Michael Shoebridge reports: Scenes of protesters with sticks chasing police through Hong Kong streets and police officers pulling out their guns and pointing them at protesters show that the Hong Kong authorities are losing control of the city. And that’s probably just what leaders in China want the world to see at this point.
Beijing manages internal dissent ruthlessly and adeptly. Step one is to identify and isolate critical voices and individuals before they have a chance to gather support or join together. That’s where the massive internal security apparatus of the Ministry of Public Security and Ministry of State Security, enabled by high-tech surveillance systems fed by government and corporate data, come in.
Step two is to clamp down rapidly and violently on protesters who have managed to organise despite state surveillance and arbitrary arrest. Such protests routinely arise over corrupt deals between provincial government official and land developers that displace local residents from their properties, although labour unrest because of dangerous or simply oppressive working practices in Chinese enterprises is also a cause. That’s where the standing police force and the heavily armed paramilitary of the People’s Armed Police come in, along with operatives of Chinese security agencies.
Step three is done simultaneously with the other manoeuvres—and it’s about ruthlessly suppressing reporting of protests and of the underlying grievances that are causing them. The Chinese Communist Party’s control of information allows this to be quite successful in mainland China, and also helps limit the news about protests that leaches into the outside world.
Step four, which is also done concurrently with the other measures, involves government officials threatening retaliation against individuals’ families if they persist in ‘making trouble’. People who are brave enough to risk their own safety are often not so willing to put their loved ones at risk, so this is an effective tactic. We’ve seen it used in Australia by Chinese government operatives threatening Uyghurs to not speak up if they don’t want family back in Xinjiang punished.
But the normal Beijing playbook for managing dissent has just not worked in Hong Kong, for four main reasons. First, the protest movement in Hong Kong is what Beijing truly fears—a mass movement whose scale is undeniable. And there’s no clear leadership group Beijing can arrest or intimidate to decapitate the protests, although the authorities have continued to arrest those they think might be important.
On top of this, the protesters have been incredibly innovative in shifting the nature, location and tactics of the protests, making containment impracticable. They’ve drawn on international sources of inspiration, as we saw with the kilometres-long ‘human chain’ on the weekend, which echoed the ‘Baltic Way’ protests in 1989 that helped topple Soviet rule in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
And lastly, the protests have been broadcast virally by multiple eyewitnesses through social media and have been covered extensively in the international media. Pretending they’re just by a small group of extremists or about low-level issues, which has worked in the curated information environment of mainland China, just hasn’t washed with international audiences and governments.
So, we’ve got to a point where the playbook needs to turn a page. As I see it, Chairman Xi Jinping and his politburo colleagues have three options … (read more)
Source: The Strategist
Michael Shoebridge is director of the defence, strategy and national security program at ASPI. Image: Aidan Marzo/Getty Images.