Hong Kong’s protesters know this full well. When asked if they think their rallies will be successful, many answer with a blunt “no.” In recent years, China’s leadership has tried more directly to expand its influence on the city. Opposition politicians have been barred from Hong Kong’s Parliament, and those who fail to show enough respect for the state flag have been jailed, while the leaders of the 2014 pro-democracy movement have vanished behind bars.
Many of today’s Hong Kong protesters are not driven by the hope of halting or undoing China’s growing influence. Instead, they feel this may be the last time they can ever freely express their opinion. So while Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam recently warned that protesters could push the city into the “abyss,” many locals feel that Hong Kong is already in free fall. The people of Hong Kong, in short, feel they have nothing to lose — which is why China’s threats are having so little effect.
‘The West will forget’
In reality, however, Hong Kong does have much to lose. An invasion by Chinese troops would mean the city would cease to be an international financial hub, and the freedom its people have so far enjoyed would be permanently scrapped.
But Beijing would suffer from such an intervention, too. Hong Kong is the global financial gateway for Chinese companies, and images of carnage on Hong Kong streets would ruin China’s image and reputation for years. Moreover, possible economic sanctions in reaction to an invasion would further exacerbate the country’s economic woes and weaken its position in its trade dispute with the US.
Deng Xiaoping, China’s leader during the Tiananmen Square protests, reportedly dismissed concerns about how the global community would react to the 1989 massacre by saying, “The West will forget.” This time, once again, nobody would be able to stop China’s leadership from brutally suppressing a protest movement. But Western democracies should make it clear that China would pay a huge price for such an intervention.