Special to WorldTribune.com
By Donald Kirk, East-Asia-Intel.com
The demonstrations in Hong Kong are at a critical stage. In the spirit of democracy movements in Korea, the Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand, these protesters are not giving up.
Unlike demonstrators elsewhere, those in Hong Kong have come up with a defense that I never saw when protesters were rampaging through the streets of Seoul in the 1980s, into the 1990s. They’re holding up umbrellas to shield themselves from the torrents of tear gas pouring down upon them.
For all the fervor of the protesters in Hong Kong, however, their valiant stand against the authority of Beijing seems strangely remote, disconnected, isolated from crusades in other large Asian cities.
The conservative government of Korea has no desire to offend Beijing by speaking out in defense of demands for democratic elections even though Korean democracy rose from mass protests against authoritarian rule. And Korean far-leftists amazingly seem on occasion to sympathize with the dictatorship of North Korea, where the least sign of protest means torture, imprisonment and death.
Nor do the Hong Kong protesters get much sympathy in other countries where one might expect them to be admired. Philippine democracy crusaders may rail against U.S.-Philippine war games and against the government of President Benigno Aquino III for handing out funds and favors to corrupt politicos, but they seem barely aware of what’s going on in Hong Kong. As for the communists’ New People’s Army, still spreading terror sporadically around the Philippine countryside, those militants have no interest in a protest led by essentially middle-class young people to whom communism means arrogant rule from Beijing.
In fact, protest in Hong Kong may be more serious than anything we saw a generation ago in Korea. China’s President Xi Jinping is not going to tolerate serious opposition to the heavy-handed, semi-dictatorship that he runs. There’s no way he’s going to give the people of Hong Kong the right to elect their own chief executive, free of control by Beijing. And he’s not about to back down on the ruling that all candidates for Hong Kong’s legislative council have to have Beijing’s approval to run.
So what can President Xi do? We assume he doesn’t want ”another Tiananmen,” a repetition of the terrible episode in 1989 when People’s Liberation Army soldiers roared on to Tiananmen Square in central Beijing, chasing down demonstrators and slaughtering those in their way.
Hong Kong is not Beijing. The central government may have ultimate control, but a bloody end to the current protest could have a rebound effect in which new rebellion broke out not only in Hong Kong but across the line in Shenzhen, the industrial city bordering Hong Kong, and spread to Guangzhou, China’s third or fourth largest city, 130 kilometers from Hong Kong on the Pearl River that broadens into an estuary and empties into the sea between Hong Kong and Macao, the former Portuguese colony.
The prospect of civil war simmers just below the surface. For authorities in Beijing, under Xi’s tight instructions, the solution lies in cutting off services, exercising pressure via economic and political contacts, hunting down miscreants and separating them from mobs massed in the central district of Hong Kong and across the harbor. The drive to suppress revolt may take a long time, but in the end Beijing sees the way to assert its power more firmly than ever before without resorting to rifle fire into rampaging mobs.
The protests, though, are more than just political. They also stand for the desire of enormously wealthy business interests, Chinese and foreign, to remain entrenched in Hong Kong beyond the reach of authorities who exercise far more pressure on similar interests in Shanghai. Yes, Shanghai may have surpassed Hong Kong as a mercantile center, but free enterprise comes with the understanding that final power emanates from Beijing. That’s a lesson that Hong Kongers would prefer not to have to learn.
The fear of revolution overwhelming Hong Kong, spreading like wildfire through southern China, is all the more severe while Chinese authorities deal with discontent and sometimes open defiance from minorities, notably the Uighur population in the north and northeast. Although the central government, ruled mysteriously, secretly, under the thumb of the Communist Party, might appear all-powerful, the country is always in danger of fragmentation despite rising economic prosperity and increasing military displays from the Yellow Sea to the East China Sea to the South China Sea.
The issue is not ideology or the desire to do things differently. The issue is who’s in charge. Yes, it’s hard to forecast an outcome similar to that in Tiananmen Square 25 years ago. The longer the protest goes on, however, the more it’s likely to undermine China’s image and position as a burgeoning world power.
Columnist Donald Kirk has been covering crises in Korea and much of the rest of Asia for decades. He’s at firstname.lastname@example.org.