Aug 14, 2019

China's Hong Kong checkmate

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Images of Chinese troops massing near Hong Kong have led to fears of an impending crackdown on pro-democracy protesters — but China's next move will be dangerous, no matter what it is.

The big picture: Allowing Hong Kong's dramatic displays of dissent to rage on is intolerable for the Communist Party. But if China attempts another crackdown on the scale of Tiananmen Square 30 years ago, it would prompt a global backlash and risk steep economic repercussions.

The latest: Protests sparked by a controversial extradition bill have intensified over 10 weeks into a rebellion against Chinese control over the former British colony and global finance hub.

  • Riot police swarmed into Hong Kong's international airport Tuesday night and dispersed protesters who caused 2 days of chaos and cancellations at the world’s 8th busiest airport.

What they’re saying:

  • Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s Beijing-approved chief executive, said the city was being “smashed to pieces” and on “the brink of no return.”
  • President Trump, whose hands-off approach had been read by some as tacit approval for a crackdown, tweeted: “Our Intelligence has informed us that the Chinese Government is moving troops to the Border with Hong Kong. Everyone should be calm and safe!”
  • China’s propaganda machine has raged against the protesters, and officials have claimed the protests contain "sprouts of terrorism" and the "black hand" of foreign intervention.

Between the lines: "They're certainly putting down rhetorical markers that would justify a heavy-handed intervention," says Dan Kliman of the Center for a New American Security.

For now, China's message is that it’s up to local authorities to quash the unrest — and quickly. Images of Hong Kong police roughing up demonstrators have spread around the world, but a cataclysmic clash with Beijing has yet to materialize.

  • "Leaders in Beijing worry that a triumphant protest movement in Hong Kong could embolden calls on the mainland for freedom of expression and the rights to assemble and strike," Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, writes for Axios Expert Voices.
  • "These risks suggest Chinese authorities will use force if needed, although they may first seek to control the protests by applying economic pressure on Hong Kong, sowing disinformation, arresting protest leaders and threatening military escalation."

What to watch: Bill Bishop of Sinocism emails that the Chinese government is unwilling to countenance the demands of the protesters, who in turn are “becoming increasingly radicalized.”

  • “No crackdown and no concessions means more disruptions like we are seeing. And more disruptions, especially of places like the airport, increase the likelihood of violent suppression. I do believe Beijing would prefer the Hong Kong authorities handle it but so far they have not shown they can.”
  • “Letting things run will hurt the Hong Kong economy but may not have a sudden effect on markets. Cracking down could set off market crashes in Hong Kong and Asia, if not throughout the world.”

Zoom out: President Xi Jinping has spent 6 years systematically clamping down on dissent and attempting to solidify Beijing's control over all of China.

  • "The biggest risk is for Xi himself," Kliman says. "If he shows himself unable to manage a protest in Hong Kong, it could potentially be useful ammunition for his critics. For that reason alone, Xi can't let this fester indefinitely."
  • "If he's in a position of having exhausted his alternatives, then they would move forward with a crackdown."

The bottom line: That would provoke international outrage and could harden China's divide with the West. But as Bishop writes, "No one should ever underestimate what the Chinese Communist Party will do when it feels threatened."

Go deeper

The coronavirus is making it even harder to care for seniors

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Caring for older adults was already expensive, emotionally taxing and logistically difficult — and the coronavirus is only making it worse.

Why it matters: People older than 65 have the highest risk of dying from the virus, and outbreaks have been rampant in long-term care facilities. That is creating anxiety for seniors and their families.

World coronavirus updates

Data: The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins; Map: Axios Visuals

Countries where novel coronavirus cases are falling may be hit with a "second peak" if they relax restrictions too soon, World Health Organization emergencies chief Mike Ryan warned during a briefing Monday. "We're still very much in a phase where the disease is actually on the way up," he added.

By the numbers: Almost 5.5 million people have tested positive for the virus as of Monday, and more than 2.2 million have recovered. The U.S. has reported the most cases in the world (over 1.6 million from 14.6 million tests). The U.K. is reporting over 36,900 deaths from the coronavirus — the most fatalities outside the U.S.

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

  1. Global: Total confirmed cases as of 5 a.m. ET: 5,508,904 — Total deaths: 346,508 — Total recoveries — 2,234,510Map.
  2. U.S.: Total confirmed cases as of 5 a.m. ET: 1,662,768 — Total deaths: 98,223 — Total recoveries: 379,157 — Total tested: 14,604,942Map.
  3. World: Italy reports lowest number of new cases since February — Ireland reports no new coronavirus deaths on Monday for the first time since March 21 — WHO suspends trial of hydroxychloroquine over safety concerns.
  4. 2020: Trump threatens to move Republican convention from North Carolina — Joe Biden makes first public appearance in two months.
  5. Public health: Officials are urging Americans to wear masks over Memorial Day.
  6. Economy: New York stock exchange to reopen its floor on Tuesday — White House economic adviser Kevin Hassett says it's possible the unemployment rate could still be in double digits by November's election.
  7. What should I do? Hydroxychloroquine questions answeredTraveling, asthma, dishes, disinfectants and being contagiousMasks, lending books and self-isolatingExercise, laundry, what counts as soap — Pets, moving and personal healthAnswers about the virus from Axios expertsWhat to know about social distancingHow to minimize your risk.
  8. Other resources: CDC on how to avoid the virus, what to do if you get it, the right mask to wear.

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Updated 2 hours ago - Politics & Policy