Amid Hong Kong’s unrest, how China is ‘laying the groundwork’ for intervention

Amid Hong Kong’s unrest, how China is ‘laying the groundwork’ for intervention

AMNA NAWAZ:  So with Chinese forces amassed
on the border, tough talk from Beijing, and
protesters not backing down, what now?

For that, we turn to Kenneth Lieberthal.
He was senior director for Asia on the National
Security Council staff during the Clinton
He’s now professor emeritus at the University
of Michigan.

And Minxin Pei is professor of government
at Claremont McKenna College.
He writes extensively about China.

And welcome to you both.

Minxin, I want to start with you.
Is the fact the protesters have left the airport
at the very tense moment has somewhat died
down, does that give you any hope that maybe
things overall are dying down?

this is clearly a turning point.
I think the protesters have committed an unforced
error and they have recognized this.
So they should be — there should be a period
of de-escalation.
What is unknown is what the government will
If the government takes advantage of this
period and starts arresting more protesters
or even charging them, then we can see a return
of the protesters.
So things are still quite fluid.

AMNA NAWAZ:  Well, hundreds of protesters
have already been arrested.
Based on what you’ve heard from the government
so far, what do you think the Chinese government
will do?

MINXIN PEI:  Well, first of all, the Hong
Kong government has arrested them.
So, it’s up to the Hong Kong government to
decide whether to charge those who have been
arrested or whether to prosecute those who
have been charged.
So this is up to the Hong Kong government.

What the Chinese government wants to do really
depends whether the Hong Kong government can
maintain control of the situation.
A few days ago, it certainly seemed that the
Hong Kong government was losing its grip.
Today, I’m a little bit more relieved.

AMNA NAWAZ:  Kenneth Lieberthal, what do
you think about this?
How do you assess where we are right now?

COUNCIL STAFF:  I agree that there is a moment
here that possibly could be seized to find
a way forward and get us out of a conundrum
that could otherwise produce a tragedy, and
— but I think that way forward will require
first an initiative by the Hong Kong government,
to my mind, likely including a willingness
by the Chief Executive Carrie Lam to step
Some outreach to the major constituencies
across Hong Kong to form some sort of commission
to review what’s happened and carry out necessary
investigations and give their opinion.
Essentially a long-term trust-building process
that can ease tensions and stop a situation
where radicals — you know, the most radical
elements among demonstrators are seizing the
initiative and, frankly, moving beyond what
I think Beijing can possibly tolerate.

AMNA NAWAZ:  Kenneth Lieberthal, back to
But when you hear how the Chinese government
has been speaking so far, right?
They’re labeling this terrorism.
They’re calling the protesters criminals.
You see the troop movement and buildup, the
color revolution comparisons now.

Does it sound like they’re laying the groundwork
for some kind of intervention?

KENNETH LIEBERTHAL:  They are laying the
groundwork for an intervention but I think
they really strongly prefer not to move in
with force.
They really want the Hong Kong government
to get on top of this.
To the extent the Hong Kong government fails
to find a way to do that, I think we will
see increasing use of force.

I don’t think anything like Tiananmen from
1989 is in the cards.
The world has changed since then and Hong
Kong is not a student movement in Beijing
30 years ago.
But we could see a lot happen that would do
tremendous damage to Hong Kong, to China,
to U.S.-China relations and to the region.

AMNA NAWAZ:  Minxin Pei, if those steps that
Ken Lieberthal laid out don’t happen and
you see an escalating, a ratcheting up of
tensions on both sides — you were writing
about this, you said it seems to be careening
toward a devastating climax.
Are you worried there would be some kind of
Tiananmen-type crackdown?

MINXIN PEI:  Well, it really depends on what
happens in the next 45 days, because China
is going to celebrate the 70th anniversary
of the founding of the People’s Republic.
It’s politically symbolically very important,
and the Chinese government would like to,
of course, prepare, to have an uneventful

But if, for example, this continuation of
this hard line position from Beijing, at least
rhetorically, and then the kinds of things
laid out fail to take place at the concessions
made by the Hong Kong government, we can see
a return of the protesters, very close to
the celebration of the 70th anniversary.

AMNA NAWAZ:  But are they really going to
wait 45 days?
If the protests pick back and continue, would
they wait that long before taking action?

MINXIN PEI:  Well, it’s a very difficult
decision for the Chinese government to make.
I think this is really their last resort.
They’re not going to act until Hong Kong is
Suppose there were another general strike
that paralyzes Hong Kong, that might force
Beijing’s hand, but we’re quite far away from
that point so far.
AMNA NAWAZ:  Ken Lieberthal, some of the
language leads us to believe that Beijing
views this very much as an existential threat,
that if the protests pick back up and if they
continue, they will in some way be forced
to act.
Do you see it that way?

KENNETH LIEBERTHAL:  Yes, I do, but the question
is, when they’re forced to act, that doesn’t
necessarily mean to have a large number of
troops move across the border from Shenzhen,
PLA in the streets, et cetera.
You could have a declaration by the Hong Kong
government of a state of emergency in Hong
Kong, some curtailment of civil liberties,
stronger actions by the Hong Kong police and
judiciary, escalate to potentially using the
Beijing PLA garrison in Hong Kong to be a
presence on the streets.

You know, there are a whole series of things
you can do shy of having tanks moving across
the border, and I think they will more likely
try to increase the pressure step by step,
but I very much agree with Minxin, this is
a very dangerous situation and, frankly, no
one knows exactly what the politics are in
Beijing among the leadership that inevitably
will play a role in how this is handled there.

AMNA NAWAZ:  Minxin, very briefly if you
can, what is at stake here for the Chinese
How is Beijing assessing this?

MINXIN PEI:  Well, it’s really — it’s
authority in Hong Kong because the Beijing
government has seen — is seeing this challenge
as not a challenge to Hong Kong government
but to the authority of the Chinese government.

AMNA NAWAZ:  So we’ve seen what President
Trump has had to say so far.
Is there or should there be a role for the
U.S. in all of this?

MINXIN PEI:  Yes, there should be a role,
but the role should be very delicate, quiet.
I think one thing President Trump can do is
to pick up the phone and have a quiet conversation
with President Xi Jinping and urge him not
to intervene.

AMNA NAWAZ:  Ken Lieberthal, what do you
make of this?
How should the U.S. be acting, if at all,
at this moment?

KENNETH LIEBERTHAL:  We should be making
suggestions about how to move forward in this
situation to maintain peace.
Clearly, if this goes off the rails, it will
be enormously damaging to U.S.-China relations,
among other things in the region.

AMNA NAWAZ:  Minxin Pei and Kenneth Lieberthal,
thank you very much to you both.

MINXIN PEI:  Thank you.


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