Yvonne Murray
in Beijing


Hong Kong's long hot summer of protest has entered its 13th week.

So far police have made 900 arrests, discharged nearly 2,000 rounds of tear gas and fired hundreds of rubber bullets. 

But nothing has quelled the intensity of the protests, which although largely peaceful, have seen spates of heavy violence. 

The Hong Kong authorities blame "rioters". Protesters blame police brutality. Beijing blames the "black hands" working for "foreign forces". 

They point the finger particularly at the US - ignoring the extreme improbability of any external mastermind having the power to drive as many as two million free-thinking citizens onto the streets.

Yesterday morning, prominent pro-democracy activists, Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow and Andy Chan, were arrested by Hong Kong police, on charges related to "unlawful assembly". 

The arrests indicate a renewed effort by Hong Kong authorities to apply pressure on the protesters. But many young Hong Kongers are already so enraged with the police and the governing executive that the move could backfire.

Back to school

The university term resumes next week and it was thought students might put down their umbrellas and take up their pens. Certainly some Hong Kong parents, who now fear for their children's future, are encouraging them to get back to their studies.

But talk of a class boycott suggests that Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, which has, at times, brought the Asian economic powerhouse to a standstill, has a long way to run.

Hong Kong umbrellas

So what do the protesters want?

They have laid out five key demands. 

Firstly, they want the extradition bill, which kicked this movement off in the first place, withdrawn. This is a piece of legislation that would allow extradition of suspects from Hong Kong to mainland China.

Protesters decry the lack of an independent judiciary in China. The courts are controlled by the Chinese Communist Party, in stark contrast to Hong Kong's British-style legal system.

Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam declared the bill "suspended". But that’s not enough for the demonstrators who fear it will be quietly resurrected while no one is looking.

They want to see it withdrawn altogether - dead and buried.

Their other demands include a rescinding of the term "rioters" (which was used by the Hong Kong authorities to describe the protesters early on); the immediate release of arrested protesters; an independent inquiry into police actions; and universal suffrage.

The spectre of Tiananmen 

China has been here before. And it didn't end well then.

Thirty years ago, students occupied Tiananmen Square in Beijing, demanding freedom, democracy and an end to corruption.

Tank man Tiananmen Square

After months of protests, the government sent the army in. Hundreds, possibly thousands, of protesters were killed.

It’s an incident that is etched onto the soul of the nation - at least for those who remember it. Mainland China’s younger generation who have grown up under strict censorship know little of the circumstances.

But the people who know all about 1989 include the Chinese leadership. And they understand the long-lasting damage the image of tanks and bullets crushing China’s own youth inflicted on the Communist Party's moral standing.

Nevertheless, China is a very different country today. For a start it's rich, having grown into the world’s second largest economy.

It’s technologically advanced. And it has a good deal more clout, and therefore confidence, on the world stage.

How the tables have turned can be summed up in one throwaway remark a Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman made, regarding Britain’s comments on the Hong Kong protests in July.

"Hong Kong matters are purely an internal affair for China," said Geng Shuang. 

"We urge Britain to know its place," he said, shrugging off Hong Kong’s former colonial masters as a meddlesome nuisance.

Meanwhile, China appears confident it is achieving the upper hand in the trade war with the US.

After all, with no election cycle to worry about, China can afford to sit back, watch US President Donald Trump rant and simply respond in kind to every new penalty he applies on Chinese goods in the knowledge that it will continue to hurt US farmers and manufacturers who are growing increasingly anxious for Mr Trump to strike a deal.

Of course, China’s leaders are not happy to see their own economy suffer, but they have time on their side as well as a near total control on freedom of expression to suppress any grumblings from their own people.

Nevertheless, the sight of so many people on the streets has no doubt rattled Beijing and the last thing it wants is its own people getting any ideas. Censorship mostly deals with that and the majority of views expressed on Chinese social media seem to toe the party line. 

But pro-Hong Kong voices have cropped up in online chat groups. They are quickly removed of course, but they indicate Chinese public opinion is not as united as Beijing would have us believe.

Army at the border

Perhaps in part as a warning to mainland citizens as well as demonstrators in Hong Kong, there has been some military muscle-flexing playing out in China's state media.

In a less than subtle hint, video footage circulated of a police drill in the mainland Chinese city of Shenzhen, just over the border with Hong Kong, in which 12,000 anti-riot police took on "demonstrators" wearing black shirts and yellow hard hats.

The exercise was billed as part of preparations of the 70th anniversary of the founding on the People’s Republic of China on 1 October but the message was clear.

The government-run Global Times newspaper released another video of hundreds of military vehicles purportedly driving south. For added impact, the video featured rousing militaristic music.

This week a "planned garrison rotation," saw armoured trucks entering Hong Kong in the early hours of Thursday morning to rotate personnel. Officials said the move was "routine", and added that a similar rotation had been carried out in Macau. But others called it a "build-up".

It comes at a time when Beijing is ramping up its rhetoric. After the protesters forced the closure of Hong Kong International Airport earlier this month, they were labelled "terrorists".

Then this week, at a symposium to commemorate the 115th birthday of the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping - the very man who ordered the 1989 crackdown - senior officials took the opportunity to make their views known.

"The soldiers stationed in Hong Kong are not strawmen," said Maria Tam Wai-chu, deputy director of the Hong Kong SAR Basic law Committee of the National People’s Congress.

If unrest takes place in Hong Kong, she said, the central government can "of course" step in to restore order and ensure the proper functioning of "one country, two systems".

China’s long game

Hong Kong is seen as an errant child and one that’s causing a good deal of trouble and embarrassment to the motherland. 

The harder line nationalists in power may want to see the recalcitrant youth brought to heel, but the leadership also knows that Hong Kong remains crucial to China’s economic rise.

Hong Kong’s robust legal framework, which offers protection of property rights and underpins its business and financial markets, is hugely attractive to global investors. 

Ironically, Hong Kong’s status as a democratic, freewheeling capitalist outpost has become even more important to the mainland as Beijing has hurtled further along the road to authoritarianism.

Hong Kong

More than two-thirds of foreign direct investment in mainland China comes through Hong Kong. Similarly, the majority of Chinese outward investment is channelled through the city’s banks and financial institutions. 

Indeed, the number of international firms who have established their Asian headquarters in the territory has steadily increased since the British handover in 1997. 

The sight of Chinese soldiers taking down protesters on the streets of Hong Kong could put the wind up foreign multinationals, who could always hop over to a more stable Singapore.

And while China is still building up its cities to rival the economic success of Hong Kong (Hong Kong’s nearest mainland neighbour, Shenzhen, is planning to become the world leader in hi-tech innovation), it’s not there yet. 

A violent confrontation in Hong Kong could derail its best laid plans and would risk blowing apart the much-vaunted notion of China’s "peaceful rise".

The Taiwan issue

And while Hong Kong is important to China, the real prize is Taiwan.

The Communist Party rigorously enforces a "one-China" policy which insists that Taiwan, which has its own democratically elected government, is viewed as a province of China. 

China’s leaders have long sought the unification of Taiwan with China, a policy which has widespread support on the mainland. 

So sensitive is Beijing to any talk of Taiwan being a separate entity that whenever foreign brands slip up, they are required to proffer grovelling apologies for "hurting the feelings of the Chinese people", - if they want access to China’s giant consumer market, that is. 

Recently the same has happened with regard to Hong Kong. Italian fashion brand Versace apologised for its T-shirt that bore the logo "Hong Kong" instead of "Hong Kong - China".

Hong Kong has been held up as a model of the "one-country, two systems" political compromise that could help to coax Taiwan into the fold.

Again, a bloody crackdown in Hong Kong could put paid to notions of a peaceful unification with Taiwan.

For these reasons, Beijing might plump for patience.

After all, come 2047, the "one-country, two systems" deal thrashed out before the handover will expire and Hong Kong will return to China - lock, stock and barrel.

Thirty years ago as protests intensified in Beijing, the moderates in China’s ruling party lost out to the hardliners, spilling the blood of the nation’s youth.

Given how opaque Chinese politics remains, we have no way of judging how strong the hardline faction may be today.

But with more protests planned and no political solution in sight, those who favour using force to end the standoff in Hong Kong could start pushing for action.