The Chinese government says the Hong Kong demonstrators are radicals using “conduct close to terrorism” to wrest their home back into the Western camp. But terrorists and zealots rarely apologize for violence or promise to learn from their mistakes.
No, the protesters in Hong Kong are not the small band of pro-Western troublemakers who Beijing wants the world to see, however wrong their moment of violence at the Hong Kong airport on Tuesday was. They are young people, a great many of them, who ardently don’t want to come further under the repressive rule of the Chinese Communists.
That’s not hard to understand, given how China has treated its dissidents and ethnic minorities like the Uighurs or Tibetans. But the authorities in Beijing understand something else: The protests are no local matter, but a direct challenge to the Communist Party’s control. The broad demands for more self-rule, as well as for investigations into the police’s use of force, strike at the very heart of the party’s fiercely held monopoly on power and coercive violence.
In earlier times, when China was more secluded from the world, Beijing might not have hesitated to go in and crack down on the protests, as it did at Tiananmen Square 30 years ago. But China today is a global economic power, and any direct intervention in Hong Kong would have global consequences, especially at a time when Beijing is already embroiled in a nasty tariff war with the Trump administration. So far, China has limited its reactions to disinformation and threats.
Yet Hong Kong poses an intolerable affront for a leader as stern and unyielding as Xi Jinping, who has steadily sought to increase China’s control over the troublesome enclave and bristles at any Western criticism. An editorial in Global Times, an outlet for the leadership’s views, described the Hong Kong protests as a “color revolution” by radicals determined to turn the city into a “base for the West to subvert China’s political system.”
In the beginning, when the protests focused on legislation that would have made Hong Kong residents vulnerable to extradition to the mainland and its politicized courts, Beijing was willing to retreat. The Hong Kong government eventually backed off from, but never killed, the bill, and the protests swelled into a leaderless, passionate, social-media-driven uprising essentially encompassing the city’s future and its character.
Over Monday and Tuesday, the protesters went too far. Thousands descended on the Hong Kong airport, seriously disrupting operations, scuffling with travelers and beating at least two men from China. At one fraught moment, a riot police officer cornered by protesters drew his gun but did not fire.
By the standards of more violent corners of the world, it was not a terrible clash. But Hong Kong’s role as a financial, commercial and transportation hub rests on its reputation for order and efficiency and the openness and politeness of its people. The scenes of chaos and violence at its normally impeccable airport threatened a huge disruption of the city’s economy, and came as a shock even to the demonstrators.
On Wednesday, contrite protesters came out with apologetic posters and posts. “Please accept our sincere apology to all travelers, press reporters, paramedics,” read one. “We will learn from our mistakes.”
The difficulty now is to ensure that the eruption of violence at the airport not be a point of no return, after which Mr. Xi concludes he has no choice but to react, but rather a shock that drives both sides back from the precipice. The United States and its allies have a distinct interest in the latter.
For that to happen, Carrie Lam, the leader of Hong Kong, and her superiors in Beijing must show restraint and convince the people of Hong Kong that they will not further erode the citizens’ rights and liberties, enshrined until 2047 in a treaty with Britain. President Trump, who has so far limited his reaction to saying, “Everyone should be calm and safe,” should join with Britain and other allies in insisting that China honor Hong Kong’s special status, and in making clear that any use of armed force to crush dissent would lead to stern and certain sanctions.