It was 31 years ago today that the Chinese government, confronted by a lengthy occupation of Tiananmen Square in the center of the nation’s capital city of Beijing by students and supportive workers, journalists and other members of Chinese society, launched a bloody attack by the People’s Liberation Army that left countless Chinese citizens of all classes dead. It was a catastrophe that signaled the end of any illusion that the Communist Party that had wrested China away from the imperial powers of Europe and Japan had the interests of the Chinese people at heart.
Everything that has happened since then in China has been about trying to keep the ruling Party elite in power, whether by force, using the domestic army called the Wujing or military police, or by doing whatever it took to keep the economy perking so people would feel like, “Oh well, at least things will get better economically.” Strenuous efforts have been made since 1989 to try and erase the 1989 massacre from national memory.
At the time of Tiananmen, the US, along with much of the rest of the world, was highly critical of China’s government and its militarized crackdown on peaceful protest and on anyone calling for democratic reform.
Now, a generation later, the leaders of an increasingly authoritarian Chinese government are gleefully pointing to the US to justify their own totalitarian behavior, as an American president, Donald Trump, calls for deploying active duty US military troops to put down, with live fire, multiracial protests and uprisings sweeping the US. The protests here, it must be noted, are not about overthrowing the US government, but about police brutality against and murder of the nation’s black minority. They were sparked by video images of the gruesome murder of George Floyd, a black man who was arrested and held with a knee on his neck for almost nine agonizing minutes by a white Minnesota cop, Derek Chauvin, until he was dead. This was all for his having been accused of the alleged non-violent attempt to use a counterfeit $20 in a neighborhood store.
China’s leaders aren’t interested in the reasons for unrest in America. But they are enjoying being able to point out to their own citizens the blatant US hypocrisy of threatening sanctions on China for pushing for a harsh crackdown on protests in Hong Kong opposing Chinese influence on the city’s governance, and for threatening to end promised autonomy and personal freedom in the Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong, even as in the US, the president is threatening the same thing, backed by the resorting to the same kind of brutal domestic military that China already has.
The US at this point still has something that China does not: A military that so far at least, appears not anxious to be dragged into domestic politics, or to be called into action against the American public to benefit a particular president or political agenda or party.
Trump, like a Chinese dictator or emperor of old, did succeed in getting a little federal troop support for his own base interest on Monday, when he ordered the Washington, DC National Guard, joined by National Park Police, to launch a military style attack on peaceful protesters, using tear gas, rubber bullets and truncheons to clear them from the area traditionally reserved for protests near the White House. Why? So he could waddle his corpulent body out of the heavily guarded White House compound across Pennsylvania Avenue and little Lafayette pocket park to stage a photo-op with a Bible in front of a small church he hadn’t even bothered to notify of his plans.
Busing in the Troops
In midweek he compounded the felony by ordering ten busloads of heavily armed and armored-up federal troops into the capital, making the area appear, at least, as if he’d ordered a state of martial law. There were also reports of unidentified uniformed personal patrolling areas of urban unrest — personnel who would not identify themselves or the agency or agencies they were part of. One could almost feel the frisson of delight of dictators in Beijing and around the globe at that sight — delight that will only be amplified ten-fold if those troops end using their weapons against unarmed protesters in the city tonight or tomorrow.
I used to scoff at the wild claims made by many friends warning that Trump would eventually turn the US a fascist state — that he would usurp dictatorial powers over Congress and the Courts, call up the US military in a national emergency, and cancel the Constitution and its Bill of Rights. The idea seemed preposterous.
And yet, the first baby steps in that direction have already been taken taken. Now the steps are bigger and more obvious. There are troops in the capital, President Trump has spoken about the possibility of using an ancient and poorly drawn law, the Insurrection Act of 1807, to declare the US in danger from a domestic rebellion, and establish military rule, with himself as Commander in Chief. He has even refused to deny the possibility of delaying the November election.
Of course, the country is not in danger of being overthrown by protesters. There are uprisings in a number of cities, but no concerted effort to take over any state or federal government.
The problem is that a series of presidents and Congresses, beginning with Harry Truman, who in 1947, with the signing of the National Security Act, created the CIA and the national security state, and running right through Barack Obama who oversaw continued expansion of a multi-agency program of national spying, the introduction of domestic drones to spy on and potentially use weapons against US citizens, and a legal attack on government whistleblowers, have undermined the legal protections in the Constitution that were designed to prevent authoritarian rule in the US.
Now, thanks to all those actions setting the stage for it, I fear we are really not that far away from the potential establishment of martial law. I wrote in Salon magazine in 2002 about various White House master plans for launching martial law including one quite elaborate one in the Reagan administration titled Rex-84 Alpha drawn up by Reagan’s Federal Emergency Management Office and largely authored by then FEMA Director Louis Guifrida, who had been FEMA director in California when Reagan was governor of that state, and by Reagan’s his favorite White House resident fascist, Col. Oliver North. Rex-84 Alpha was thankfully never put into effect but I have no doubt its detailed roadmap remains on the shelf of the Oval Office or the White House War Room, alongside other earlier (and perhaps later) plans for establishing martial law.
The primary line of defense against that dreadful prospect would be concerted overt resistance by millions of us in the streets. The outcome of such a defense would be completely unpredictable, and a lot would depend upon how the significance of what seems to be a lingering reluctance within the professional military to become the enforcers of such an upending of constitutional government.
Ex-Gen. Mattis Speaks Up
Evidence of that reluctance came from an unlikely quarter, in the form of retired Marine General and fired Secretary of State James Mattis. After staying largely quiet about his former boss and Commander in Chief for a time, Mattis came out swinging on Wednesday, with a public announcement, widely reported, blasting the idea of using US troops under federal command against American citizens exercising their First Amendment rights, and blasting the president specifically for using uniformed US troops to clear away peaceful protesters from around the White House so he could do a photo op in front of a church. Perhaps most stunningly, Mattis came close to calling Trump a Nazi, saying,” “The Nazi slogan for destroying us…was ‘Divide and Conquer.’ Our American answer is ‘In Union there is Strength.’ We must summon that unity to surmount this crisis—confident that we are better than our politics.”
Mattis would seem a poor “savior” of democratic governance, having been a willing centurion of empire under several presidents and an enthusiastic supporter of Trump early in his administration. But his condemnation of Trump’s policies is powerful and is being backed by other top retired generals and admirals
Mattis’s call-out of his replacement as Secretary of Defense (sic) Mark Esper is also having an impact.
According to news reports most senior military personnel and perhaps most regular troops do not favor playing a police role in the US. Esper, who on the day of the Trump photo-op militarized clearing operation used against protesters referred to Washington and to Lafayette Square as “the battlespace,” retreated and changed his tune. He said that term of his should not have been used with reference to the US, and that he opposed the use of federal troops or of the hoary Insurrection Act to deal with urban unrest and protest.
Perhaps the professional military, of all things, will show more spine and principle than the timid, cowed and insipid Republicans in the US Congress, who have set the bar for independence and courage pretty damned low. Perhaps the US military would at the critical moment refuse to follow any unconstitutional orders issued by a power-mad Commander in Chief calling for the establishment of martial law. Perhaps this draft-dodging self-aggrandizing narcissist of a president will finally go a bridge too far and land on his fat ass, booted from office and sitting in jail after a hasty impeachment or invocation of Article 25 of the US Constitution.
It seems like a long shot, but I’m afraid that absent mass opposition at this point, it’s hard to see what else is standing in Trump’s way than the military deciding to honor their oaths to defend the Constitution.
Organizers of Black Lives Matter and the groups that support that movement deserve enormous credit for having turned the tide of public sentiment away from worship of police and support for unbridled police violence to a majority sentiment that police in the US are targeting blacks and that they have become threats to liberty and freedom and to constitutional rights. That is a huge shift in public opinion against the police. The question is would it hold if national unrest and rebellion grew and if police began mass arrests?
Meanwhile I know that China’s rulers, like rulers in authoritarian states around the globe, so often the targets of sanctimonious sanctions by the US for their behavior, are watching events in the US with smug satisfaction. Nothing would please them more than seeing US troops in the streets defending state power against a restive and unruly public.
And then there’s Hong Kong…
Meanwhile, on another note, while it comes a quarter of a century too late, it’s nice to see the British government finally talking about offering British residency and a path to citizenship to the three million of Hong Kong’s citizens who by birth in Hong Kong prior to the handover from British colonial rule to of Chinese sovereignty 1997 are able to obtain what are called British National (Overseas) passports.
Always viewed disparagingly as worthless paper, many Hong Kong residents long felt that as British colonial subjects they should be entitled to British citizenship.
Interestingly Portugal, which ruled neighboring Macau for longer than the British ruled Hong Kong, and which handed that city of one million over to Chinese sovereignty in 1999, two years after Hong Kong, simply granted automatic Portuguese — and thus European — citizenship to all Macau residents. As a result, the handover of that beautiful city with its colonial Iberian and late Qing Dynasty architecture was much less fraught than the handover of Hong Kong. People all felt they had an exit plan if things went south.
Living in Hong Kong at the time, where I was a correspondent for Business Week, I always felt and still feel that the British refusal to grant to Hong Kong people the same right to citizenship in the colonial “mother country” that Portugal had granted its colonial subjects, smacked of pure racism. Now, however, new British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is actively pursuing a plan to almost do that. Citizenship won’t be granted automatically under Johnson’s proposal, but those holding BN(O) passports — about 300,000 people — would be immediately able to reside and work in the UK on an annual endlessly renewable basis (and presumably in European Union states too until Brexitgoes into effect). As well, another 2.7 million or so Hong Kong people born before July 1997 would be eligible to obtain those BN(O) passports if they wanted one and would have the same UK residence and working rights. All those who came to Britain to live and work would be eligible to apply for eventual citizenship, too.
An outraged Chinese government is accusing the British of treachery for offering this arrangement, but of course deciding who can get a British passport or become a British citizen is the right of the British government, not the Chinese government. It would moreover be very difficult for Chinese authorities to stop Hong Kong people from applying for such passports from the British government, or to stop them from leaving Hong Kong. This is because Hong Kong people all have Chinese SAR Hong Kong passports which allow them to leave freely. Of course the advantage of making the BN(O) a real passport with UK residency and working rights, is that it makes it a lot easier for holders of such a document to stand up to Chinese restrictions on freedom in Hong Kong.
Kudos for PM Johnson’s pushing for this upgrade of the BN(O) passport, whatever his motives. And a raspberry to Christopher Patton, the last governor of Hong Kong under British rule. As the former head of the British Conservative Party, Patton could have induced the British Tory government do this well before the 1997 handover, which would have gone a long way towards easing transition anxiety among Hong Kongers and towards insuring the hard-won freedoms of the city’s residents.