The Chinese leadership has watched in horror as their ill-advised push for the now-suspended extradition bill blew up in their faces, with millions of Hongkongers hitting the streets in protest, ultimately paralysing the city’s police force as its government, from Chief Executive Carrie Lam on down, went into virtual hiding.
Now, however, Beijing is clearly content to sit back and play the long game, and that’s a game it is likely to win.
Sure, let Hong Kong’s streets swell with weekly anger and outrage that is directed primarily at Lam, her inept band of fecklessly blogging ministers and the alternately hyper-aggressive and abruptly vanishing Hong Kong Police Force.
Allow time for protest fatigue to set in and for ordinary people to grow weary of the disruptions and inconveniences caused by the protesters – the blocked roads and interrupted public services – not to mention the obscenity-laced graffiti and the destruction and violence that, lamentably, have tarnished an otherwise largely peaceful uprising against Hong Kong’s cluelessly aloof governing elite.
Next, invite the business community to weigh in – actually, no invitation necessary – on the economic damage Hong Kong’s masked, goggled and weaponised radicals are wreaking on their city: skittish investors, sinking retail sales, plunging property prices, dwindling tourism and more.
The Occupy protests stretched out for 79 days before they fizzled out and the city returned to normal operations. We aren’t even halfway to that mark in the anti-extradition crisis, so there’s still plenty of time for that special task force monitoring Hong Kong’s political and social woes from Shenzhen (reportedly headed by Vice Premier Han Zheng) to plan, plot and scheme about the city’s future.
Meanwhile, to appease the angry masses, we may see some sacrificial heads roll on the Executive Council, Lam’s de facto cabinet, and we may also witness the actual formal withdrawal of the suspended bill, one of the protesters’ key demands, since Lam’s weekly word games on this subject have only served to further inflame the passions against her.
In addition, some bad cops could be named, shamed and punished for their apparent transgressions during the protests, and you can absolutely count on some people-pleasing initiatives in Lam’s next policy address to alleviate Hong Kong’s acute housing crunch and widening wealth gap. Cash handouts, anyone?
Who knows – maybe there will even be some small concessions on democratic reform of the city’s dysfunctional political system, and maybe Lam will have mercifully stepped aside by that point and her luckless successor will be the one delivering the October address.
Whatever the specifics turn out to be, expect a profusion of short-term measures of conciliation and appeasement to buy time for Beijing’s long-term plan of assimilation and integration.
The ultimate aim is to neuter the city’s political opposition and muffle its disaffected youth through a raft of new infrastructure projects connecting Hong Kong to the mainland and through a steady, continuing migration of mainlanders so that, in the end, the city we know is swallowed whole and thoroughly digested by the colossus to the north.
Lam and her ministers, like all of the other post-handover flunkies who preceded them, are just expendable pieces in a game that Beijing is bound to win. They come, they go, but the game continues towards its almost certain outcome.
With protesters bellowing for her resignation, Lam may be worried about surviving next week, but the Shenzhen task force and the central authorities they report to are looking much farther down the road.
They know that, stunning and sensational as the historic anti-extradition protests of the last few weeks have been, China – its hard-nosed authoritarian government and its 1.4 billion people – are just too big and powerful a force to resist. Unless China itself undergoes a momentous, earth-shaking change – which does not seem likely any time soon – Hong Kong stands little chance of retaining its unique East-West identity and becoming the sort of democratic society that so many Hongkongers seek.
They also know that Hong Kong has never been master of its own fate; it simply changed masters – from British sovereignty to Chinese – in 1997, and this latest overlord has no intention of relinquishing that commanding power and granting universal suffrage to a former colony that never once voted for its governor during 156 years of British rule.
The British took Hong Kong through two inglorious wars over the lucrative opium trade in the middle of the 19th century.
Beijing has no need to use force to control Hong Kong today. Instead, it has given a free pass to 150 mainland migrants per day to enter and settle in the city, mandated the construction of a HK$84.4 billion high-speed rail link better connecting Hong Kong to cities all over China and also provided the impetus for the construction of the world’s longest sea bridge, a 55-kilometre, US$20 billion engineering marvel cutting road travel time between Hong Kong, Macau and Zhuhai from three hours to 40 to 50 minutes.
And those huge projects proved just the beginning of a far bolder, grander integration scheme, dubbed the Greater Bay Area, which will see continuous, massive construction over the next two decades aimed at further integrating Hong Kong with 10 other cities in the Pearl River Delta to create a business and technology hub rivalling California’s Silicon Valley.
If and when this enormously ambitious initiative is completed, Hong Kong will truly be – with no tanks or People’s Liberation Army troops required – just another Chinese city.
That’s the long game.