Protesters shelter under umbrellas during a downpour as they occupy roads near the government headquarters in Hong Kong on June 12, 2019. Photo: AFP/ Anthony Wallace

One often hears that Hong Kong people care only about making money and have little interest in how they are governed.

A million people in the streets protesting a Beijing-mandated extradition law suggests otherwise. The law – potentially allowing China to grab people in Hong Kong and take them in handcuffs to the People’s Republic for “trial,” has provoked a bigger and fiercer response than either Beijing or its local representatives in the Legislative Council (Hong Kong’s parliament) imagined.

Something important – indeed, inspirational – has to be going on to get a million Hong Kongers, almost 15% of the population, out protesting.  That something is a desire for fair and consensual government combined with implicit fear of the authoritarian police state that is the PRC with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in control – a place where “rights” are exactly (and only) what Xi Jinping says they are.

Hong Kongers can differ among themselves on the sort of freedom and self-government they want – such is always the case with a million people. But the range of their yearnings is at least a first-cousin to the democracy and individual freedoms that Americans and other free people will recognize.

The CCP is incapable of providing such freedom to its citizens, in Hong Kong or on the mainland – and, indeed, is scared to death of the idea. Hong Kong protesters demanding freedom of whatever sort give the lie to Beijing’s arguments that its citizens don’t mind a boot on the neck as the alternative to chaos. South Africa’s Afrikaners argued the same thing about black Africans during the now long gone Apartheid era.

What are the Chinese Communists likely to do next in Hong Kong?

Although Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, on Saturday “suspended” the extradition legislation, this is just a tactical pause. Yet, too many Western China hands will breath a sigh a relief and declare a sea change in Mainland behavior in which Beijing has backed down and recognized Hong Kong’s special status and freedoms.

The China hands always do this. And they are always wrong. Recall when the Chinese sent an oil-drilling rig into Vietnam’s South China Sea exclusive economic zone in 2014? After a tense stand off, the oil rig packed up and left. The headlines read: “China blinks” and the China hands rejoiced. They shouldn’t have. Beijing just went about taking de facto control of the South China Sea via a different route – going full speed ahead with its island-building campaign.

Regardless of how the current Hong Kong protests play out, the CCP through its local agents such as Ms. Lam will continue its multi-pronged effort to bring Hong Kong and the vocal opposition to heel. But Hong Kongers will continue to simmer – distressed at the gradual erosion of their freedoms. Eventually, frustration will erupt and the cycle we’ve observed this week will repeat itself – as Hong Kong slides closer towards becoming just another Chinese city.

According to one observer familiar with both Hong Kong and the CCP, “Chances are they will wait and then punish who they believe are the ring leaders, just as they did with the ‘umbrella movement’ in 2014: jail time for ridiculous reasons; constant and pervasive harassment.”

The police are thoroughly penetrated and co-opted by the CCP/mainlanders, although I note their anti-riot tactics and skills are still pitiful. Back when I was still in Hong Kong and they had the 2005 World Trade Organization ministerial meeting and the riots began, they had to round up all the old expat coppers to man the front lines. The locals couldn’t handle it – they were taking beatings. If things get rough the Hong Kong Police will be outclassed very quickly.

The wild card – as always – will be how far Beijing is willing to let things go. Will they back down again, and then use their toadies to start again on a different route – just as with the security law and education “reforms” – or will they finally crack down hard?

” I suspect the former,” says the observer I quoted above. “But the latter is possible if the kids on the streets embarrass the flatfoots [the police] and it looks like the Quislings have lost control. Keep in mind, the Chinese have security teams operating all over Hong Kong, not to mention local gangsters in their pockets, and they could easily and quickly intercede – kill, beat, or scare the hell out of some the more vocal protestors – short of a full Tiananmen Square scenario.

“Fingers crossed,” he adds, that “the protesters dig in and really fight for freedom. Frankly it’s just embarrassing and disgusting that we [Americans] are not backing them – or at least trying to fake it and make the right noises. Again the CIA are shockingly feckless. China is our biggest threat and we should be doing everything to destabilize and weaken their empire – Hong Kong, Tibet, Uighurs, etc., etc.”

Sometimes a US administration faces an event that will define it. This is the Trump Administration’s opportunity.

Most recently, the Obama administration faced the Scarborough Shoal in 2012 when the PRC seized Philippine ocean territory, and before that the Iranian Green Revolution in 2009. President Obama failed miserably. Indeed, giving the word “craven” a bad name, Mr. Obama couldn’t even muster the decency to speak up forcefully (or at all) to support an ally in the Scarborough Shoal case, or for brave Iranians demanding freedom and a change of government after a rigged election.

As for President Trump: Military options for supporting Hong Kong are not very good – and this writer believes are ill-advised beyond speeding up existing efforts to bolster the US position in the region and to support allies and friends. But moral and verbal support to keep freedom’s ember glowing in Hong Kong is essential. Such was the case during the Cold War when the US spoke up in support of liberty in the Communist bloc despite long odds of it ever happening.

Even Nelson Mandela noted how it was psychologically important while he was imprisoned to have at least moral support from America and the West for the anti-apartheid movement. The Afrikaner-run government hated that moral support.

US Government officials, politicians (and propagandists, if there are any competent ones) should be trumpeting admiration for the Hong Kong protesters – who want nothing more than a bit of freedom of the sort Americans value.

So far, Mr Trump has managed only an offhand remark expressing hope Beijing and the Hong Kong protester “work it out.” Doesn’t exactly remind one of Thomas Jefferson.

But how about Mr. Trump addressing the nation and the world in the next couple days? The window of opportunity is closing.

In 1987, Ronald Reagan declared in West Berlin and in front of the cameras: “Mr. Gorbachev – tear down this wall!” This horrified the State Department and much of America’s foreign policy and academic elite. Yet, the Berlin Wall came down two years later in a chain of events nobody – and certainly not the CIA – expected.

Mr. Trump, get on television and channel Ronald Reagan: “Mr. Xi – let Hong Kong have a real election. Like you promised. What are you afraid of?”

And once you’ve done that, do the following: Delist the Chinese company Alibaba, and the next five largest PRC companies listed on US stock exchanges, impose a total ban on Huawei, prohibit US pension funds (public and private) from investing in the PRC, and quietly cancel the green cards of prominent CCP leaders’ relatives in the USA – and freeze their bank accounts.

And this is just for starters.

An American President cannot go wrong standing up for freedom. It’s what America – like Hong Kong – is about, after all.

Grant Newsham is a senior research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies. He is a retired US Marine colonel and was the first US Marine liaison officer to the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force. In that role he was instrumental in developing Japan’s nascent amphibious capability.

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