The game of chicken in Hong Kong

Why Beijing and Hong Kong are careening towards a bloody disaster

Protesters in Taiwan advocate for Hong Kong.
(Image credit: Ashley Pon/Getty Images)

The key to winning a game of chicken is to convince your opponent that you're willing to crash. Whether you project recklessness, suicidal tendencies, or confidence that you would survive a collision, you need your opponent to believe that swerving is simply not an option for you. And, if you're bluffing, you'd better know whether you've succeeded in making them believe it.

What's happening in Hong Kong is a game of chicken with very high stakes — higher than the fate of the enclave itself. And what makes the stakes so high is the other players watching from the sidelines and preparing their own next moves.

China's strategy throughout the unrest has been to project confidence that they could survive a collision. Their early move to withdraw the extradition bill — undercutting the authority of their hand-picked chief executive, Carrie Lam — was a sign not of weakness but of patience, a preference for waiting out the protests without conceding anything structural. When the protesters escalated their demands, calling for an independent investigation of the police crackdown and free and open elections for Hong Kong's government, and took over the airport, China's response was to vilify them as potential terrorists in domestic and social media, voice complete support for the police, and — most ominously — move People's Liberation Army forces to Shenzhen, telegraphing a possible willingness to send in the military in a replay of the Tiananmen Square crackdown of 30 years ago.

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Is that threat credible? It's debatable. A military intervention would be extremely expensive, both because it would wreck Hong Kong as a global financial hub and would likely trigger economic sanctions by China's trading partners. But China has shown considerable willingness to take economic losses to demonstrate Beijing's authority. That has certainly been one lesson of the trade war with America. Hong Kong is much less essential to China's economic clout than it was at the time of the hand-over, and even access to foreign capital is of dwindling consequence in the context of large-scale decoupling from America. Beijing is probably more worried about preventing Chinese capital flight than attracting foreign investors. China certainly doesn't want to destroy Hong Kong in order to save it, but it can probably afford to, and that makes their threats somewhat more credible than they would otherwise be.

But the protesters are laboring to project the conviction that it doesn't matter. They are desperate, convinced that this is the last stand for freedom in Hong Kong, and that they would rather risk a military crackdown than back down from their demands.

How credible is that position? Taking over the airport was a dramatic escalation because of the direct threat to Hong Kong's economy, and the perception that the government had lost its ability to keep order. In that sense, it was an even bigger step than the demand for open and free elections — and escalation in the face of retreat is what you would expect from a movement that believed it was now or never. But their ability to project that desperation convincingly depends on the support of the wider public in Hong Kong, which Beijing is actively trying to undermine. The movement's recent apologies — however sincere and necessary to shore up popular support — should make Beijing question the solidity of their public backing.

For that reason, Beijing could probably afford to play a patient game, except for one factor: the effect of events in Hong Kong on relations with Taiwan, and the island's willingness not to challenge the status quo.

On the one hand, China might be reluctant to crush the Hong Kong demonstrations militarily because it fears the goad such a crackdown would give to Taiwan's independence movement. Tiananmen remains a rallying cry in Taiwan against reunification; a repeat performance would surely prove catastrophic to China's hopes on its highest foreign policy priority.

But there's another, more ominous way Beijing could look at the matter. China is no longer trying to seduce Taiwan back into a formal relationship with the mainland by showing respect for Hong Kong's autonomy or greater liberalism at home. Quite the contrary. As a consequence, China's only plausible strategy for cowing Taiwan is to demonstrate its willingness to integrate the island by force if necessary. Crushing Hong Kong would certainly send a signal that China would be willing to pay a very steep price to keep Taiwan from escaping its orbit.

It would be vastly better for China if they could subdue Hong Kong without a destructive use of force — lest costly and also less risky. But in its game of chicken across the Taiwan Strait, there is reason for Beijing to want Taipei to believe it would be willing to use force and that Taiwan's reaction would prove no deterrent. And that, in turn, raises the likelihood that, if push comes to shove, Beijing will prefer force to compromise.

The same applies to the game of chicken being played across the Pacific. The Trump administration has been decidedly reluctant to issue any meaningful warnings to China about how it responds to the unrest. This reflects the administration's overall indifference to human rights, but is also a realistic reflection of how little America could do to help Hong Kong's cause. Among other things, foreign support for the protesters would be a propaganda coup for a Chinese regime that is already whipping up a nationalist response to the protesters.

But that hands-off attitude won't fly on Taiwan. What happens if, after a crackdown in Hong Kong — even if it didn't involve PLA troops — Taiwan makes moves toward formal independence, and China threatens war? How sure are we of China's own capability to prosecute such a war? And how much is America willing to risk to protect the island?

A collision between America and China is one that both sides would likely agree neither can truly afford. Pity we've both developed such a taste for chicken lately.

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