I've had no shortage of messages of concern over the last couple of days from friends and relatives in the United States, United Kingdom, Australia...
They read along the lines of "Looks like things are getting pretty hectic in Hong Kong. Are you guys OK?" One friend in West Virginia asked if my British passport is up to date.
I'm actually writing this from the Philippines where I am on assignment for a week. I was lucky to get out of the Hong Kong airport on Sunday before it was closed for much of Monday and Tuesday nights. But I'll be back at the start of next week, and have of course kept up with the live feeds of the events of the last couple of days.
One particular concern for Hong Kongers is the hardware being amassed across the border in Shenzhen. China's People's Armed Police as well as the People's Liberation Army have driven a parade's worth of troop trucks and armored police vehicles into the border area.
The official People's Daily put up a video on Twitter showing six-wheel turreted armored vehicles heading into southern Guangdong Province for what it says is a drill.
So what are the chances of China sending the troops into Hong Kong to quell 10 weeks of unrest, and what have become virtually daily pro-democracy protests? And what happens to Hong Kong's stock and property markets if they do?
A friend working in the information-services department of the Chinese University of Hong Kong is really worried about those images of military materiel. He sees it as a "flex of power," and a means to intimidate the city.
That it is for sure. I reassured him, though, that I think it's highly unlikely China would send the troops into Hong Kong in this, the 30th anniversary year of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Beijing is still contending with the aftermath of that. Staffers who worked in the administration at the time have been coming forward even now to say that the government should tell the world what really happened in those days of bloodshed.
Back in 1989, China's Communist Party made a clear decision when faced with student demonstrators demanding democracy. They had to be crushed at all costs. Literally, including the cost of human life.
Now, the Hong Kong government would have to request China to send in armed forces. Neither the Chinese police nor the PLA are supposed to operate in Hong Kong territory without express permission from Hong Kong. It's rumored that mainland police are already reinforcing the ranks of Hong Kong's riot police, after an officer was caught on camera speaking Mandarin Chinese (not the Cantonese Hong Kong cops would speak) with a heavy northern accent.
The agreement to hand Hong Kong over from Britain to China that went into effect in 1997 was written with Tiananmen Square in mind. It gives Hong Kong significant freedoms, including the right to police itself. Calling in the Chinese army would be an admission by the Hong Kong government that it has completely failed.
That's why Beijing keeps saying, in its first press conferences devoted to the city since 1997, that it offers "Beijing's firm support" for the Hong Kong government and police, which Beijing says "are completely capable of protecting law and order." At the same time, China's spokespeople have declined to rule out military action, noting instead that the PLA is a "civilized force that listens to the Communist Party and follows the law."
The Tiananmen Square massacre began the night of June 3, 1989, and continued into June 4. Paratroopers, soldiers and armed police fired directly at demonstrators, at times running them over, and wreaking a terrible toll in a bid to clear Beijing's central square of democracy protesters who had gathered there. At least several hundred, and quite possibly several thousand, people died.
The international outcry was significant, but not universal. There was widespread condemnation of China's actions in the West. But many Asian nations remained silent, while India ordered minimal coverage on state TV to prevent a deterioration in relations with China. Cuba, Czechoslovakia and East Germany put out news and editorials in support of the Chinese government.
China would point to its economic growth since then as proof that crushing the democracy movement was good for China in the long run. Indeed, the government's handling of Tiananmen was a "vaccination" for Chinese society "against any major political turmoil in the future," according to an editorial published this June 4 by the Global Times, the official newspaper used by Beijing to spread its stance on international policy. Guess they did not see Hong Kong coming.
There's no proof, of course, that China might not have developed even better or faster had it been granted greater democracy. And all the editorializing ignores any social price there may have been to pay, pointing instead to China's US$13 trillion economy.
China's growth shuddered to a halt for two years after Tiananmen, falling from a rate of 11.2% the year before the massacre to just 4.2% in 1989, then 3.9% in 1990. It then roared back to 14.3% growth in 1991, and posted double-digit growth for many of the years until the start of this decade. It's now become too big to grow fast.
As a result of Tiananmen, China's entry into the World Trade Organization was delayed for many years. Accession happened only in 2001, far later than originally anticipated. The World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and many Western governments suspended loans and aid to China. China's internal economic reforms stalled until Deng Xiaoping went on his "Southern Tour" in 1992, visiting Shenzhen - where the armored vehicles now are - and promoting "socialism with Chinese characteristics," which looks an awful lot like capitalism.
So there's little doubt the Tiananmen Square massacre set Chinese development back years. There's no doubt that the entry of mainland forces into Hong Kong would create market turmoil, and a huge selloff in the property market, the world's most expensive. We would likely see another run to resettle in Canada, Britain and the United States, just like prior to 1997.
The response from Hong Kong's stock market is less certain. The Hang Seng index is down 11.4% in the last three weeks, when the protests have really intensified. But I would call it a mild response given the upheaval in the city.
Hong Kong's stock market is now more governed by earnings and events in China than in Hong Kong. Back in 1997, there were only two mainland companies among the 50 stocks in the Hang Seng index, 27 were traditional Hong Kong companies, and six were British. Today, more than half the Hang Seng constituents come from the mainland.
I'm sure there would be a huge selloff in Hong Kong stocks should Chinese troops enter the city. Expect it to reach epic proportions if there's blood in the streets. But they say that's the time to buy, don't they? The stock selloff would likely be a medium-term disruption, all aftermath gone within two years, if the experience of 1989 is anything to go by.
The social cost of the blood in the streets? That's another matter entirely. Let's hope it never comes to that.