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China responded with violence to the worst political crisis in Hong Kong – here’s three reasons why

Catarina Vila Nova

© Ponto Final

In the Summer of 2019, the spotlight of the international community turns to Hong Kong. And more specific: to the hundreds of thousands of citizens demonstrating in the streets. Hailed as China’s gate to the West, and known for being one of the most important financial markets of the world, the special administrative region (SAR) is suddenly embroiled in the worst political crisis of its history. What’s going on? And why is the police acting so violently?

The protests themselves are not surprising, even though they lead to the largest demonstration in Hong Kong’s history. Although registered as a region of China and not a full democracy, protesting is part of Hong Kong’s DNA and, most importantly, a right enshrined in the region’s Basic Law (equivalent to a constitution).

The protest movement of 2019 is kickstarted by a proposed bill that would allow the extradition of Hong Kong residents in order to let them face trial in mainland China – where the judicial system is nothing but a farce. The initial demonstrations soon morph into massive anti-government protests that are, more often than not, met with unexpected police violence. In the end, the protests thus boil down to these same human rights, perceived to be under threat from Hong Kong’s government and police.

What was expected of Hong Kong’s government (and, by default, China), due to the rights granted by its mini-constitution? And why did the police ultimately violate these rights by aggressively responding to the demonstrators? It is this puzzle , that drove me to question: Why did China ignore both domestic and international pressure and instead responded with violence against the protesters in Hong Kong? While the protests are ongoing, the international community has its eyes on Hong Kong, constantly pressuring the government and the police to exercise restraint in responding to the protesters. What the police does is exactly the opposite.

In 440 news articles from The Guardian spanning more than one year and covering the protests in Hong Kong, I searched for clues, justifications, and arguments from a Chinese or Hong Kong government representative that could be used to explain why they employ violence against domestic protesters. I found 151 relevant passages that confirm three hypotheses, which I will outline next.

The first explanation as to why China employs violence against the protesters in Hong Kong focuses on the country’s political leader. This leader is argued to be motivated by his own interest, which is defined in terms of power. My analysis suggests that Xi Jinping’s understanding of power is closely related with reputation maintenance. And this idea itself is closely related with the concept of ‘face’, used to navigate the Chinese society. To ’lose face’ is equivalent to fall below adequate standards. In respect to Hong Kong, to maintain his reputation, Xi Jinping then has to maintain the status quo the protesters were threatening – and he will do whatever that takes, which in this case meant, employing violence.

The second explanation under test emphasizes the international system in explaining the state behavior. Structural (or neo-) realists argue that the main goal of states is survival, which can be jeopardized due to shifts in the balance of power. Now, the United States is one of the most important and significant supporters of the Hong Kong protesters. And China feels that Hong Kong is ‘drifting away’ from the mainland towards its main rival. This means that the United States is becoming more powerful (in the region), at China’s expense. To prevent this shift in the balance of power, China will do whatever it takes to safeguard its position in the international system, including using violence against Hong Kong protesters.

The third possible explanation is the spiral model. Very briefly, this model outlines a five-step process that, once completed, would mean that a country that was initially a norm-breaker becomes a norm-follower. The norm in question is ‘not responding with violence to protesters’, which I argue is an international norm. For this model to be completed, constant international and domestic pressure serve as necessary conditions. The former can be observed with world leaders, NGOs, and the media denouncing China for its actions. Domestic pressure, however, is lacking in mainland China, where support for the protesters in Hong Kong is virtually absent (and/or significantly suppressed and censored). Without this domestic pressure, China will not start to adhere by the international norm of ‘not responding with violence to domestic protesters’.

Summarizing, China choses to ignore both domestic and international pressure and instead responds with violence against the protesters in Hong Kong because of three reasons. Firstly, Xi Jinping fears losing power in the form of ‘reputation’ and ‘face’ regarding Hong Kong; secondly, China responds to a shift in the balance of power that threatens to push Hong Kong away from China and closer to China’s main rival, the US; and thirdly, despite the fierce domestic and international pressure for China to enact policy changes in the human rights domain in Hong Kong, ultimately, mainland China produced close to no support for the Hong Kong protesters, instead accused them of not being patriotic. These reasons are not mutually exclusive and, together, offer a complete and broad explanation for China’s behavior.

If the international community is indeed serious in upholding human rights – not only in Hong Kong but also in expanding them in mainland China –, a balance must be struck regarding how much power China is allowed to have. If, on the one hand, the western liberal democracies allow China to rise to the position of hegemon – and the new Silk Road may well be the path to accomplish this – it will gather all the power it needs to be immune to international pressure. If, on the other hand, the western liberal world ostracizes China, it may well leave it with no other choice but to retain the grip it still holds on its own territory, and aligning even further with other autocracies.