Over the past week, protests once again shook the streets of Hong Kong, as tens of thousands occupied the region’s CBD. Many of them were university students like myself, and I could see them from where I interned, their umbrellas fluttering like daisies in the wind and rain. According to much of the world’s media, they were gathered in opposition to the passage of a new extradition bill, which would give Beijing the right to extradite to China Hong Kong residents accused of crimes under China’s notoriously opaque and party-dependent legal system. But—as important as this issue is—most protesters I spoke to felt they were there for something bigger. They felt that this was their Thermopylae, a stand against an encroaching Goliath. And they wanted the world’s attention.
Like China’s proposed reforms to Hong Kong’s electoral system, which triggered the protests of 2014, the extradition bill seems to these protestors to be yet another step in the mainland’s quest to control and eventually dismantle democracy in Hong Kong. The narrative of these protests has therefore become entwined with that of the trade war between the United States and China, and the even wider conflict between democracy and authoritarianism. The US Secretary of State’s meeting with Hong Kong’s pro-democracy leaders in May and his subsequent remarks on the thirtieth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre certainly give the impression that the protesters have US support, so much so that Chinese outlets have accused the American government of covertly engineering the current unrest. Chinese commentators have also been quick to connect the situation in Hong Kong with deteriorating Sino-American relations, arguing that it is all part of a US strategy to exploit Chinese instability and erode Chinese sovereignty. It seems clear, then, to both sides that these events may be the proxy for a larger battle, in which the fate of communist China itself hangs in the balance.
In this battle, the side of regime change faces perhaps the greatest challenge of liberal international politics: what should be done to aid the transition from an authoritarian political system to a constitutional democracy? It is a question that both the protesters and the US must think through carefully, because here, given the great power of China, the most emotionally satisfying or ideologically forthright response might need to be avoided.
The protesters’ response has been confrontation—a position heroically and hauntingly embodied by the tank man. This is also the response broadly favoured by the West, as well as by people who sympathize with the goal of regime change. They believe that strength has to be met with strength, that diplomacy will forever be hostage to the status quo and that the status quo means defeat. The protesters and their advocates have not forgotten that China’s promise to leave Hong Kong’s capitalist system and way of life unaltered for fifty years expires in 2047: a date most of them will live to see. Unless regime change occurs, China will never relinquish Hong Kong. Democracy will not survive.
It is thus understandable that the protesters want confrontation—and understandable, too, that the response of Western governments has been to openly support the protesters’ cause, to attempt to pressure China into regime change at what seems like an opportune moment. But, as Henry Kissinger has noted, if there is one immutable rule of modern Chinese foreign policy, it is that China never submits to foreign pressure. This dictum, which began with Mao, has played out repeatedly in recent history, from the Korean War to the Taiwan Strait crises to the Sino-Vietnamese and Sino-Indian Wars. In each case, faced with foreign threats, China chose to attack first. Politics and diplomacy came afterwards. Pre-emptive attack is the Chinese answer to the Western practice of deterrence. They know that, if they respond to pressure by going to the negotiating table, they will lose the negotiation before it has even begun. Therefore, Chinese strategy emphasizes the psychological aspect of international politics—a tradition that dates back to at least The Art of War. When faced with superior forces, the goal must be to strike first, so as to restore the psychological equilibrium. Then negotiations can be conducted on terms more favourable to the weaker side than their actual military or material resources warrant.
That is the Chinese mind-set and it corresponds with their historical experience. The series of unequal treaties extracted from China by the western powers during the nineteenth century—a period the Chinese call the century of humiliation—have made it clear to this most historically conscious of nations that concessions can never again be the answer. Give an inch and he will want a mile, the Chinese saying goes. The fact that the leasing of Hong Kong to the British was a product of those treaties will only harden Chinese attitudes. Those who seek to engage China in a battle of wills must remember that modern China is historically habituated to and therefore strategically proficient at manoeuvring in the face of foreign pressure—even, perhaps especially, if it is overwhelming. There is no better evidence of this than the way the middle kingdom was able to confront both the US and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, deploying the aforementioned psychological tactics to become an independent third player between two superpowers both of which far out-muscled it.
The protesters therefore ought to be aware that their actions could backfire—that by encouraging the involvement of foreign powers to elicit concessions they may make China even less willing to compromise. These demonstrations may also make Beijing even more paranoid about Hong Kong’s freedoms and more likely to apply further controls. Similarly, the US ought to understand that the more China identifies these protests as part of a US-led design to undermine Chinese stability, the more the protests invite the Chinese response of a pre-emptive attack: probably on the protesters rather than the US. It is conceivable that China may deploy the arm of the People’s Liberation Army stationed in Hong Kong to swiftly crush the protests in a show of force, to restore psychological parity with the US. This is an outcome that hopefully no one wants.
What, then, should be done? For those in Hong Kong who yearn for democracy, who truly believe that regime change in China is the only way to keep their freedoms and to bring the same promises of liberty to their fellows on the mainland, I believe it is not in their best interests to prolong confrontation. They already have the sympathy and support of the West, and their brave actions so far have served to remind us why they are necessary. It is highly unlikely that they can cause the extradition bill to be abandoned, though—to their immense credit—they have managed to get it suspended. Further demonstrations will probably only exacerbate relations with the mainland and place more of Hong Kong’s liberties in jeopardy.
For the US, open confrontation is not the best path towards influencing regime change in China. While a firm stance might vex Chinese leaders, it returns China to a position in which it has learned to thrive and is deeply comfortable. Moreover, the US thereby provides the communist government with a perfect opportunity to rally its millions of nationalist supporters, allowing it to boost domestic morale and obscure the many internal problems the Chinese system faces. Instead, the US should learn from Chinese strategy. It should hide its brightness and bide its time as the favourite proverb of Deng Xiaoping goes, and try to tap into the developing problems inherent to China’s authoritarian system, rather than apply external pressure. Indeed, it should take advantage of the fact that modern China is, in the broadest sense, not used to the success it now enjoys, that its government, which relies on stoking the fires of nationalism for its authority, might increasingly rule over a population with aspirations it cannot satisfy.
Perhaps the best way for the democratic world to spur a democratic transition in China is to facilitate the development of those aspirations. This involves treading the fine line between subversion and confrontation. But if America and the West truly want to spread democracy to the Chinese people, they must embrace, not alienate them.