Media reports have been making the rounds about China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) conducting drills and preparing for a crackdown on the Hong Kong protesters in an effort to not only stop the protesters but also send a clear message that there was no going back on Hong Kong's destiny with China.
But such a crackdown will have serious repercussions for both Hong Kong and China. It is bound to wreck Hong Kong's reputation as a thriving financial hub which has also served China well for its international financial dealings; China has benefited considerably from Hong Kong's sophisticated financial culture and its efficacy and resourcefulness. But, even more important, it would destroy the trust and confidence which the world had, slowly, begun to put in China.
Two visiting pro-democracy members of Hong Kong's Legislative Council, Dennis Kwok and Alvin Yeung, of Hong Kong's Civic Party, addressing the Asia Society in New York, said they wanted to present the truth to the outside world about developments taking place in Hong Kong. They are also holding talks with U.S. government officials in regard to a bill which the U.S. Congress will debate next month aimed at closely monitoring future moves in Hong Kong.
The bill, called the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, was reintroduced in June, after the escalating protests in the city; under the Act, the U.S. will evaluate Hong Kong's autonomy each year and establish whether the city should be further given the benefit of the special trade status under the U.S.-Hong Policy Act of 1992. The passage of the bill could have ramifications for China which would face pressure to loosen its stringent control of Hong Kong if the city is to retain its special trade status; any change in Hong Kong's status would, invariably, hit the flow of investment into the city and, also, China.
The Democratic speaker of the U.S. Congress, Nancy Pelosi, criticized in a recent statement the escalating violence against the protesters in Hong Kong, describing the situation as "extremely alarming." According to Pelosi, there is bipartisan support of both Democrats and Republicans for Hong Kong's citizens, and the U.S. aimed to ban the supply of munitions and other crowd-control equipment to the Hong Kong police force.
The two visiting legislators will meet house representatives from both parties, and also take part in the upcoming four-day U.S.-Hong Kong dialogue in Montana.
The legislators pointed out that while the controversial extradition bill had triggered the present wave of protests, the protesters were deeply concerned with the steady erosion of the liberties and democratic values guaranteed under the "one-country-two-system" formula. Dennis Kwok described Hong Kong as "sick," lamenting that the government used tear gas and police batons every time there were mass protests instead of fixing the cause of the problem.
"It's like someone who's seriously ill. And every time the symptoms come out, you just give that guy painkillers, no, expired painkillers, hoping the symptoms will go away."
"All Hong Kong's people want is democracy, as promised under the Basic Law," Kwok said, adding "that promise has failed."
The two legislators questioned Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam's credentials as a true representative of Hong Kong's interests. "The Hong Kong government is not doing a good job," Yeung said. "When Carrie Lam goes to meet [Chinese] President Xi Jinping, is she standing up for Hong Kong people? Is she arguing Hong Kong people's case?"
When asked by this writer about the ongoing reports about Beijing possibly sending troops to crackdown on the Hong Kong protesters, Yeung replied that it would not be in Beijing's interest to do that because it would "certify the end of the 'one country, two systems' and send the loudest message to the rest of the world." The two legislators reminded that the one country, two systems was Beijing's pledge to maintain the city's political character for 50 years after the British handed its colonial city over in 1997, with hopes that by 2047 the systems would have converged, most likely, towards Hong Kong's direction.
Both the lawmakers portrayed Hong Kong's future as a rivalry between two competing systems of government: mainland China's authoritarianism and Western liberal democracy, which Kwok defined as including the rule of law, an independent judiciary, basic freedoms and due process.
Kwok reminded us that the U.S. and all Western countries have a stake in Hong Kong, with Yeung adding: "We're here not to lobby (with) the U.S. government. We're here to tell the truth." He observed that they were not talking about "liberal democracy values in the abstract. In fact, Hong Kong has been practicing liberal democracy values over past 100 years." That made Hong Kong successful. "To sustain and protect an international financial center… we need all these [liberal democracy] values, including free flow of information, freedom of movement, freedom of speech and also, more importantly, the rule of law."
American sinologists and experts on the Straits fear that China may be planning a crackdown on Hong Kong. Jerome A. Cohen, Senior Fellow for Asia Studies at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations, and Professor and Director at the U.S.-Asia Law Institute at New York University's School of Law, said that while China has, thus far, given the Hong Kong government strong backing, there are now "serious signals" that China's patience may be expiring, and the threat of intervention by the PLA is growing. Cohen maintained that agencies and propaganda organs of the Chinese Government have called the protests "terrorist" activities.
According to Cohen, Beijing knows that military repression in Hong Kong would be even more disastrous for its international relations than the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacres; however. Cohen says, Beijing could use force, if necessary.
President Xi realizes that China today is confronted with a more serious challenge than in 2014. U.S. based experts believe that Beijing, after celebrating China's 70th anniversary on Oct. 1, may well deploy the PLA. Should this happen, it would result in tragic consequences not only for Hong Kong and its people, but also for China's world standing and international security. The coming days, weeks and months will provide more clarity on which way the wind is blowing for Hong Kong.
As many Asian people like to say, we live in interesting times.
* New York-based op-ed contributor, expert on foreign affairs and global economics