Hong Kong: On Crisis Management

There hasn’t been too much change in the Hong Kong situation in the last twenty-four hours. Each side is sticking to its core demands (Government: “The protests must end”; Protesters: “Chief Executive C.Y. Leung must go”). I was worried that some activists might seek to disrupt a formal ceremony marking China’s National Day, but the principal leaders were able to ensure restraint by their followers.

The unity and leadership of the opposition camp is a matter for concern. The New York Times had a good article this morning on the amorphous, loosely led character of the movement (“Hong Kong Protests Are Leaderless but Orderly”). Those who are seeking more democracy than Beijing is willing to grant are quite “democratic” within their ranks. The pro-democracy camp has suffered serious fragmentation over the last two decades, to its own detriment.

This is a cause for serious concern. The beginning of the current crisis began when one faction of the pro-democracy camp decided on Friday evening to independently undertake action that was more radical than other factions preferred.

And this is a crisis. In a stressful circumstance like this one, a good-enough outcome will be possible only if each of the contending sides is united in its assessment of the situation (hopefully a fairly accurate assessment); in the definition of its goals and the options available; and in the leadership’s ability to implement its decisions on their followers. Successful crisis management also requires that each side takes pains to give the opposing side a way out of the impasse. Backing the opposition into a corner almost guarantees escalation and failure. The Hong Kong opposition’s amorphous character may impede its ability to manage the crisis.

This is not a re-run of the Tiananmen Crisis in Beijing in the spring of 1989 (not yet, at least). The underlying circumstances are very different. But some aspects of Tiananmen are relevant here. There is a strong case to be made that the standoff between the regime and the protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989 was on the way to winding down in late May and very early June and that a violent outcome was not inevitable. But each side was split. Deng Xiaoping was convinced that the regime was in peril and rejected the advice of colleagues who argued for moderation. On the demonstrators side, the students from the Beijing area that had initiated the movement lost power to more radical activists from outside the capital itself. Each side saw little interest in giving the other a way out. The new leaders of the protesters wanted validation through a violent martyrdom; the regime believed it was under siege and had no choice but to re-impose control through force.

I suggested yesterday that some division within the establishment camp may be conducive to Beijing and the Hong Kong government moving off their current hard line stance. That remains true. At the same time, the pro-democracy camp needs more unity than it has shown if it is to avoid bad choices and a bad outcome.