Department of Political Science

Clary offers commentary on Hong Kong protests

Published on Aug 20, 2019

Matthew Clary

Matthew Clary, a lecturer in the Department of Political Science in Auburn’s College of Liberal Arts, studies Chinese politics, U.S./China relations, East Asian politics, American foreign policy and national security and other current events related to international relations.

Clary recently responded to a few questions about the political climate in Hong Kong and the protests taking place.

Can you talk about the history of the situation in Hong Kong?

The most important thing to note about the situation in Hong Kong is the special relationship between the Chinese mainland and the city of Hong Kong. Until 1997, Hong Kong was an overseas territory of the British empire and only returned to be part of China after an arrangement for Hong Kong to maintain its democratic form of government and some semblance of independence and autonomy to govern itself without interference from the Chinese government. While Hong Kong has generally maintained this special status where it has mostly been permitted to govern itself and there are fewer restrictions on civil liberties and civil rights than the Chinese mainland, there has been a slow but steady chipping away at this separation. Most symbolic of this shift was a bill proposed by the Hong Kong government in June 2019 that would have permitted citizens and visitors to Hong Kong to potentially be extradited to the mainland if suspected of being in violation of Chinese law, which the protesters feared would place the citizens of Hong Kong under Chinese legal jurisdiction which would significantly reduce the autonomy of Hong Kong. While the bill was suspended, but importantly not eliminated from consideration, by mid-July, the protests continued to grow and focus on concerns over Hong Kong’s democracy and autonomy. The protesters are using momentum from the anger over the extradition bill to publicly challenge what they perceive to be manipulation and control of the Hong Kong system by the Chinese government. The protests are particularly notable to this point because they have seen protesters storm and occupy significant locations in Hong Kong such as the Legislative Complex and the International Airport, drawing both significant global attention and a severe and often violent response from the Hong Kong police force.

What are the economic implications of the protests going on? And some travel being halted?

In the short-term, the protests have proven to be quite disruptive to the day-to-day economic activities in the city, most notably at the international airport where some flights have been canceled or delayed as a result of protesters occupying parts of the airport. Additionally, sit-ins and worker stoppages have spread to area hospitals, transportation capabilities such as the subway and ferries that are critical to travel within the city, and other economic entities. Furthermore, many businesses have had to shut down for short periods of time due to threats to the safety of their business and customers. Longer-term, the consequences are yet to fully materialize, but a few have been some businesses reconsidering how they do business in Hong Kong and more significantly, boycotts of Hong Kong owned and operated businesses by Chinese firms and government for any perceived involvement with the protests. The long-term consequences of this tension between China and Hong Kong may result in some economic losses, but this will mostly determine how long the protests last and what the resolution ends up being.

How will the protests in Hong Kong impact the rest of the world?

So far, the protests have garnered international attention because of how interconnected Hong Kong is to the global economy and its special relationship to nations in the West such as the United Kingdom or U.S. Arguably, attention has been drawn to the protests because of the potential risk for Chinese intervention against the protests that could possibly look similar to the violent crackdown against democratic protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989. If China were to intervene militarily against the protesters in that manner, it would garner the severest of condemnation by most of the global community and likely result in some sort of punishment, such as economic sanctions that were levied against China following Tiananmen. Additionally, the relationship with Hong Kong would forever be altered as Hong Kong would no longer possess the necessary autonomy from the mainland to self-govern and the notion of having one country with two different political systems would end. The broader implications of this would apply to China’s relationship with Taiwan, whom they envision a similar relationship with. If Hong Kong experiences a violent crackdown in this manner, the prospects of Taiwan and China ever fully reconciling and forming a closer governing arrangement would become significantly less likely.

How do you see this being resolved?

The most likely outcome at the moment seems that either the protests may begin to wind down as they continue to face increased pressure from the Hong Kong police force and not achieve their objectives, or that the Hong Kong government finds an acceptable reform or symbolic change to begin to appease the protesters. The point being that it is most likely that Hong Kong will likely resolve the crisis on its own without too much interference from the Chinese government. At the moment, the least likely outcome seems to be for the People’s Liberation Army, or PLA, to intervene to stop the protests. To do so would require either the Hong Kong government to request such an intervention, which they have publicly stated multiple times will not happen, or for the Chinese government to determine that the protests have grown out of control and so violent to the point that the urgency of stopping the protests outweigh any costs associated with intervention both in terms of the mainland’s long-term relationship with Hong Kong and the reputational costs that would come from the international community in response to any military crackdown against the protests. To reach this point, the protests would have to continue for significantly longer, have a greater impact on the city’s economy and basic functions, and for the protests to reach a level of violence or unruliness that leaves the Chinese government no choice (from their perspective) but to intervene with military force.

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