But there are, I suspect, other reasons why we are loath to quarrel with the Chinese. Secretly — or in Trump’s case not so secretly — we envy the ability of the authorities in Beijing to pursue their aims without fretting over the boring human messiness of actual politics. We long for a world in which public policy is a kind of computer strategy game — get the carbon graphs down, keep GDP up, and, oh, click here to make these annoying characters disappear forever.
All of which is not to suggest that the protests of the Hong Kongers are especially worthy of our attention. What began as a rather technical question about extradition has become an absurd spectacle. The demands made by protesters are now mostly of the meta variety — calls for investigations of the police response to protests that are supposedly about calls for etc. While Carrie Lam, the aptly titled “chief executive” of the region, frets about Hong Kong’s international reputation and tangible threats to its privileges, thousands of citizens are drunk on the Rights of Man. Many protesters already regret their involvement.
As well they should, at least if they understand that the concessions they currently enjoy are Beijing’s gift, liable to disappear at any moment. Chinese elites would like to have Hong Kong as a kind of Wall Street-cum-Las Vegas. This is not incompatible with a loss of their liberties. A 1989-style escalation is not going to happen for the very simple reason that no one — on the Chinese mainland, in Hong Kong itself, least of all in London or Sydney or New York — is willing to take things that far.