Asia Politics

Hong Kong protests leave China with 'no good options,' former US diplomat says

Key Points
  • China has "no good options in Hong Kong," says Kirk Wager, former U.S. ambassador to Singapore.
  • "Hong Kong is one of the world's greatest cities and Xi Jinping decided many years ago to devalue that asset to teach a lesson for the rest of China," he says.
  • The former senior diplomat says, however, he's been "very impressed" by Chinese President Xi Jinping's patience and restraint.
Buildings in the Central district are seen from Victoria Peak in Hong Kong on August 28, 2019.
Paul Yeung | Bloomberg | Getty Images

China has "no good options in Hong Kong," a former U.S. diplomat told CNBC as nearly four months of mass protests rock the former British colony.

"Hong Kong is one of the world's greatest cities and Xi Jinping decided many years ago to devalue that asset to teach a lesson for the rest of China. Hong Kong is where it's at because of actions of Beijing right now," said Kirk Wagar, former U.S. ambassador to Singapore.

Hong Kong has been engulfed by demonstrations, with some clashes between protesters and police turning violent. The turmoil was sparked by a now withdrawn bill that would have enabled extraditions to mainland China from Hong Kong.

Although the city's leader, Carrie Lam, formally retracted the contentious bill earlier this month, the public clamor has not relented. Hong Kong has cancelled celebratory events for China's 70th anniversary on Oct. 1 as protests continue.

"I think China has handled it with restraint in a way that I did not expect, and I'm hopeful," Wagar, now co-chair of public strategy firm Mercury, said on "Squawk Box."

The former ambassador said he has been "very impressed" by Xi's patience. Although state media has warned that protesters are "asking for self-destruction" and released video showing military vehicles near the border, Beijing has not deployed the People's Liberation Army to Hong Kong.

"I think past leadership would not have waited and would have exercised one of those bad options," Wagar said. "I don't know that I see anything happening."

When asked if he thought military intervention is possible, Wagar said, "I'm not ready to go there."

What is Hong Kong's relationship with China?

"What I am willing to say is — the demands of the protesters ... I don't see a path to them," he said.

While the withdrawal of the extradition bill fulfilled one of the requests, protesters made a total of five demands:

  • Fully withdraw from a proposed bill that would allow Hong Kong people to be extradited to mainland China.
  • Retract any characterization of the movement as a "riot."
  • Drop all charges against anti-extradition protesters.
  • Set up an independent committee to investigate the use of force by Hong Kong police.
  • Universal suffrage in elections for the city's chief executive and legislature by 2020.

Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997 and is now a special administrative region under the "one country, two systems" principle. That structure grants Hong Kong citizens some legal and economic freedoms not given in mainland China.

Wagar said while it's not surprising that people in Hong Kong are demanding these changes, at the end of the day, "Hong Kong is China" after the handover.