The Irish Times view on the Hong Kong standoff: Beijing must not intervene

Beijing should reaffirm its commitment to ‘one country, two systems’ and allow talks between the Hong Kong administration and representatives of the protesters

Hong Kong's chief executive Carrie Lam faced a tough grilling by reporters during a weekly news briefing, in which she evaded questions on whether she has the autonomy to scrap an extradition bill without Beijing's approval. Video: Reuters

 

The standoff between protesters and the authorities is escalating in Hong Kong, and so too is the risk of an intervention by the Chinese security forces. Demonstrators again occupied the city’s airport on Tuesday, forcing the shutdown of one of Asia’s busiest air transport hubs for a second day. That coincided with a sharpening of rhetoric from Beijing, where an official said “terrorism” was emerging in the territory and state media outlets ran videos showing armoured personnel carriers purportedly driving to Shenzhen, which borders Hong Kong.

A protest movement that began 10 weeks ago amid anger over a controversial extradition law has evolved into a wider movement for democratic reform whose demands include universal suffrage, an independent inquiry into the handling of the crisis and the resignation of Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam.

Tensions of the past 10 weeks reflect a much deeper sense of anger and unease over the gradual erosion of rights and freedoms

Her intransigent, tone-deaf response to the protests has made matters worse. But in reality, the tensions of the past 10 weeks reflect a much deeper sense of anger and unease over the gradual erosion of the rights and freedoms China guaranteed the territory when Britain handed it over in 1997. When the “one country, two systems” formula was devised in talks between Margaret Thatcher and Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping in 1984, and with it the principle that China would guarantee Hong Kong’s way of life for at least 50 years after the handover, many in the west assumed that by that time China itself would have embraced liberal capitalism. In fact, political liberalisation in China went into retreat in the mid-1980s – a trend brutally underlined by the Tiananmen Square killings in 1989 and one that continues to this day under the authoritarian president Xi Jinping.

Growing belligerence

Despite Beijing’s growing belligerence, it must know any intervention could backfire badly. Hong Kong is a smaller part of China’s economy than it was at the handover (three per cent today, compared to 20 per cent in 1997), but the city is a vital channel for foreign direct investment into the mainland and a major international hub for banks and other businesses. Intervention would also draw international condemnation and undermine Chinese rhetoric about its “peaceful rise”.

Instead, Beijing should reaffirm its commitment to “one country, two systems” and allow talks between the Hong Kong administration and representatives of the protesters. The demands from the street are relatively modest; only five years ago, the government offered a package of political reforms that included a public vote for chief executive (although democrats rejected the idea because only Beijing-approved candidate would have been allowed to stand). For the government, signalling a willingness to negotiate could help restore calm while easing tensions and offering Beijing a way of avoiding an intervention it must know could end in disaster.

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