The tents are gone and the streets are cleared. The thousands of students and older citizens peacefully trying to make their voices heard have gone back home. And the best hope for ensuring that Hong Kong’s fragile and evolving democracy does not flicker out has been extinguished.
Hong Kong police finished clearing out the last remaining protest site this week after allowing two and half months of peaceful demonstrations. For a brief while in the beginning, back in late September, it looked as if things could get violent — that Hong Kong students in 2014 could wind up suffering a fate close to that of their predecessors in Tiananmen Square in Beijing back in 1989. Yet the Hong Kong police, despite a few volleys of tear gas, refrained from physical confrontation. Not so the mysterious groups of thugs who harassed the students and attempted to break up some of their encampments. Whether directed by China or not, those ruffians clearly had the backing of the mainland authorities, as well as of Hong Kong’s Beijing-picked leader, who made clear throughout the months of protest that his primary loyalty is to the Communist party of China, and not the people of Hong Kong.
So many weeks later, it is hard to remember that the demonstrations began over a simple point: the right of Hong Kongers to democratically choose their chief executive in elections starting in 2017, as seemingly promised by Beijing back in the 1984 agreement with Great Britain that paved the way for the handover of the colony in 1997. Yet the agreement’s language was vague enough that Beijing could manipulate its implementation despite later promises to allow free elections — and, really, what could anyone actually do to prevent the Chinese from running Hong Kong however they liked? So, a crucial element of the “one country, two systems” framework was efficiently demolished by Beijing, giving it the precedent for slowly and methodically squeezing the institutions that have protected Hong Kong’s freedoms, such as the courts and the press.
Nor, it should be stressed, could the rest of the world do much of anything to help Hong Kong’s students. That said, the world response was shameful. As during Iran’s Green Movement protests in 2009, the first year of Barack Obama’s presidency, so five years later Obama all but ignored what was happening in Hong Kong: He chose to expend a minuscule drop of the moral authority of the American president to make a point about the value of democracy. He also conveniently missed every opportunity to point out Beijing’s bad faith and raise questions about its trustworthiness as a partner. Thus does Beijing reap the fruits of its constant cultivation of American elites and expose the shiny emptiness of the “new model of great-power relations.”
Yet those who support democracy in Asia have to acknowledge that there was constant opposition to the students from many of their fellow Hong Kongers. Businessmen in particular were hesitant to support the students in ways that could jeopardize trade relations with the mainland. Hong Kong’s business elite has long been consistent on this issue, arguing at each step of the way that China holds all the cards in terms of the city’s future, and that peaceful accommodation is necessary to prevent greater Chinese interference in trade and other economic matters. The businessmen were joined in opposition to the protesters by ordinary Hong Kongers angered by having main streets blocked in the heart of the city, as well as by those who are sympathetic to Beijing’s relatively benign rule so far.
The student demonstrators have vowed that they will be back, and that their nearly three-month effort this fall is just the beginning. Yet it is hard to see how they can expect to be an effective voice in Hong Kong’s future. The brutal truth is that they failed: failed to unite and rally the people of Hong Kong, and failed to gain meaningful international support. They backed down from their bold threats to occupy central buildings. They induced not a moment of wavering on the party of Hong Kong’s leadership or Chinese officials. Indeed, China’s president, Xi Jinping, felt confident enough to tell President Obama to his face that China would brook no interference in its internal affairs or in the running of Hong Kong.
What the Chinese government, and its proxy in Hong Kong, gained from the protests should not be underestimated. First, they crushed the movement peacefully, thereby avoiding the international opprobrium that would have come in the wake of a violent suppression. Second, they successfully encouraged or used small groups of thugs to intimidate the protesters and sympathetic onlookers. Third, they neutralized global criticism. Most importantly, in winning the confrontation, they have shaped perceptions of Hong Kong’s future, erasing any doubt over China’s ultimate control of the city.
Thus, slowly and steadily, China continues to assert its will over ever-expanding areas of Asia. It avoids Putin-style aggression, seeking to reorder Asia’s geopolitical map through pressure rather than violence. It steadily enlarges the area over which it claims control, and then asserts rights in that area that conflict with the will of other actors, be it in Hong Kong or in the South China Sea. Hong Kong is far more important to Beijing than the contested Spratly Islands, but the goal and the means are the same. It is this challenge that the world faces and that the students of Hong Kong failed to blunt.
— Michael Auslin is a frequent contributor to National Review Online.