If Hong Kong protests look like splitting the state, China will crack down – Marco Vicenzino

Since assuming leadership in 2012, President Xi ­Jinping of China has focused on ­consolidating and solidifying ­power at home and projecting ­Chinese ­influence firmly abroad.

HONG KONG, CHINA - [JULY 26]: A young protester shout during the rally against a controversial extradition bill in the arrivals hall of the international airport on July 26, 2019 in Hong Kong, China. Pro-democracy protesters have continued weekly rallies on the streets of Hong Kong against a controversial extradition bill since 9 June as the city plunged into crisis after waves of demonstrations and several violent clashes. Hong Kong's Chief Executive Carrie Lam apologized for introducing the bill and recently declared it "dead", however protesters have continued to draw large crowds with demands for Lam's resignation and completely withdraw the bill. (Photo by Billy H.C. Kwok/Getty Images)

The outcome of the current crisis in Hong Kong will inevitably shape this process for years to come and clearly presents President Xi with one of his greatest domestic and foreign policy challenges.

Although triggered by a proposed law to extradite suspects in Hong Kong to mainland China, the ­current crisis is largely a reaction to years of gradual encroachment by the ­Chinese Communist Party (CCP) on Hong Kong’s autonomy.

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The 1997 handover of Hong Kong from British to Chinese rule was underpinned by the “one country, two systems” principle.

However, the notion that Hong Kong would remain a pure apolitical, economic-business centre was not realistic in the long-term. ­Politics would eventually, and somewhat inevitably, come to the forefront, and now it has.

In its attempt to push for the ­extradition law, the CCP clearly ­overplayed its hand. However, ­certain elements within the ­current protest movement are proving equally ­capable of overplaying their own hand which increases the risk of a worst-case scenario – that is, a ­massive and comprehensive ­crackdown by ­mainland security forces in Hong Kong.

The possibility of the CCP taking firm action increases the more it deems that Hong Kong authorities are incapable of quelling the protests and order and stability there and beyond, is being fundamentally undermined with the risk of spill over and a chain reaction into the ­mainland. The CCP has clearly threatened to actively deploy the ­People’s ­Liberation Army in Hong Kong. Its willingness to carry out such a threat, if it ultimately determines it ­necessary, should not be underestimated.

The CCP’s greatest fear is national fragmentation. It is willing to counter this existential threat in any way ­possible in order to maintain order, even in Hong Kong as a last resort.

The CCP will conveniently seize upon the words and actions of a minority in the Hong Kong protest movement – some even calling for the end of mainland rule and Hong Kong independence – to paint the entire movement as “separatists” ­who are undermining China’s ­national ­unity in line with “criminal splittists” in ­Taiwan, Tibet, and ­Xinjiang. ­Anyone in Hong Kong actively disrupting civil order even risks being ­branded ­“terrorist”.

Basically, any form of ­dissent that the CCP expediently sees as a threat to central authority is ­considered as an ­enemy of the state.

For the CCP, the serious threat of fragmentation fundamentally ­outweighs the risks posed by ­business flight from Hong Kong in case of a crackdown.

China would pay an enormous ­economic price if Hong Kong’s ­status as a leading international financial centre is threatened.

However, many in the CCP are ­confident that in the long-term it can economically ­overcome any fallout if the ­current crisis ultimately requires direct ­intervention in Hong Kong. For the CCP, what matters most is national unity above all.

Marco Vicenzino ([email protected]) is a geopolitical expert and international business advisor to advisor to senior executives. He is a member of the International ­Advisory Council of the Asia ­Scotland Institute.

The content of this article reflects the views of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute.