China sits out protests in Hong Kong

Demonstrators in Hong Kong © ISAAC LAWRENCE/AFP/Getty Images
The protest movement seems to be escalating, not fading away

The last two months have seen unprecedented protests in Hong Kong, which continue despite the police using “tear gas and rubber bullets” against demonstrators, and standing by while “thugs” attack them, says The Washington Post. Chinese officials this week broke their silence on the protests. They expressed their confidence in Hong Kong’s unpopular leader Carrie Lam, but also adopted an “uncompromising” tone, hinting that Chinese forces could be deployed on the island.

Beijing may be using harsh language, but if you read between the lines, it is clear that it is treading carefully, says Antony Dapiran in The Guardian. Indeed, the very fact that it is acknowledging the peaceful nature of the protests and the fact that they have been successful in forcing change is “remarkable”, especially “when such a possibility is unthinkable on the mainland”. Its support of Lam was qualified by “veiled criticism” of her policies, especially in the way that the extradition bill, the original spark for the protest, had been handled. And Beijing’s implicit recognition that this is “a purely domestic problem for Hong Kong” would seem to rule out direct military intervention.

If China thought it could get away with deploying troops on the streets of Hong Kong, it would, says Gideon Rachman in the FT. What’s stopping it is a fear that it would not be able to consolidate control given local resistance and that such a move would provoke a loss of confidence, “prompting, international businesses to pull out of the territory”. It would also raise the likelihood of American sanctions – many protestors are “eager to see America withdraw Hong Kong’s special privileges, despite the economic damage that would do”, not only to Hong Kong but the wider Chinese economy. For the moment, it seems most likely that China will wait the demonstrations out, hoping they will lose momentum. “But the protest movement seems to be escalating, rather than fading away.”