The People’s Republic of China stands at an historic crossroads at it celebrates its 70th anniversary under the dominating grip of President Xi Jinping. Since assuming leadership in 2012, President Xi has focused on consolidating and solidifying power at home and projecting Chinese influence firmly abroad. The outcome of the current crisis in Hong Kong will inevitably shape this process for years to come and clearly presents Xi with one of his greatest domestic and foreign policy challenges.
Although triggered at the end of March by a proposed law to extradite suspects in Hong Kong to mainland China, the current crisis is largely a reaction to years of gradual encroachment by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) on Hong Kong’s autonomy. The 1997 handover of Hong Kong from British to Chinese rule was underpinned by the “one country, two systems” principle. However, the notion that Hong Kong would remain a purely apolitical, economic-business center was not realistic for the long-term. Politics would eventually, and somewhat inevitably, come to the forefront, and now it has.
In its attempt to push for the extradition law, the CCP clearly overplayed its hand. However, certain elements within the current protest movement are proving equally capable of overplaying their own hand, which increases the risk of a worst case scenario: that is, a massive and comprehensive crackdown by mainland security forces in Hong Kong.
The possibility of the Beijing taking firm action increases the more it believes that local authorities are incapable of quelling the protests in Hong Kong. The CCP fears being undermined, with the risk of spillover into the mainland.
The CCP has clearly threatened to actively deploy the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in Hong Kong. Its willingness to carry out such a threat, if it ultimately determines it necessary, should not be underestimated. In fact, the number of PLA troops in the city has quietly doubled to 12,000.
The Beijing leadership’s greatest fear is national fragmentation. It is willing to counter this existential threat in any way possible in order to maintain order, even in Hong Kong as a last resort. They will conveniently seize upon the words and actions of a minority in the protest movement – some even calling for the end of mainland rule and Hong Kong independence – to paint the entire movement as made of “separatists” undermining China’s national unity in line with “criminal splittists” in Taiwan, Tibet, and Xinjiang. Anyone in Hong Kong actively disrupting civil order even risks being branded “terrorist.” Basically, any form of dissent that the CCP expediently sees as a threat to central authority is considered an enemy of the state.
For the CCP, the serious threat of fragmentation fundamentally outweighs the risks posed by business leaving China altogether in case of a crackdown. The People’s Republic would pay an enormous economic price if Hong Kong’s status as a leading international financial center were threatened. However, many in the CCP are confident that in the long-term it can economically overcome any fallout if the current crisis ultimately requires direct intervention in Hong Kong. Again, what matters most is national unity above all.