Democracy is a threat to those who have seized power for themselves or who have grown accustom to government catering to their interests. When threatened, the impulse of the powerful is to compensate for such insecurities by doing whatever it takes to secure their privilege. Whether taking constructive steps like providing benefits to those who might cause them problems or by cracking down on dissenters, the goal is always to make the cost of continued defiance higher than the price of submission.
In general, the emerging strategy of the Communist Chinese government in dealing with the so-called Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong is a two-stage solution. Learning from the Arab Spring Revolutions, the Ukraine Crisis, and other Occupy protests, the reaction of Hong Kong officials to abandon their crackdown on protests out of fears that violence will result in sympathetic support is smart.
After all, the real threat to Communist rule is not in Hong Kong where the Chinese government is only beginning to tighten the noose, it is in mainland China, thus the world can expect far harsher, far more widespread crackdowns in mainland China where the world is not watching. In fact, the world is already seeing examples of this strategy in place as known dissenters are already being targeted.
Given the news about the Hong Kong protests will eventually circumvent the Great Fire Wall and propagate throughout China, the Communist Party is already seeking to frame that news coverage in such a way that it will not resonate throughout the population of China or Hong Kong. So far, they are utilizing three basic frames that all news of the protests will be explained through.
1. The People of Hong Kong are already more “privileged” than the Peoples of mainland China are, thus they are asking for even more “privilege” to disobey the government, a.k.a. freedom, which is unfair and a security risk. Conversely, protesters need to convince others they deserve freedom by fighting for successes that come with freedom.
2. Hong Kong is an economic oasis. Relying on the pure capitalist spirit of investors and Hong Kong residents to oppose the growing threat to their economic interests that the Umbrella Revolution represents, the Chinese government wants to ensure potential sympathizers do not view the fight for democratic freedom in emotional and social terms. In other words, should the people of Hong Kong feel things they value more than money, i.e. freedom and safety from an oppressive regime, are being threatened by the Communist Party, they are more likely to support economically disruptive rebellion. Making China look like an “abusive” bad guy would undercut their very goal of squashing dissent, henceforth, part of the reason China does not want to crackdown on protesters prematurely. As such, protesters need to frame Chinese oppression in terms of economic costs.
3. The protesters are criminals, because they are breaking laws when they are having their protesters. In dry areas of the world, investors and corporations have been legally buying the right to use a region’s water, but it is foolish to think thirsty people will not drink because someone says it is illegal. A legal system is only legitimate when people accept it, thus growing support for protests will make the legal system, a.k.a. the rule of the Communist Party, no longer legitimate. As such, protests turning violent would be the best opportunity for the Chinese government to reinforce the notion that protesters are criminals needing to be arrested and dispersed. Once the protesters have sufficiently tarnished their own image, a crackdown would be welcomed by the Hong Kong People and/or justifiable in the eyes of the Chinese People. What protesters must do, in turn, is ensure they do not give police justification and/or dispel any argument for police action.
Furthermore, timing is everything. Not only is the Chinese government under increasing pressure to squash the Umbrella Revolution due to its spread, the expanding dynamic of the protests makes it only a matter of time before someone goes too far. Where the need to contain violent impulses of dissenters with divergent agendas is clear, the goal of the protests is quickly moving beyond the original goal of truly free and fair elections.
If the protests continue to garner new and long-lasting support, demonstrators will want a greater prize for their added investment in dissent. This means China will no longer be facing a movement to secure voting rights, but rather, a revolution that wants even greater autonomy and/or independence. If the message of the Umbrella Revolution starts to resonate within mainland China, a crackdown on Hong Kong will only devastate the local economy and create an entrenched opposition while the Communist Party may well find itself struggling to stay in power inside China.
If the protests quickly burnout, the Communist Party will win. If the protests fizzle out over months, they will also win, though Hong Kong will become a far more troublesome territory. Then again, a win against protesters will likely also mean a loss for the Chinese government. The question is to what degree.
It is important to recognize how China handles these protests will determine how the world treats China in the near future. A heavy-handed approach or a lack of concern for protester demands would normally demonstrate a strong Chinese government capable of securing its economy; however, the world has watched too many cases where the unfulfilled interests of protesters have turned stable countries into disaster zones.
Governments that do not address the interests of their Peoples are inherently unstable over time while a failure to cope with a movement favoring democratization creates a conflict of interests that is sure to result in political instability. Meanwhile, it important to remember the Chinese economy has problems and anything the Chinese government does to shaken the confidence of investors is only going to amplify those problems, especially over time.
Consequently, it would be wise for the Communist government, especially given the reality that the current leadership is still fairly new and untested, to offer some quiet concessions instead of suppressing dissent. That said, the longer the Chinese government waits to protesters what they want, the less likely protesters will be satisfied with what China is willing to give, even if that is everything they originally wanted.
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