hong Kong streets, they succeeded all too well in blocking traffic and slowing commerce, an absolute no-go for the economics-first, thriving city.

As such, as the protests limped into their third month, there has been undoubted and increasing local anger. A recent survey by the University of Hong Kong shows that an overwhelming 83% said that protests should cease, while just 13% believed they should continue. Meanwhile, many protestors chose to get on with their lives; numbers dropped from tens of thousands to merely a hard-core remnant of around 1,000.

In fact, enraged local business leaders obtained a court order to remove the protest camps, after they were interfered with over these past months. This was the legal excuse the Party was waiting for, allowing the authorities to move forward with the second phase of their security strategy.

Step two: strike at the time of your choosing, when your enemy is at its weakest
On November 26th, with only hundreds of protestors left manning the barricades and the court order in hand, the authorities struck, clearing the Mong Kok protest site. In the course of doing so, two of the most charismatic student leaders Joshua Wong (the 18 year-old leader of the High School activist group Scholarism) and Lester Shum were arrested, along with more than 100 individuals.

Now enraged, and leaderless, the protestors escalated the situation, a course of action the Party was hoping for as it alienated public opinion. The Hong Kong Federation of Students called for a response to the police’s use of violence in clearing Mong Kok earlier in the week. The plan was for the student-led protestors (numbering in the low thousands) to move location, and now surround government headquarters. At last, the Party had the even better excuse to crack down that it had been looking for.

Step three: attack when your weary enemy begins to make mistakes
On November 30th, within hours of the escalation, the reinforced authorities – using dogs, wielding batons, and employing a pepper spray said to be six times stronger than tear gas – forced the demonstrators out of the road tunnel they had barricaded. The clashes were perhaps the most violent since the movement began, with 40 protestors arrested and a further 40 taken to hospital.

But the Party sensed there was an opportunity here in the protestor’s increased radicalization, and the local communities yearning for a return to stability. The attack on government buildings, a direct symbol of the Party’s monolithic power, had crossed a line for the leadership, which argued it is merely, if strongly, engaged in the self-defense of both the Party and the country. Opportunistically repression was thus undertaken in the name of national security and national pride. At the same time, in refusing to talk to such a radical rabble, C.Y. Leung and the rest of the Hong Kong leadership could more plausibly refuse to engage in the sort of negotiations that were the only vehicle through which the protestors just might achieve some of their aims. Xi and the Party leadership, skillfully avoiding both concessions and real carnage, have played the Sun Tzu gambit almost perfectly, and the strategy has worked.

Step four: reap the benefits of dividing your enemies
With this failure, the protest movement has predictably begun to fall apart. On December 2nd, the older leaders of the Occupy Hong Kong movement – who along with the students have formed the pillars of the protests – announced that they were giving up, and urged the students to do the same. Now a fragmented and demoralized opposition is all that is left. By following his resolute strategy in terms of domestic security, Xi has managed to neutralize this grave challenge. Whether the democratic yearnings that led to the protests in the first place can be so easily quelled is another question.