As Hong Kong stood on the brink of chaos on Wednesday, China's state run Global Times newspaper warned that the territory must choose between stability and chaos. Its editorials accused protesters of what it termed as "terrorism", painting the unrest as the latest in a series of Western-backed "color revolutions".
With Chinese troops reported massing near the territory's border, where things go next in Hong Kong is very far from clear. What is increasingly apparent, however, is not just that events there represent the greatest challenge to China's Communist Party leadership in three decades. They are also supercharging the growing global divide between democracies and authoritarian states, simultaneously bringing the most powerful– Russia and China – significantly closer.
What was perhaps most striking about the two Global Times leading articles on Wednesday was how strikingly they echoed the world view of President Vladimir Putin's government. With Russia too seeing rising protests against Putin it is hardly a surprise that those in power in both Beijing and Moscow feel similarly threatened. Until very recently, they had felt distinctly heartened by the troubles of Western democracies. They may well still do so – but now they also fear they themselves are under threat.
All this, of course, comes against the backdrop of heightened international rivalry. To what extent Putin's and Chinese President Xi Jinping's nervousness over this unrest will drive those wider tensions remains unclear. The dynamics produced by the Hong Kong situation are extremely complex – particularly when it comes to Beijing's hopes of regaining control of Taiwan.
Those in power in Beijing now face a nightmarish choice. If they crack down brutally in Hong Kong, sending in the People's Liberation Army, they risk not just serious economic damage – including to mainland China – but also further antagonizing their entire neighborhood. Already alarmed nearby states may well move closer to Washington, and Taiwan itself – particularly panicked – will further harden itself against invasion, let alone any closer political links to the mainland.
At worst, the Chinese military - which has spent billions reinventing itself as a sophisticated war-fighting force with global reach – could find itself sucked into garrisoning a restive and potentially violent Hong Kong, perhaps for decades.
Granting concessions to the demonstrators, however – particularly heeding their calls for greater democracy and freedom – risks inviting the same in mainland China. During the two decades of liberalization that preceded Xi taking power in 2012, that might have been imaginable. More lately – particularly since the 2011 "Arab Spring" - it has been a very different matter.
For those directly involved, the string of largely nonviolent "color revolutions" that troubled and sometimes toppled autocratic regimes over the last three decades were seen as mainly spontaneous uprisings against corruption and oppression. The 1974 "Carnation Revolution" in Portugal and the 1986 Philippines "Yellow Revolution" were against U.S.-backed right-wing dictatorships. Since the 1989 "Velvet Revolution" in Czechoslovakia, which helped fuel the wider collapse of the Iron Curtain, they have however been seen by Moscow in particular as deliberately organised - a U.S.-backed conspiracy.
To an extent, that fear was visible as far back as the 2000 nonviolent protests that brought down Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic. It intensified with the 2003 "Rose Revolution" in Georgia and the "Orange Revolution" in Ukraine the following year, each bringing down broadly Moscow-leaning rulers after disputed elections. In 2005, the assassination of Lebanese opposition leader Rafik Hariri prompted the "Cedar Revolution", protests that ultimately forced the withdrawal of Syrian troops, along with growing conspiracy theories that such events were a tool of U.S. foreign policy and regime change.
Sometimes, that has demonstrably been untrue. The Obama administration struggled hugely, particularly in early 2011, to construct a policy to deal with growing discontent against Middle Eastern regimes that were often U.S. allies. Ultimately, however, it was seen to be throwing its weight only half- heartedly behind the protest movements. As seen most graphically in Syria, that was often not enough to help the insurgents, but enough to antagonise Moscow and other allies such as Tehran to weigh in much more seriously.
In truth, the West has taken little action when autocratic states clamped down, as Myanmar did against protests in 2007 and Iran in 2009. Targeted sanctions against officials directly implicated offer one increasingly discussed option for Western governments that do wish to make a point, as on China's growing mass incarceration of its ethnic Muslim Uighur minority. But in comparison to President Donald Trump's oscillating trade war, it is far from clear that Washington will let such concerns truly dominate.
But that may hardly matter. Events like those in Hong Kong represent a potentially existential threat to Xi and those around him, just as those in Moscow might to Putin. Whatever the truth, they may not be able to escape the belief that foreign foes provide the driving force. It is a dynamic that may yet prove disastrous.
Peter Apps is a writer on international affairs, globalization, conflict and other issues. He is the founder and executive director of the Project for Study of the 21st Century; PS21, a non-national, non-partisan, non-ideological think tank. Paralysed by a war-zone car crash in 2006, he also blogs about his disability and other topics. He was previously a reporter for Reuters and continues to be paid by Thomson Reuters. Since 2016, he has been a member of the British Army Reserve and the UK Labour Party, and is an active fundraiser for the party.© Thomson Reuters 2019.