To Beijing, unruly citizens staging sometimes violent demonstrations on behalf of principles barred in the mainland are a great embarrassment and even a threat.
The great game of international chicken that did not occur in the 1980s was the United Kingdom holding a referendum on Hong Kong’s future rather than negotiating with China. Territorial legislators generally opposed the handover to Beijing while London consciously refused to consult the residents.
Had Hong Kongers voted for independence or continued UK control, then Deng Xiaoping’s government, early in the reform process and only shortly beyond a costly conflict with Vietnam, would have hesitated to use military force to retake the territories. However, it is hard to imagine a later Chinese government not revisiting the issue and refusing to accept no for an answer.
Hong Kong, essentially stolen by the world’s then dominant imperial power from the enfeebled Qing Dynasty, was reclaimed by the People’s Republic of China to great fanfare in 1997. Even many ethnic Chinese around the world were proud to see what they conceived of as historic China rather than the ephemeral PRC overcome yet another humiliation inflicted by the West.
Beijing promised to preserve the unique character of what became a Special Administrative Region for a half century. Hong Kong would be an anomaly, an outpost of liberty and tolerance in what remained a dictatorship capable of great violence, as in Tiananmen Square in 1989. And for years the PRC largely kept its bargain. A journalist friend said that in the early years Chinese authorities may have intervened less in his field than had British colonial administrators.
However, that world changed in 2014. And while Beijing is the source of growing restrictions, it is Hong Kong’s own activists—call them simultaneously impassioned and irresponsible—who accelerated a process that otherwise might have taken much longer. Misjudging their own leverage, democracy protestors set in motion forces that could result in political cataclysm. Wat is needed is mutual forbearance, which appears to be absent on both sides.
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