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Amid Hong Kong’s unrest, how China is ‘laying the groundwork’ for intervention

After two days of heightened violence, demonstrations in Hong Kong partially receded Wednesday, and the city's airport resumed operations. Now questions are surfacing about whether Hong Kong will prosecute protesters it arrested -- and whether China itself intervene. Amna Nawaz talks to former National Security Council staffer Ken Lieberthal and Minxin Pei of Claremont McKenna College.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    So with Chinese forces amassed on the border, tough talk from Beijing, and protesters not backing down, what now?

    For that, we turn to Kenneth Lieberthal. He was senior director for Asia on the National Security Council staff during the Clinton administration. He's now professor emeritus at the University of Michigan.

    And Minxin Pei is professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. He writes extensively about China.

    And welcome to you both.

    Minxin, I want to start with you. Is the fact the protesters have left the airport at the very tense moment has somewhat died down, does that give you any hope that maybe things overall are dying down?

  • Minxin Pei:

    Yes, this is clearly a turning point. I think the protesters have committed an unforced error and they have recognized this. So they should be — there should be a period of de-escalation. What is unknown is what the government will do.

    If the government takes advantage of this period and starts arresting more protesters or even charging them, then we can see a return of the protesters. So things are still quite fluid.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Well, hundreds of protesters have already been arrested. Based on what you've heard from the government so far, what do you think the Chinese government will do?

  • Minxin Pei:

    Well, first of all, the Hong Kong government has arrested them. So, it's up to the Hong Kong government to decide whether to charge those who have been arrested or whether to prosecute those who have been charged. So this is up to the Hong Kong government.

    What the Chinese government wants to do really depends whether the Hong Kong government can maintain control of the situation. A few days ago, it certainly seemed that the Hong Kong government was losing its grip. Today, I'm a little bit more relieved.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Kenneth Lieberthal, what do you think about this? How do you assess where we are right now?

  • Kenneth Lieberthal:

    I agree that there is a moment here that possibly could be seized to find a way forward and get us out of a conundrum that could otherwise produce a tragedy, and — but I think that way forward will require first an initiative by the Hong Kong government, to my mind, likely including a willingness by the Chief Executive Carrie Lam to step down. Some outreach to the major constituencies across Hong Kong to form some sort of commission to review what's happened and carry out necessary investigations and give their opinion. Essentially a long-term trust-building process that can ease tensions and stop a situation where radicals — you know, the most radical elements among demonstrators are seizing the initiative and, frankly, moving beyond what I think Beijing can possibly tolerate.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Kenneth Lieberthal, back to you. But when you hear how the Chinese government has been speaking so far, right? They're labeling this terrorism. They're calling the protesters criminals. You see the troop movement and buildup, the color revolution comparisons now.

    Does it sound like they're laying the groundwork for some kind of intervention?

  • Kenneth Lieberthal:

    They are laying the groundwork for an intervention but I think they really strongly prefer not to move in with force. They really want the Hong Kong government to get on top of this. To the extent the Hong Kong government fails to find a way to do that, I think we will see increasing use of force.

    I don't think anything like Tiananmen from 1989 is in the cards. The world has changed since then and Hong Kong is not a student movement in Beijing 30 years ago. But we could see a lot happen that would do tremendous damage to Hong Kong, to China, to U.S.-China relations and to the region.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Minxin Pei, if those steps that Ken Lieberthal laid out don't happen and you see an escalating, a ratcheting up of tensions on both sides — you were writing about this, you said it seems to be careening toward a devastating climax. Are you worried there would be some kind of Tiananmen-type crackdown?

  • Minxin Pei:

    Well, it really depends on what happens in the next 45 days, because China is going to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic. It's politically symbolically very important, and the Chinese government would like to, of course, prepare, to have an uneventful celebration.

    But if, for example, this continuation of this hard line position from Beijing, at least rhetorically, and then the kinds of things laid out fail to take place at the concessions made by the Hong Kong government, we can see a return of the protesters, very close to the celebration of the 70th anniversary.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    But are they really going to wait 45 days? If the protests pick back and continue, would they wait that long before taking action?

  • Minxin Pei:

    Well, it's a very difficult decision for the Chinese government to make. I think this is really their last resort. They're not going to act until Hong Kong is paralyzed. Suppose there were another general strike that paralyzes Hong Kong, that might force Beijing's hand, but we're quite far away from that point so far.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Ken Lieberthal, some of the language leads us to believe that Beijing views this very much as an existential threat, that if the protests pick back up and if they continue, they will in some way be forced to act. Do you see it that way?

  • Kenneth Lieberthal:

    Yes, I do, but the question is, when they're forced to act, that doesn't necessarily mean to have a large number of troops move across the border from Shenzhen, PLA in the streets, et cetera. You could have a declaration by the Hong Kong government of a state of emergency in Hong Kong, some curtailment of civil liberties, stronger actions by the Hong Kong police and judiciary, escalate to potentially using the Beijing PLA garrison in Hong Kong to be a presence on the streets.

    You know, there are a whole series of things you can do shy of having tanks moving across the border, and I think they will more likely try to increase the pressure step by step, but I very much agree with Minxin, this is a very dangerous situation and, frankly, no one knows exactly what the politics are in Beijing among the leadership that inevitably will play a role in how this is handled there.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Minxin, very briefly if you can, what is at stake here for the Chinese government? How is Beijing assessing this?

  • Minxin Pei:

    Well, it's really — it's authority in Hong Kong because the Beijing government has seen — is seeing this challenge as not a challenge to Hong Kong government but to the authority of the Chinese government.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So we've seen what President Trump has had to say so far. Is there or should there be a role for the U.S. in all of this?

  • Minxin Pei:

    Yes, there should be a role, but the role should be very delicate, quiet. I think one thing President Trump can do is to pick up the phone and have a quiet conversation with President Xi Jinping and urge him not to intervene.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Ken Lieberthal, what do you make of this? How should the U.S. be acting, if at all, at this moment?

  • Kenneth Lieberthal:

    We should be making suggestions about how to move forward in this situation to maintain peace. Clearly, if this goes off the rails, it will be enormously damaging to U.S.-China relations, among other things in the region.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Minxin Pei and Kenneth Lieberthal, thank you very much to you both.

  • Minxin Pei:

    Thank you.

  • Kenneth Lieberthal:

    Thank you.

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