Another week, another round of demonstrations and chaotic scenes in Hong Kong. Protesters have grown increasingly militant, while police have become noticeably more forceful. In the absence of any peaceful dialogue, the once unthinkable scenario of a PLA military intervention has become a very real concern. But it's not just Hong Kongers and outside observers who are getting worried; so too is Beijing.

Largely silent for the first two months of protests, the recent escalation of unrest in Hong Kong has prompted a steady stream of strong-handed words from mainland officials and state media. But despite efforts to present a calm handle on the situation, the very act of making official statements signals that the Chinese government is seriously alarmed. (Its Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office has now given three briefings within just two weeks, having not previously held a press conference for over two decades.)

That sense of alarm is visible not just in signals, but also in substance. Officials have warned protesters against "playing with fire" or else entering a "road to no return", even falling into a "bottomless abyss". Beijing's latest diatribes speak of "heinous and extreme atrocities" and even "terrorist acts". At the same time, pictures of army vehicles assembling for drills in the nearby mainland city of Shenzhen have been posted online via state media outlets.

On the surface, such words and images seem to suggest a government that is confident in its ability to scare unruly citizens into submission; comparisons have been drawn with the rhetoric used before the harsh 1989 crackdown.[1] In reality, however, Beijing's use of euphemistic and hyperbolic language belies the uncertainty and unease that authorities must surely feel in dealing with the present crisis.

The reason for such worry is very straightforward. For China's leaders, the current unrest reflects their worst fears about what could one day happen on the mainland. As a result, the way that Beijing responds in Hong Kong matters not just in terms of determining the future of the SAR, but also in setting a precedent for dealing with public order events elsewhere in the PRC.

Are there signs that a similar large-scale protest is about to break out on the mainland? No. Many people will dismiss the idea of anything remotely similar being possible in highly-authoritarian China. But if the Hong Kong movement has taught us anything, it is the speed with which political winds can change direction, and the intensity with which relatively small matters can erupt into much larger issues. And in China today, there is no shortage of such smaller demonstrations and strikes taking place every day.[2]

Combine those pent-up social tensions with looming economic stagnation and an ongoing breakdown in political norms, and you have the perfect recipe for mass public unrest. Fast forward to a time when China's population is significantly older and wealthier, its middle class more worldly and well-educated, its young minority frustrated by stagnant wages and soaring property prices. All of a sudden, the ground for grassroots protest to grow into something bigger appears very fertile indeed. To paraphrase Mao's famous analogy, there is a chance that a single spark could start a prairie fire.

And if you think the scenes in Hong Kong look bad, the likelihood is that a major demonstration across the border would be much more turbulent, for several reasons. In mainland China, the alternative channels for airing political or legal grievances – such as the free press and judiciary enjoyed by Hong Kong – are much more limited. The country's social tensions – pent up over decades of repression and censorship – are much more serious. And the economic stakes – for the world's second largest economy and its population of 1.4 billion – are much, much greater. China also has a longer, deeper history of political turmoil being played out through radical mass movements.

If such an event were to take place within mainland Chinese borders, Beijing would surely stick resolutely to its long-favoured strategy of preserving stability at all costs – many internal and external observers point to the decades of post-Tiananmen stability as evidence of its success. The more important question is what would happen if and when that strategy stopped working. The answer, as we are arguably seeing in miniature form in Hong Kong, is a vicious cycle of violence breeding violence, where efforts to "preserve stability" (维稳, wéiwěn) only result in greater instability.[3]

For the time being, Beijing has navigated away from that nightmare scenario on the mainland through a strict regime of propaganda and media control. Its censors and mouthpieces are managing to contain the inbound flow of information about Hong Kong and mould public sentiment against protesters.[4] This tight grip on information remains a major advantage to the Chinese government, whether in preventing the present Hong Kong movement from spreading, or in controlling future incidents of mass unrest on the mainland.

But it's also a double-edged sword. The Great Firewall separating Hong Kong and mainland China allows information to flow freely in and out of the semi-autonomous city. If there were to be a violent crackdown in Hong Kong, foreign press would broadcast the bloody scenes in real time. Shocking images would be seen on social media by a horrified global audience. It would be devastating for China's image, and be immediately destructive for Hong Kong's economy. But worst of all, it would set a dark and dangerous precedent for how any future mass movements are to be dealt with in the rest of China.

For both Hong Kong and China's sake, let us hope that the worst does not come to pass.


[1] One such comparison is made in this SCMP commentary by academic Minxin Pei.

[2] For example, the large number of labour strikes, as documented here.

[3] Scholar Yu Jianrong has called this current practice "rigid stability", an inferior alternative to his proposed ideal of "resilient stability".

[4] The NYT charges China with "waging a disinformation war against protestors." From personal conversations, it is clear there is almost zero support for the Hong Kong protests among mainland Chinese citizens.

Header image: China's national emblem splashed with ink during anti-extradition bill protests in July (Reuters/Tyrone Siu).