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A military crackdown in Hong Kong would be a tragic error

The Financial Times logo The Financial Times 14/08/2019 The editorial board
a man looking at the camera: TOPSHOT - A pro-democracy protester is held by police outside Tsim Sha Tsui Police station during a demonstration against the controversial extradition bill in Hong Kong on August 11, 2019. - Empty hotel rooms, struggling shops and even disruption at Disneyland: months of protests in Hong Kong have taken a major toll on the city's economy, with no end in sight. (Photo by Manan VATSYAYANA / AFP)MANAN VATSYAYANA/AFP/Getty Images © Provided by Financial Times Limited TOPSHOT - A pro-democracy protester is held by police outside Tsim Sha Tsui Police station during a demonstration against the controversial extradition bill in Hong Kong on August 11, 2019. - Empty hotel rooms, struggling shops and even disruption at Disneyland: months of protests in Hong Kong have taken a major toll on the city's economy, with no end in sight. (Photo by Manan VATSYAYANA / AFP)MANAN VATSYAYANA/AFP/Getty Images

Editor's note: Any opinions expressed in this article are those of the author on behalf of our content partner and do not represent the views of MSN or Microsoft

The clashes at Hong Kong airport are an ominous moment. Demonstrations are intensifying. The behaviour of a violent fringe of protesters is increasingly out of control, with the airport occupation degenerating into attacks on two mainlanders accused of being “spies”. Carrie Lam, chief executive, has warned the city is nearing the “abyss”. Noises from the mainland are ever more threatening — with talk of “terrorism” in Hong Kong, and video aired of Chinese troops gathering across the border.

Hong Kong's Chief Executive Carrie Lam gestures during a news conference in Hong Kong, China August 13, 2019. REUTERS/Thomas Peter © Catalyst Images Hong Kong's Chief Executive Carrie Lam gestures during a news conference in Hong Kong, China August 13, 2019. REUTERS/Thomas Peter The likelihood of armed intervention by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army — or possibly a resort to martial law or to a curfew and mass arrests — is mounting. Yet to take such drastic action without first trying conciliation would be a profound mistake. Most of the protesters’ demands are reasonable. They could be met without any threat to the status quo in Hong Kong, or to the powers-that-be in Beijing. 

HONG KONG, CHINA - AUGUST 12: Protesters occupy the arrival hall of the Hong Kong International Airport during a demonstration on August 12, 2019 in Hong Kong, China. Pro-democracy protesters have continued 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 declared it "dead", however protesters have continued to draw large crowds with demands for Lam's resignation and completely withdraw the bill. (Photo by Anthony Kwan/Getty Images) © Catalyst Images HONG KONG, CHINA - AUGUST 12: Protesters occupy the arrival hall of the Hong Kong International Airport during a demonstration on August 12, 2019 in Hong Kong, China. Pro-democracy protesters have continued 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 declared it "dead", however protesters have continued to draw large crowds with demands for Lam's resignation and completely withdraw the bill. (Photo by Anthony Kwan/Getty Images)

The demands that the central government could easily concede (and it is Beijing, not Hong Kong, that will decide) include the complete withdrawal of the proposed treaty allowing for the extradition of criminal suspects to party-controlled courts in mainland China. It should also be uncontroversial to establish a committee of inquiry, looking into police behaviour and broader issues surrounding the protests. The protesters’ call for Hong Kong’s chief executive to be elected by universal suffrage may sound unacceptably radical viewed from Beijing, but there is provision for it within the Basic Law that established the “one country, two systems” paradigm under which Hong Kong is governed.

Hong Kong's Chief Executive Carrie Lam meets petitioners outside her office in Hong Kong, China August 13, 2019. REUTERS/Thomas Peter © Catalyst Images Hong Kong's Chief Executive Carrie Lam meets petitioners outside her office in Hong Kong, China August 13, 2019. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

There is no guarantee these concessions would solve the problem. The situation may be too far gone. What is all but guaranteed, however, is that military intervention will lead to bloodshed. And bloodshed will permanently alienate most of Hong Kong’s population, creating what Beijing fears most: a powerful independence movement. It would also make it all but inconceivable that Taiwan, for which Hong Kong’s model of governance had been held up as a potential model, would ever voluntarily agree to reunite with China.

HONG KONG, CHINA - AUGUST 13: Members of the medical profession gather to protest against Hong Kong police brutality at Queen Elizabeth Hospital on August 13, 2019 in Hong Kong, China. Pro-democracy protesters have continued 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 declared it "dead", however protesters have continued to draw large crowds with demands for Lam's resignation and completely withdraw the bill. (Photo by Anthony Kwan/Getty Images) © Catalyst Images HONG KONG, CHINA - AUGUST 13: Members of the medical profession gather to protest against Hong Kong police brutality at Queen Elizabeth Hospital on August 13, 2019 in Hong Kong, China. Pro-democracy protesters have continued 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 declared it "dead", however protesters have continued to draw large crowds with demands for Lam's resignation and completely withdraw the bill. (Photo by Anthony Kwan/Getty Images) There are material interests for China to consider, too. Hong Kong is indisputably a much smaller part of the Chinese economy than it was at the 1997 handover. But it performs certain functions that remain hard to replicate.

Above all, it provides a trusted legal environment — a point which lies at the heart of the extradition dispute. It is a crucial place for mainland companies to tap international capital markets, making Hong Kong the world’s fifth-largest stock market. It is a key route for foreign direct investment into China. And — of possible significance to some powerful people in Beijing — it is a favourite bolt-hole for the assets of wealthy Chinese who would like to funnel some money out of the mainland.

HONG KONG, CHINA - AUGUST 12: Protesters occupy the arrival hall of the Hong Kong International Airport during a demonstration on August 12, 2019 in Hong Kong, China. Pro-democracy protesters have continued 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 declared it "dead", however protesters have continued to draw large crowds with demands for Lam's resignation and completely withdraw the bill. (Photo by Anthony Kwan/Getty Images) © Catalyst Images HONG KONG, CHINA - AUGUST 12: Protesters occupy the arrival hall of the Hong Kong International Airport during a demonstration on August 12, 2019 in Hong Kong, China. Pro-democracy protesters have continued 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 declared it "dead", however protesters have continued to draw large crowds with demands for Lam's resignation and completely withdraw the bill. (Photo by Anthony Kwan/Getty Images) HONG KONG, CHINA - AUGUST 12: Protesters occupy the departure hall of the Hong Kong International Airport during a demonstration on August 12, 2019 in Hong Kong, China. Pro-democracy protesters have continued 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 declared it "dead", however protesters have continued to draw large crowds with demands for Lam's resignation and completely withdraw the bill. (Photo by Anthony Kwan/Getty Images) © Catalyst Images HONG KONG, CHINA - AUGUST 12: Protesters occupy the departure hall of the Hong Kong International Airport during a demonstration on August 12, 2019 in Hong Kong, China. Pro-democracy protesters have continued 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 declared it "dead", however protesters have continued to draw large crowds with demands for Lam's resignation and completely withdraw the bill. (Photo by Anthony Kwan/Getty Images) All this will be at risk if China resorts to military intervention. The Chinese government surely knows this. Yet an authoritarian leadership’s need to show that it is in control may weigh more heavily than considerations about the role and future of Hong Kong.

Beijing should nonetheless reflect that the stakes are even higher than the future of Hong Kong itself. At risk is the entire system of globalisation that has facilitated China’s rise during the past 40 years. Hong Kong has served as a vital hinge connecting China with the west. Smashing that connection point would threaten globalisation just as much as any trade war launched in Washington. And, unlike with a trade war, the damage could not be repaired through an understanding between world leaders. It would be irreversible.

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