August 13, 2019

Hong Kong Protests Escalate Amid Crackdown

The standoff between the Beijing-backed government of Hong Kong and protesters concerned about an erosion of the city's autonomy continues to intensify. As protesters and police clashed inside Hong Kong International Airport for a second day, Chinese propaganda outlets warned on Tuesday that the city was displaying “sprouts of terrorism” and that the disruption must be severely punished, “without leniency, without mercy.”

CNAS experts unpack the underlying tensions and possible outcomes to watch:

  • Dr. Dan Kliman, Program Director for Asia-Pacific Security: "As an autocracy that has become increasingly repressive, China cannot abide a relatively democratic Hong Kong in its midst. Beijing’s long-term efforts to erode Hong Kong’s autonomy have culminated in today’s civic resistance movement. The likelihood of a heavy-handed intervention by Beijing is now growing. China’s use of its public security forces or military to quell the Hong Kong protests would produce long-lasting international blowback and irrefutably demonstrate the ideological nature of today's great power competition."
  • Kristine Lee, Research Associate for Asia-Pacific Security: "It’s deeply ironic that China has touted its 'remarkable achievements in the field of human rights,' including at the United Nations. Hong Kong is just the latest example of the CCP wielding its influence to curb progress on human rights and freedom of expression within its borders and beyond. China has arrayed various coercive measures against protestors, including mobilizing its business community. The United States must boldly call out these incongruities in China’s actions, lest the CCP chip away at consensus around universal human rights, including Hong Kong citizens’ right to protest."
  • Christopher Dougherty, Senior Fellow for Defense: "China’s threats of force to suppress protests in Hong Kong make two things clear. First, 'one country, two systems,' is a farce. There is one system in China—the writ of the Communist Party of China and Xi Jinping—and it is backed by coercion. Second, for all the discussion of China’s gray-zone tactics, the threat of escalation with military forces looms behind these actions. These observations reiterate two key themes of the 2018 National Defense Strategy: the imperative to defend our interests and those of our allies and partners like Taiwan against Chinese coercion, and the consequent need to strengthen our conventional military deterrent. The United States must make clear to China that it cannot achieve a fait accompli in Taiwan or elsewhere, nor can it escalate its way to victory through the use of force."
  • Elsa B. Kania, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Technology and National Security: "The situation in Hong Kong is tragic and remarkable. These protests are a powerful testament to the courage and convictions of the people of Hong Kong. The brutality and violence by Hong Kong police are appalling and should be condemned, and the reported employment of triads by Beijing to attack protesters has been deeply disturbing. There is a real and alarming possibility that the Chinese Communist Party could undertake a violent crackdown reminiscent of the Tiananmen massacre. The Chinese military is not the people’s army, but rather the armed wing of the Chinese Communist Party, and its missions include defending its political security and social stability. The use of military force against protesters in Hong Kong would be a terrible transgression. The international community must condemn unequivocally these threats and any further violence."
  • Kara Frederick, Associate Fellow for Technology and National Security: "Despite protestors’ best efforts to thwart an expanding digital surveillance regime, Beijing-backed elements in Hong Kong are increasingly making use of an authoritarian tool kit to enforce control. Xinjiang is already a test bed for such surveillance; China—whether overtly or through its allies in government—cannot be allowed to gain additional 'operational experience' in monitoring and repressing free citizens outside the mainland, too."
  • Ainikki Riikonen, Research Assistant for Technology and National Security: "In the face of government efforts to quell the protests, protesters have demonstrated remarkable innovation in combating facial recognition systems, minimizing their digital footprints, and maintaining communications when platforms have been subject to DDOS attacks. On the Mainland, the PRC has been amping up disinformation efforts to delegitimize the protests. As the PRC begins to export surveillance technologies and conduct information operations further afield, the Hong Kong situation gives a snapshot of what the future may hold."

To arrange an interview with any of the experts, contact Cole Stevens at


  • Daniel Kliman

    Former Program Director and Senior Fellow, Indo-Pacific Security Program

    Daniel M. Kliman is the former Program Director and Senior Fellow for the Indo-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). He is an expert in As...

  • Kristine Lee

    Former Associate Fellow

    Kristine Lee is a former Associate Fellow with the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), where she focuses on U.S. alliances and partnerships in the Indo-Pacific region, ...

  • Chris Dougherty

    Former Senior Fellow, Defense Program

    Chris Dougherty is a former Senior Fellow for the Defense Program at CNAS. His primary areas of research included defense strategy, operational concepts, and force planning. H...

  • Elsa B. Kania

    Adjunct Senior Fellow, Technology and National Security Program

    Elsa B. Kania is an Adjunct Senior Fellow with the Technology and National Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. Her research focuses on Chinese military...

  • Kara Frederick

    Former Fellow, Technology and National Security Program

    Kara Frederick is a former Fellow with the Technology and National Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS)....

  • Ainikki Riikonen

    Former Research Associate, Technology and National Security Program

    Ainikki Riikonen is a former Research Associate for the Technology and National Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). Her research focuses on emer...