It seems China may be about to offer a more assertive response to the protests in Hong Kong. Prominent activists have been arrested in recent days and they join the 900 arrested since protests began in June.
That Chinese military vehicles have been moved into Hong Kong adds to the sense that some sort of an endgame is at hand or, at the very least, that Xi Jinping’s administration is running out of patience with its opponents in the former British colony.
The report from China’s state-run news agency Xinhua that the Hong Kong Garrison of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was making a scheduled rotation and that it was an “annual normal routine” may well be true but it must be a cause for concern in advance of today’s protests, which have been banned by police.
That the Xinhua release did not detail how many troops had moved to the city, as these releases usually do, is another cause for concern. It is just possible that a show of force might dissuade protestors but that seems unlikely as one-in-four of Hong Kong’s 7.4m residents have taken part in protests this summer.
The stage is set for confrontation and, 30 years after the PLA massacred hundreds, if not thousands, in Tiananmen Square, a degree of pessimism is inevitable. Hopefully, it will not be justified.
The international community has urged China not to impose the kind of security crackdown that can only end in bloodshed and tears. It is sobering too to consider the reality of the situation.
Various governments can advise caution, various organisations can counsel restraint but, at the end of the end, no-one can, or might wisely try, to dictate terms to China.
A self-confident superpower, it sets its own terms and agenda — as all superpowers do. Like all superpowers, its record undermines the integrity of its admonishments.
Just yesterday, in August 2019, a man was released from prison in Alabama after serving 36 years for stealing $50.
Alvin Kennard, an African American, spent a year in jail for every $1.38 he was convicted of stealing.
This Dickensian cruelty and the treatment of migrants today — and many, many more examples — suggests that any appeal America might make to China on Hong Kong is vulnerable to a charge of hypocrisy.
Allegations of torture in Kashmir made against India this week makes it difficult for that huge nation to apply pressure on China too.
Narendra Modi’s administration denies the torture charges but they do weaken India’s hand.
Another country that expects to be taken seriously on these matters, Hong Kong’s former colonial ruler, is so riven that it might not feel able to offer guidance to anyone, though that is unlikely to constrain it.
Its difficulties were highlighted yesterday when former prime minister John Major joined a court action against the Conservative government.
That his concerns were echoed by former Labour prime minister Gordon Brown, who warned that post-Brexit reconciliation will take “years if not decades” suggests that the protestors in Hong Kong can expect little enough real support from that, or any other quarter.
Superpowers are indeed different.