With regards to the ongoing protests in Hong Kong, Western media often speak of China’s “Hong Kong dilemma” (see here and here), in which China must choose between violent intervention or letting its authority be defied. However, this perspective presents a false dilemma. By looking at Hong Kong from the perspective of China itself, a different picture emerges.
It is no surprise that China sees Hong Kong as part of mainland China. The city was taken from China during its “century of humiliation” in which China was dominated by western powers. For China, taking back control over Hong Kong is thus a matter of national pride. However, it is mistaken to assume that this is all that guides Chinese thinking. For one thing, Hong Kong fulfils an important function for China by providing access to global financial markets. As conflict with the U.S. heats up, protecting the special status of Hong Kong may become more, not less, important to China.
China’s economic strategy could lead China to accept the special status of Hong Kong for longer than is widely expected, perhaps even beyond 2047. This strategy is about much more than the current trade war with the U.S. As protests flooded the streets of Hong Kong, China unveiled its plan to turn Shenzhen, which is tightly connected to Hong Kong, into the leading city for China’s future. It is part of the plan to turn the Pearl River Delta into the most dynamic economic region of the world. The strong rule of law of Hong Kong has turned the city into an important part of this plan. Safeguarding the special status of Hong Kong could therefore remain important to China.