Until a few days ago, the peaceful turned occasionally violent pro-democracy movement by Hong Kong's inhabitants was about securing universal adult suffrage (UAS), official withdrawal of the extradition Bill, and resignation of HK's Chief Executive Officer Carrie Lam. However, when protestors failed to secure a resolution, some of them started waiving foreign nations' flags and singing national anthem, such as of US and UK.

There are conflicting views on the meaning of waving these flags and singing the anthems. They range from secessionist views (complete independence) or rule under a democratic bastion such as UK; diplomatic and political intervention by western democracies for securing HK's autonomy and UAS; while others not supporting a call to an another nation at all. Inkstone has covered these views here.

China has termed the expression of flag waving as foreign intervention in internal affairs with serious repercussion for HK. As I understand, whatever the numeric strength of these flag waivers be and so does their intention for that expression, waiving of a foreign flag and singing anthem and explicitly using signs such as "Liberate Hong Kong" in a political movement is tantamount to professing disloyalty to the State legally in possession of the territory under conflict.

In such a scenario, a state has obligation to protect itself from disloyal citizenry and to quell any movement threatening its territorial integrity. China is known to quell political movements threatening the status quo, the popular of them is the Tiananmen square protests and the massacre that followed, where China dubbed protestors as terrorists and prosecuted them violently.

What bewilders me is why China, being an authoritative State as it has always been, has not destroyed the movement through military intervention in the face of such disturbing acts of disloyalty to it by some protestors?

Chinese media many a times has dubbed these protestors in wholesale as nothing short of terrorists which is rather extreme but indeed fitting from Chinese point of view. So I don't assume China is showing restraint because it believes the majority of protestors do not want complete secession. In fact, authoritative states tend to find one reasonable excuse just to put their boots on the ground.

In addition, the Security Council, the global peacekeeping arm of UN, cannot be a problem for China with the latter being itself a permanent veto-equipped member. Furthermore, with Russia not having good democratic credentials and with UK marred with Brexit issues and a threat to recession with no-Brexit deal it is unlikely a resolution against China could even muster majority in UNSC.

  • Theoretically speaking, nothing prevents any government, be it China, US, France, Peru, etc. from just marching soldiers out and gunning down random members of its own population in the street. But China, like other wise governments, views violence against their own as a last resort.
    – klojj
    Sep 24, 2019 at 19:15
  • They cracked down on Tiananmen only after Tiananmen terrorists started to burn unarmed soldiers and hang they corpses around (go ahead, try "Tiananmen burnt soldier" in both your preferred text and image search engines). Why are you surprised that they don't go for such drastic means as long as HK protesters stay within more reasonable borders? Jun 28, 2020 at 14:44

6 Answers 6


It is difficult to find particular causes without having access to views of insider sources but certain conditions and ambitions can be assumed to be adding to the restraint China is showing. Some of them are:

  • Chinese economy has slowed down recently and trade war with the US is adding fuel into it. Given that HK is used as the global expansion platform for many Chinese enterprises to source investment and engage in commerce and trade with the world, quelling could further sink Chinese economy which provides for 1.4 billions of people.

  • Tianlei Huang argued that the free market capitalist environment of HK is in the best interests of China and its maintenance requires rule of law. It might not be a coincidence that China backed HK leadership is constantly impressing upon the need of maintaining rule of law for prosperity of HK. Furthermore, the Economist argued that an increase in troops presence around HK border could be a tactic to deter violation of rule of law through threat of violence.

  • The galactic size Belt and Road Initiative of China spanning Asia and Europe with significant economic and political gains to make, could stand threatened by potential European sanctions against China with the mishandling of HK. Given that EU is the second largest trade partner of China, the effect of sanctions would only intensify.

  • The rise of China as a global power could take a big hit with sanctions if its enterprises are hindered from expanding beyond its frontiers. To cite an example, Huawei controversy seems to be surrounded around arresting the rise of China.

  • It is assumable that the conciliatory approach through restraint and dialogue using HK government is a facade put up by the ambitious China to project itself as a responsible power and to occupy space being created by the superpower US (lately alleged for being irresponsible on many international fronts).

  • It is also possible that China wants to first discredit the HK movement, which it seems to be doing in both mainland and outside by spreading misinformation on social media, so that when a reasonable consensus has been built against HK or at least in favor of China, HK movement could be destroyed without inviting public outcry from the global citizenry. This seems important because a public outcry at large from western democratic nations could force the latter to take a hard political stance against China for gross human rights violation.

  • 6
    Presumably also after sending tanks to HK, it would be a bit harder to convince Taiwan, that unification under "one country, two systems" would be a good idea.
    – Shadow1024
    Sep 12, 2019 at 12:05
  • 4
    @Shadow1024 If CPC seriously wanted to convince Taiwan, they would have had to take "one country, two systems" seriously in Hong Kong, and they never did that. In Taiwan, nobody in their right mind wants it to become another Hong Kong, even without tanks on the street.
    – michau
    Sep 12, 2019 at 13:08
  • 3
    Hong Kong may have been a global expansion platform for Chinese businesses 20 years ago, nowadays China has many of its own big cities with Hong Kong's GDP being just a few per cent of China's GDP.
    – JJJ
    Sep 12, 2019 at 13:29
  • For those who, like me, read CPC as the Climate Prediction Centre it turns out what michau is talking about China's Communist Party who control the country. Sep 12, 2019 at 14:58

I think the current highest voted answer already answers the question, but I wanted to add one more small bit of context.

The Journal of Democracy ran a section on China in the April edition this year (vol 30, no 2). There's one specific article that stands out about the impact Tiananmen has had on Xi. This paragraph in particular:

But the CCP remembers, and the ramifications of that run deep. For the CCP, Tiananmen is the source of an inner trauma that has been triggered repeatedly by the fall of European communism, the Arab Spring, [End Page 38] and successive color revolutions. It brings those distant events home, makes them concrete, and imbues them with vicarious, unnerving significance. Tiananmen is also the subtext that sustains the Party’s singular fixation on the demise and disintegration of the Soviet Union.6 Recalling the Soviet collapse is the oblique way the CCP reminds its rank-and-file of how narrowly it escaped the same fate, and cautions them that it may be tested yet again. President Xi Jinping is a notable devotee of this practice. [1]

I point this out to say that the current Chinese government is fully aware of how that played out and is cautious to escalate any similar situation (Hong Kong), so they may be practicing some restraint at the moment.

The second point I wanted to make, probably less important, is that China has taken a more "benevolent" approach to (some) dissent, and has found it more effective to place dissidents under house arrest or even send them on vacation (not "vacation," actual vacation). See the New Yorker article [2] for more.

(This second point is only worth mentioning to point out that violent repression is not always the recourse China turns to, but this is dependent on the situation. For instance, Uyghurs still regularly face state-sanctioned violence).

[1] Glenn Tiffert. 30 Years After Tiananmen: Memory in the Era of Xi Jinping. Journal of Democracy, Vol 30, No 2. Freely available at https://www.journalofdemocracy.org/articles/30-years-after-tiananmen-memory-in-the-era-of-xi-jinping/

[2] (possibly paywalled) https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/12/24/chinas-bizarre-program-to-keep-activists-in-check


One answer may well be "because this way they win easiest" The CCP can wait; HK isn't actually going anywhere, and having shown restraint they can carry on with slowly squeezing all dissenters over a longer period.

The violent parts actually only work to the benefit of the CCP, those protesters who indulge in it only help the CCP paint itself as non-sinister for not crushing dissent, and tarnish the other, non-violent protesters with the appearance of being violent.

  • Or it can also be said that the Chinese government is busy dealing with pork price in the mainland, building up other economy centers, dealing with the US-China trade war... So intervening in the local riot without explicit request from the local governor seems a bit time-wasting for them
    – ComradeH
    Sep 13, 2019 at 1:19
  • Most of the violence has been perpetuated by undercover police officers masquerading as protesters. As clever as these kind of tricks might appear at first glance, they don't work well in the internet age. And there is no winning for the CCP, but Xi is too dumb to see it. Over time, people will realize the truth, the protesters are protesting against the tough living conditions of modern China (which includes hong kong) against a CCP that has long ago morphed into the Cash and Corruption Party. Sep 24, 2019 at 15:12

Ultimately, if China decides tomorrow that sending in the army to stamp out the protests is the way to go, it will do so. There are a couple of points that they are most certainly considering:

  • while the Security Council won’t be able to draw up a resolution involving economic sanctions due to China’s veto, the EU, US, Japan, South Korea and other significant export markets might impose economic sanctions on their own behalf. China observed what happened in Crimea, the sanctions applied to Russia especially by the EU and the effects they had on Russian economy. It will be careful to avoid mistakes.

  • Hong Kong’s economy relies heavily on being a leading financial centre. This is of great interest to the PRC as they can benefit in multiple direct and indirect ways of a strong financial centre under ‘their’ jurisdiction. Financial institutions can relocate rather easily if they feel their profits are endangered so the Chinese government will attempt to avoid that perception at all costs. Of course, this also has a flipside as ongoing protests will paint a place as unstable which the financial industry also doesn’t like.

  • As the protests themselves are based on a Hong Kong-internal issue, there is little reason for them to propagate into mainland China and thus it is highly unlikely for the CCP’s power to be at stake any time soon. The CCP can afford to loosen and tighten its grip on Hong Kong as it sees fit because all of its power derives from the mainland and the People’s Liberation Army. Until that power base is at stake, there is no need to rush.

  • As Orangesandlemons points out, time may be working in favour of the PRC. The public tends to get tired of protests. The extradition bill that sparked the case has been withdrawn, taking one significant issue off the table. Maybe after some time, the CCP will urge Lam to resign or another symbolic concession will be made to further decrease support of the protests. Ultimately, the CCP may feel that this is the better tactic as it avoids the international negative publicity.

  • On the other hand, a quick and dirty stamp out may increase local support for the protests, potentially sparking an enduring guerilla war. Hong Kong probably wouldn’t win but it’s something the CCP would definitely want to avoid.

  • As of currently, the CCP can paint the protestors as anti-Chinese very well which may suit their interests in mainland China best. By repeatedly pointing out how bad this terrible Hong Kong place actually is, support for the mainland Chinese way of life can increase. Having a ‘threat’ right outside your door that you can keep pointing at helps divert attention away from any domestic issues the PRC may be facing such as an economy cooling down.

  • Any action the PRC takes on Hong Kong will be closely monitored by Taiwan. Sending in the army to stamp out the protests may cause Taiwan to seek better alliances with military partners as it may be perceived as a risk of invasion. The PRC most certainly does not want improved relations of Taiwan with other parts of the world except if it is a PRC-Chinese relation.

This list is by definition incomplete and probably half-wrong. As we cannot look into the brains of Xi and his circle we cannot know which aspects are more important and which I have missed (and which might be superfluous).

  • time is not on the side of the PRC... The fundamental conditions that sparked the HK crisis exist in every single major Chinese city. And what Xi thinks is a matter of profound irrelevance, as it should now be abundantly clear that Xi is not a good manager of crisis, not a good assessor of situations, and not a good leader of men. And his situation awareness is also deplorably low. At the current rate, he will likely be out of a job in 3 to 6 months. Sep 24, 2019 at 14:41
  • If the Chinese economy gets worse, Xi will be invited to retire by his OWN party (if they feel generous) or be charged with corruption (if they don't). Xi's strong man rule for life dream will end. The person who can least afford an economic crisis is Xi (who promised to make China strong, as Deng made it Rich). His recent series of missteps have most certainly encouraged his many domestic senior party member enemies. He knows this better than anyone, and this is why he doesn't know what his next move should be. He is totally paralyzed. Sep 24, 2019 at 15:19
  • Well, as of the time of writing this answer unless I missed a number of news headlines Xi is still the most powerful man in China and will most certainly be an important contributor to all discussions. Whether that is still the case tomorrow, next week, in three months, in six months or in a year is not that important to the answer, which addresses what the reasons may be from a now perspective. Atm, I see practically zero indication that protests might pop up in the mainland (and I think the CCP would know before I do) so as of now I think time is working in their favour. Subject to change.
    – Jan
    Sep 24, 2019 at 15:23
  • Yeah.. That's the thing about being an emperor.. You are a emperor.. until you are not. By the way, one of the top concerns of the CCP central committee is the protests spreading to other cities in China. And it is totally important to the answer of the question. Xi is the man in charge right now, and he is scared (can you not smell the fear?). Because he actually has some idea of how the game works. Sep 24, 2019 at 15:26
  • Oh yes, the absolutely last thing the CCP wants is for the protests to spread to the mainland and I strongly assume that a lot of the Chinese media articles that get picked up internationally aren’t so much a warning to Hong Kong as rather a warning to Chinese. The army exercises outside Hong Kong probably served exactly the same (side) purpose.
    – Jan
    Sep 24, 2019 at 15:34

The Fear of Death.

This is what usually the #1 reason that stops an authoritarian from doing anything.

Contrary to what most people think, the government in Beijing does not have all the cards. If they had all the cards the protests in Hong Kong would have already ended, as the OP suggested.

So what are the factors keeping Xi from doing what he and his supporters probably want?

  1. Fear of consequences. Hong Kong is an international cultural and financial center. It is very international, and very well known and extremely well connected. If something were to happen in terms of a crackdown. The western powers will feel compelled to impose harsh sanctions on China. And that would be extremely disruptive to the Chinese economy. And modern China is very different than the 1989 China. Everyone has property and debt now. No one can tolerate a massive fall in asset prices.

  2. Fear of consequences 2. While #1 is a given, the effectiveness is not. Violence is easy to start but hard to end. And there is no guarantee that the result of military action would not be a local insurgency. And that would be a disaster for China by itself. And if the army would not refused the order to open fire (very unlikely), the regime face imminent collapse.

  3. Fear of domestic political blowbacks. Like any ruler, Xi is not an all powerful guy. He spent years cracking down on his rivals. But the thing with rivals is, the harder you crackdown, the more (secret rivals) you have. Xi is paranoid enough to know that. If #1 and #2 happen (or just #1 by itself), his position would be very much in jeopardy.

And he knows the game well enough to know, when you play the game of thrones, you lose, you die.

The Fear of Death


China could be calculating the upcoming U.S. election into the timing of enforcing crackdowns on the Hong Kong Protestors. The situations in the United States is that the U.S. Citizens are very much aware of the situation in Hong Kong to some degree, especially the waving of the United States Flag and statements by some Hong Kong protesters expressing support for their own version of the Second Amendment. These immages coincided with a mass shooting in the United States, and were used by the Pro-Second Amendment side of American Politics to push back against calls for more restrictions on the right (many pro-second amendment Americans believe that it is a check on the very government pressure that is feared will happen in Hong Kong).

These groups tend to be largely supportive of Donald Trump, who as mentioned, is currently negotiating trade terms, and while he's very clearly critical of China (going so far as to suggest American Companies leave China, which many either already have or are currently working on doing), he'd much rather get a favorable deal then leave the table over a riot. Of course, this has lead to criticism of Trump for not responding to the situation in Hong Kong from his opposition.

Economically, the United States is a bigger player in the world markets than China. If either party walks away from the Trade War without a deal, they both suffer economic down turns, but the United States economy is such a beast that it can weather that storm better than the Chinese economy, which relies on the United States basing much of it's manufacturing jobs there. While Trump may be at the table to negotiate with China despite China having a very public uprising that it feels it needs to get control on, political pressure on a U.S. President in a re-election cycle might force Trump to walk away from the table if China makes an aggressive move on Hong Kong. Not only are his supporters loyal, even to a fault, it will play well with his opposition, who are more concerned about the civil rights of Hong Kong citizens than trade negotiations with China.

Losing the U.S. Market and Hong Kong at the same time is going to be a nightmare for China's economy. Most of the people who do trade with China also do trade with the U.S. and if the United States says "you either trade with us, or you trade with China", most of those countries will side with the United States.

The power of the Chinese economy is the sheer size of it's population, not it's policies. To give you an idea, in a GDP(PPP) comparison, China is the largest overall economy and the United States follows behind it, just barely. But when adjusted for Per Capita (population), The United States is one of the top 10 GDPs in the world, while China drops to somewhere between 72nd and 83rd most powerful economy in the world. And in case you were wondering, the nations with a higher GDP(PPP) per capita that are higher than the United States, are mostly tax havens and are have a much lower population than the United States (3rd in the World).

This means that for any equal amount of population, the United States Economy is much more powerful than the Chinese economy, and China is only the most powerful because it's got way more people than the United States (a billion to 300 million, 3rd by population). It's worth noting that India is the third largest Economy overall and second only to China in population (but is low on the list in GDP(PPP) per capita).

And why does losing Hong Kong hurt China? Well, if we did a GDP (PPP) per Capita of Hong Kong, we find that it's slightly higher than the United States economy. So really, if China is going to have problems with the Hong Kong protests and the United States walks away from Trade Deals over China's handling of Hong Kong, they are risking alienating two economies that are the strength of the United States in the same go. And unfortunately for China, the next largest economic zone it has domestic access to is Macau... which has a GDP(PPP) per Capita just south of the combined figures of the United States and Hong Kong... and is also a Special Administrative Region (SAR) like Hong Kong. So really, China is risking alienating three economies, all of which have a hand in China's role in it's number one overall economic strength rating. And India and China are not the greatest economic partners... and can largely fill the same low skilled job needs china can for the U.S. as can just about any nation in the general area.

The one thing working in China's favor is that it's government will not be changing leadership in the near future as opposed to the United States, which is about a year out from getting rid of a leader who is "Hard on China" and installing an unknown leader in his his place. If China can not act on the Hong Kong situation for a year, the chances that the possible "Not Trump" leader also being "soft on China" is a lot greater then if they immediately move on Hong Kong, which will likely cause the current leader to walk away and the unknown candidate running against him to adopt a stricter policy on Chinese relations then if they didn't act. They can play the waiting game on both Hong Kong and the United States at this stage. What is one political year to a President for Life?

Diplomatically, it also looks bad for China as the Hong Kong SAR status is part of a treaty it negotiated with Britain and while Treaty's are only enforceable as long as all signatories agree to enforce their ends, China not honoring the right of Hong Kongers to protest means China is breaking it's end of the treaty... As mentioned that Belt and Road program of China's relies on China being creadible to hold up it's end of the bargin with a lot of other countries. If China is acting like Darth Vader and "altering the deal" with one country it had a deal with, the other countries considering China's Belt and Road program might pass as it's always better to not make a deal then to "Pray it's not altered further." After all, it was China that introduce the concept of "Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice shame on me" to the world. And China isn't playing nice to countries it offers the Belt and Road program to just because they feel generous... they benefit by getting access to things they need, namely oil which is bringing electricity to a billion plus people living in China.

So from the Chinese point of view, immediate action means risking the brunt of major economic down turn, a possible energy crisis, a popular uprising in an SAR, a possible second uprising in another SAR, an unemployment crisis of a large magnitude, in a culture who traditionally believe that their rulers are subject to Divine Mandate (that when the country is suffering, it's because the gods are not happy with the leadership and revoked the mandate given to the leader to lead... and the disasters are the god's way of telling the people it's time to find a new government.). But if they wait a year or two the protests will likely die down or the international powers will shift in a way that China can better respond too. Right now, it's better to wait for a change in the situation where the government isn't being eyed so much by the international stage. They'll have a better idea of what to do in response once a couple of other situations with deadlines resolve.

  • what is strange about this analysis is... what do you think makes the Xi's CCP thinks they actually have that kind of time to wait a year or two? Sep 24, 2019 at 17:56
  • Hong Kong is mostly peaceful protest and the police are still arresting violent protestors. Open armed rebellion is not yet occurring and the protestors are generally finding favor of international as opposed to the Chinese army response. Winnie the Pooh is likely aware of this and figures the fact that it's being handled by the local government rather than the national government is political fiction enough for other countries to remember the part of Princess Bride about "starting a land war in Asia". China's famed censorship does not mean leaders don't know PR. They're well aware of it.
    – hszmv
    Sep 24, 2019 at 18:16
  • At this time, Arab Spring is unlikely. But a palace coup is much much more likely. And from the perspective of most CCP members, a palace coup against Xi on the backs of the protests is the ideal solution to their #1 problem, Xi. In fact, the Chinese civilization is the master of coups. The condition for one is forming rapidly. And to most senior CCP members, this gambit opens up many possibilities for them. Sep 24, 2019 at 18:36
  • @hazmv: the thing to remember is. Hong Kong isn't Xi's only problem. He has started a trade war with the US, which is causing significant hardship among the country's monied elites. He is cracking down hard on party rivals with his anti-corruption campaign, which has made him many implacable enemies in his own Party. And he is trying to impose his will on all segments of society via technology (social credit), which has clearly made many unhappy. Politically, he has doused himself with gasoline, and now he is playing with matches in Hong Kong. He has made a lot of bad moves. Sep 24, 2019 at 18:49
  • I kind of disagree with a number of points in this analysis. None of them would be significant enough for a vote in and of itself but together I feel they warrant a downvote.
    – Jan
    Sep 25, 2019 at 13:17

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