The Hong Kong protests as a mass collective action problem.

I did an interview on the TVNZ Breakfast Show about the situation in Hong Kong. I tried to frame the issue as a collective action problem between two sides with very different end games. The video is here.

Because of time constraints we could not discuss the fact that the Hong Kong protests do not have a unified leadership that could lend coherency to the strategy and connection between tactics and that strategy. It also did not address the fact that the protestors have now moved to challenging the (HK) State’s monopoly over organised violence in the territory, which means that it is posing an existential threat to a core function of that State. Since the Hong Kong State has little more than police and intelligence agencies as its repressive apparatus, that means that further and more serious challenges to this monopoly will be met by a State that has far more coercive power at its disposal–the PRC.

I should have mentioned at some point that the interplay between hard-liners and soft-liners on both sides is crucial to a peaceful settlement. Only if soft-liners prevail on both sides will the solution be peaceful, but in order to have that happen the soft-liners will have to prevail within their respective camps. With hard core nationalists on both sides rejecting any form of compromise as a loss of face and demonstration of weakness, the stage is set for them to prevail. If they do the outcome will be bloody.

The soft-line opposition strategy is based on the fact that the PRC can wait a long time while gauging international reaction to immediate events in Hong Kong, added to the fact that provoking a violent PRC response erases what the Hong Kong hard liners aspire to deliver ( and those goals are indeed aspirational rather than deliverable). It remains to be seen if the principles understand this type of logic.

We also did not discuss the how the moderate-militant approach I mention in the clip has to be part of a larger incremental gains strategy whereby the protestors try to push a “two steps forward, one step back” agenda that sees them roll back various authoritarian initiatives while conceding on short term or relatively minor issues (perhaps including the extradition bill that sparked the current round of protests).

Nor did we discuss the fact that at the time of initial handover from the UK, the PRC was in no position to contest the terms of the agreement, especially those centred on the “One Nation, Two Systems” 50 year compromise. Nearly halfway into that process, it is clear that conditions have changed. Among other things, Hong Kong is no longer the source of GDP and international capital that it was for the PRC in 1997, having been eclipsed by mainland centres of commerce like Shanghai. This makes it less risky for the PRC to impose its will and accelerate the devolution process before the 50 year transition period ends in 2047. That puts it on a collision course with those in Hong Kong who want more rather than less autonomy when that time comes.

Finally, we did not discuss the fact that should push come to shove the protesters are on their own. For all the US bluster and the threats of trade sanctions against the PRC if it uses force to quell the protests, no one is coming to the rescue. Not the UK, not the EU, not NATO, not SEATO, not Taiwan, not blue-helmeted UN troops–nobody will do anything significant in their defence.

That means that there is a limit to what the protestors can achieve by pushing the protest envelope, since there will be no counter to the PRC use of force if and when it comes. Hence the need for the incremental gains approach mentioned above, and even that may be too little to stave off the eventual PRC takeover in 2047.

12 thoughts on “The Hong Kong protests as a mass collective action problem.

  1. Oh that makes sense, I thought maybe you included SEATO as a sign of the other organisations being just as obsolete as one that formally disappeared 40 years ago.

    You are definitely right ASEAN will not help, its charter does not extend outside of its member states.

  2. Wow Wayne you are in for an epic smackdown… wouldn’t like to be in your shoes when Pablo administers the verbal master stroke. Maybe if you apologise now you might be spared the worst of it but if not, nice knowing you mate lololol

  3. Commenter comes from out of nowhere to praise China and criticise the Hong Kong protesters, hmm, I wonder what his IP address will show?

  4. Sorry Wayne I do not engage with trolls, be they freelance or funded by Beijing or Moscow.

    Perhaps Pablo will deign to stoop to castigate you although if I were you I would hope not… he can administer an intellectual smackdown that will leave you sputtering and with every argument countered. Maybe go back to Kiwiblog. They are much more tolerant of totalitarianism and its useful idiots there.

  5. Thanks Exfoliator for the response to the now-departed troll. I have been away from the blog so just caught up with it after nearly a week’s absence. Ah, the fun things that happen when I am not around!

    For what it is worth, the troll has been here before and thinks of himself as part of PRC sharp power projection, dealing to all those in cyberspace who do not bend a knee to the CCP view of things. In fact he is just another nationalist dumbass who confirms the worst prejudices about his country and culture. In any event, he is no longer with us.

    I will say that he is right to point out that I misspoke in the TV interview about “one country, two states.” It is indeed “one country, two systems.” But by 2047 the PRC clearly would prefer one country and one system, and that does not mean that the PRC will democratise in order to accomodate HK citizen preferences when it comes to governance. Since the HK democracy movement knows this, their options are to try to retain a measure of autonomous self-rule or to make a play for independence. Neither will come without cost. The question is which move will cost more over the long run.

  6. Well I hope this troll is at least being fairly compensated by PRC intelligence for his role. If only the police would take an interest, he could possibly provide some valuable information on Chinese influence operations in NZ, but sadly, the police have their hands tied as we all know…

    I guess we should be glad that at this point the prefered methods of Chinese intelligence are annoying but harmless blog trolling rather than kinetic operations. I hope you and your family are safe, Pablo.

  7. Thanks for the concern. This guy is nothing more than a keyboard blow hard. He and his pals save their worst invective for Mandarin-reading females who do not toe the party line. In fact, they strike me as Chinese “incels” in that their tone has as much to do with a bad case of blue balls as it does with any self-righteous defense of the motherland.

  8. Isn’t that always the way Pablo – almost every form of political malarky or moral imbecility comes down to some man who is too troglodytish in personality, and probably in looks, to attract any female attention? And tries to strike out at the world because he blames it for his own inability to get laid!

  9. Interesting take on the HK situation, Pablo. Well done!
    My guess is the Chinese government will try and sit this out, allow the protesters to get more radical and a fringe element to take over, and then point to this fringe element as representative of the movement in general. With recent firebombings of police stations, and yet another attempt to take over the airport, it seems things are playing out as Beijing expects them to. The average member of the public will become tired of the shenanigans and by the time the army is called in to restore ‘order’ many will, if not welcome it, be resigned to it.

  10. China is going to do what it wants. It always does.

    It might care enough to avoid a Tiananmen repeat, I doubt it.

    There is going to be a lot of blood and sweat and tears and the Chinese bullies will come up smelling like roses.

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