Opinion: Hong Kong is in a fight for its freedom

Tom Watkins

What is transpiring in Hong Kong has me worried.

In 1949, Mao Zedong stood at the gates of Tiananmen Square proclaiming the founding of the People’s Republic of China saying “the people of China have stood up.”  For the last several weeks, the people of Hong Kong have stood up — asserting their rights and demanding their freedoms. 

What is transpiring in Hong Kong is reminiscent of that similar protest in Beijing 30 years ago. I should know: I was in Tiananmen with those protesters for three nights and have been a student of China for more than a half century.

A protester shows a placard to stranded travelers during a demonstration at the Airport in Hong Kong, Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2019. Protesters severely crippled operations at Hong Kong's international airport for a second day Tuesday, forcing authorities to cancel all remaining flights out of the city after demonstrators took over the terminals as part of their push for democratic reforms.

In 1989, Chinese students gathered in Tiananmen Square, calling for an end to corruption and for greater “freedom and democracy.” We know how that protest ended. It was not pretty.  

After weeks of restraint, the Chinese Liberation Army, at the behest of the Communist Party’s top leadership, turned on the Chinese people. It is estimated by Western news outlets that thousands of protesters were killed and maimed by their own government. The Chinese government disputes these statistics but reality is hard to deny. 

Hong Kong on paper is an autonomous territory in southeastern China, largely free to manage its own affairs based on a “one country, two systems” — a national unification policy developed by Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s. They have a degree of autonomy: an independent judiciary and freedoms not allowed on the mainland. Hong Kong has been “guaranteed” this distinct system of rule until 2047. Those protesting feel these guarantees are quickly eroding. 

A protester, center, calls on Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam to step down as she and others continue protest against the unpopular extradition bill near the Legislative Council in Hong Kong, Monday, June 17, 2019.

Today, Hong Kong is in its tenth week of mass, city wide demonstrations initially instigated by a controversial bill that would have allowed criminal suspects to be sent to the Chinese mainland for trial under their opaque justice system. The protests have grown to push a range of issues opposing Beijing’s Communist Party's growing influence. Frighteningly, both sides show no signs of backing down.

The rhetoric and impact of the protest are heating up with an unprecedented cancellation of all flights out of Hong Kong, one of the busiest international airports in the world on consecutive days. This has ratcheted up the rhetoric from Beijing with threats becoming sterner and more frequent. 

This past weekend the protesters shut down the Hong Kong International Airport providing an accented middle finger to the Chinese Party in Beijing.

Perhaps the most prophetic yet is a Chinese official saying “terrorism” was emerging in Hong Kong. If the protests are defined as “terrorism” then the “terrorists” will be dealt with severely by Chinese military.

In 1989 hardliners battled with those sympathetic to calls for greater freedom and democracy on how to respond to the growing protest. After weeks of Chinese leaders being perceived as being indecisive and weak the order came from Chinese senior leader, Deng Xiaorong to crack the whip and to strike hard against the “hooligans and troublemakers” — and strike hard they did. 

Testing Beijing's patience 

How long before China’s ruling party with an authoritarian, preeminent leader and president for life, Xi Jinping, a man who expects his dictates to be followed and is not averse to using massive force, loses patience? 

The anger and frustration is reaching a flash point in the Chinese Capitol city of Beijing. To date the Communist leaders have shown great restraint hoping the protest flame would burn itself out. There have been countless official warnings coming via editorials in the China Daily and Xinhua News Services mouthing the party line as the Hong Kong protests have lingered on.

The Chinese leaders are under massive internal pressure with the Trump tariff trade war, a slowing economy, and an anxious citizenry adjusting to a new normal after a nearly 40-year economic run.   

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam leaves after a press conference at the Legislative Council in Hong Kong, Tuesday, June 18, 2019. Lam apologized Tuesday for an unpopular extradition bill that drew massive protests and indicated that it will not be revived during the current legislative session.

Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, is seen as a puppet of the Chinese Communist Party and perceived by many Hong Kongers as an illegitimate local leader more interested in touting the Chinese Party Line than responding to the needs of her citizens. She is being mocked by her own constituents. Lam has proclaimed, “Such extensive disruptions in the name of certain demands or noncooperation have seriously undermined Hong Kong law and order and are pushing our city … to the verge of a very dangerous situation.” She appears impotent and devoid of ideas to peacefully defuse the crisis and is perceived as mouthing empty threats — so far. 

The people of Hong Kong are testing the Communist Party’s patience and resolve with their continued defiance. Yet the classic precondition for a successful negotiation —victory for both sides — seems illusive at best. While there are multiple fingers that could be pointed at who’s responsible for the chaos it is imperative that all sides exercise restraint, reject violence, and take urgent steps to deescalate the crisis. Dialogue must replace violence before violence becomes the ultimate solution.  

Medical staff wearing eyepatch and face masks take part in a protest against police brutality on the protesters, at a hospital in Hong Kong, Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2019. Demonstrators have in recent days focused on their demand for an independent inquiry into what they call the police's abuse of power and negligence. That followed reports and circulating video footage of violent arrests and injuries sustained by protesters.

When will they say enough is enough and order the streets to be cleared of millions of Hong Kong protesters including children and the elderly? There have been calls “to protect (the Chinese) national sovereignty, security and stability.” What methods will be implemented to do so, remains undefined.

The Chinese state media have shown armored personnel and troop carriers supposedly driving to Shenzhen, ironically the city that opened China to the world which borders Hong Kong. The Hong Kong “freedom fighters” are testing the Chinese. A warning, a threat or a bluff? 

How will this end?

Stein’s Economic Law is in play: "Things that can’t go on forever — won’t." 

How will the West, most notably the U.S., United Kingdom, Germany, and France, respond if a bloody military crackdown is ordered, heads are split open? What if Hong Kong protesters are severely injured and casualties pile up?

Protesters hold pictures of Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam as protesters march along a downtown street against the proposed amendments to an extradition law in Hong Kong Sunday, June 9, 2019. A sea of protesters is marching through central Hong Kong in a major demonstration against government-sponsored legislation that would allow people to be extradited to mainland China to face charges. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)

History demonstrates that Chinese leaders must be more wary from internal challenges to their “mandate from heaven” (divine mandate to rule) than external threats.

Xi Jinping may gamble he can sustain the fallout from Western democracies of a brutal crackdown better than he can the perception that he is impotent , weak, and indecisive in the eyes of his own people.            

Will the Chinese leaders adopt the adage that you pay the same price for half measures, you may as well adopt bold moves?” 

Let’s hope that Hong Kong does not become the 21st century Tiananmen Square. 

Tom Watkins is a China/U.S. business and educational consultant. He served as Michigan’s state superintendent of schools and president and CEO of the Economic Council of Palm Beach County, Florida.