What the protests mean for Korea
The author is senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and associate professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.
As a periodic visitor to Hong Kong since 1990, I was frankly surprised to see over a million citizens from all walks of life march on June 9 to peacefully protest Beijing’s increasing authoritarian grip over the former British colony and then refuse to back down in the face of thuggish attacks from Beijing-backed Triad gangs and heavy-handed police use of tear gas and riot control tactics.
When Hong Kong was returned to the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) in 1997, the principle of “one country two systems” seemed to provide a precedent for representative government that might eventually “infect” the mainland with a taste of democracy and perhaps even ease tensions across the strait with Taiwan. Instead the opposite has happened.
China under Xi Jinping has turned in a more authoritarian direction, and the people of Hong Kong have grown increasingly anxious and agitated with the abduction of journalists, self-censorship of media and then an extradition law introduced by Hong Kong’s administrator Carrie Lam in February that would have allowed Beijing to demand suspects be turned over to the communist authorities on the mainland. Defenders of Lam argue that the Hong Kong authorities would still have retained the ability to deny Beijing’s requests — which would have been true on the books — but few citizens of Hong Kong believed those assurances for understandable reasons.
Average Hong Kong citizens have reached the tipping point and unlike the 2014 Umbrella movement, the protests have not subsided this time around. Rather than easing cross-strait relations or international confidence in China’s future, Beijing’s stance towards Hong Kong today is terrifying the people on Taiwan and reinforcing international suspicion of the Chinese Communist Party’s long-term intentions.
How will this all end? The protesters enjoy significant public support and are willing to take enormous personal risks to defend their rights (I have met some of the student protesters and their courage is deeply moving and evocative of Korea’s own struggle for democracy in the 1980s). The movement is broad-based and thus difficult for Beijing to decapitate but also difficult for the Hong Kong authorities to negotiate with. Some of the protesters’ demands such as officially suspending the extradition law and establishing an independent investigation into police conduct would enjoy international support. Other demands for full representative democracy engender deep sympathy in the democratic world but are harder for governments to get behind because they imply a change in the one country two systems model that has underpinned Hong Kong policy for the United States, Britain and most of the rest of the world.
For his part, Xi Jinping faces a high barrier to sending in the Peoples Armed Police or the Peoples Liberation Army since this would likely trigger legislation or policy changes in the United States and perhaps elsewhere that would remove Hong Kong’s special economic status and devastate not only Hong Kong’s but also China’s financial markets. The ongoing stalemate likely means continued protests and uncertainty. There is a danger that harder police tactics and violence by criminal gangs against the protesters could lead to more desperate measures in response, including the use of Molotov cocktails. The trend lines are worrisome.
Korea’s own future could be profoundly impacted by what happens next. Hong Kong is Korea’s fourth largest trading partner (ahead of Japan) and China is Korea’s largest trading partner, taking in 27 percent of all Korean exports. Should the PRC intervene in Hong Kong, the resulting damage to China’s own economy from international isolation and imploding financial markets could easily push the Korean economy into recession.
Geopolitically, the Hong Kong crisis is intensifying Sino-U.S. strategic competition, which complicates the nuclear diplomacy with North Korea. U.S. President Donald Trump has reportedly promised Xi Jinping that he will not raise Hong Kong in public. However, the administration’s resulting paralysis on the Hong Kong issue has fueled efforts in Congress by Senator Marco Rubio and others to push through the Hong Kong Freedom and Democracy Act, which would subject Hong Kong and PRC officials to individual sanctions for their role in suppressing peaceful protests. By not pressing harder for restraint by Beijing, the administration increases the risk of a harder response from Congress.
At the same time, Korea holds a unique status within Asia because of its own democratization. Hong Kong protesters are well aware that Korean students a generation ago also took to the streets and helped to bring peaceful democratic change to South Korea. Looking at the photos of the student protesters in Hong Kong should evoke passionate memories for many senior political figures now in the Moon government. The students on the streets of Hong Kong today are only asking for what Korean students demanded on the streets of Seoul in the 1980s.
There are differences, of course, most importantly that Korea was under alliance with a democracy while Hong Kong is under the thumb of Beijing. Nevertheless, Koreans cannot turn a blind eye to the aspirations of a people who mirror their own values and experiences so closely. Indeed, the Hong Kong protesters are right when they say that they are on the front lines of freedom. If the democracies of the world do not stand united and speak with one voice on behalf of the democratic aspirations of the people of Hong Kong, then the barrier will be lowered for Chinese coercion against Taiwan, Mongolia or other weaker democracies in Asia. This would inevitably impact the deterrent strategy of Korea itself, which relies on democratic unity and not just weapons.
And yet it has to be acknowledged that the policy tools available to shape Beijing’s thinking from the outside are limited and that any sanctions could damage Hong Kong as much as the mainland. This is an extremely challenging policy problem for Washington and Seoul. It is also a problem that puts the current Korea-Japan dispute in clear context. Many democracies speaking in unison do not always have to speak as loudly as one or two democracies taking a stand alone. And if democracies are squabbling and divided at a time of growing authoritarianism around the world, the authoritarians may ultimately win.