There are some things one can do in 15 minutes. Run two miles. Cook meatloaf. Nap.
But eliminating the tensions that have festered between Hong Kong and Beijing for more than 20 years is not one of them. On Aug. 15, President Trump urged China’s leader, Xi Jinping, to negotiate with the Hong Kong protesters. “I would be willing to bet that if he sat down with the protesters,” Trump said, “he’d work it out in 15 minutes.” But the Hong Kong protests, which entered their 11th consecutive weekend with a stunningly large crowd of 1.7 million people this Sunday, are not like a brainteaser that 15 minutes of pondering will resolve.
Instead, Hong Kong is unresolvable. Why? Because what many Hong Kongers need — more autonomy — Beijing will not give. If Beijing yields, it risks incentivizing protests and civic engagement on college campuses and in law firms and factories across China; if it crushes the protests, it could alienate not only generations of Hong Kongers but also the Taiwanese, who Beijing demands throw their lot in with the mainland, and belie the notion of China as a global stabilizer. Beijing calls Hong Kong a “special autonomous region.” A soft touch could defuse the protests in Hong Kong — but it could also lead citizens in previously calm autonomous regions such as Inner Mongolia and Guangxi to loudly question why their autonomy is in name only.
A crackdown would please the many Chinese citizens who view Hong Kongers as unacceptably haughty and pro-Western, but it would also alienate sympathetic American, European, and Japanese officials and send China’s economy into a tailspin. Like humans everywhere, members of the Chinese leadership hold differing views: If Xi blinks, that could strengthen those at the top of the military and security services who argue he’s not utilizing the country’s growing military power. But if he cracks down, it could convince more liberal Chinese leaders that Xi’s dictatorship threatens the Chinese nation and must be stopped. For every reason Xi has to suppress the protests, there is an equally compelling reason to tolerate them.
Moreover, there is an easy explanation why Xi has not “sat down with the protesters”: It’s a terrible idea for him. What could he tell them that wouldn’t cause more harm than good? The meeting itself would be so shocking as to telegraph desperation. (Beijing portrays itself as accountable to the people while remaining inaccessible to them.) The days leading up to 1989’s Tiananmen Square massacre might have been the last time when Chinese leaders met with protesters. In a notorious televised event, student leaders lectured then-Premier Li Peng, who appeared aloof, imperious and unfit to rule. No Chinese leader wants to repeat that humiliation.
The situation in Hong Kong shares that intractability with the problem of North Korea, which has launched six missiles over the past month despite Trump’s unprecedented summits with Kim Jong Un, and which has existentially threatened South Korea since the countries’ founding in 1948; the U.S.-China trade war, an extension of 1990s frustration over a widening trade deficit with China; and the problem of Taiwan, the democratic island supported by the United States that Beijing has claimed since 1949, and which remains the likeliest Archduke Franz Ferdinand for World War III. Like Israel vs. Palestine, and Pakistan and India over Kashmir, these are the foreign policy equivalents of koans: problems whose only solutions are so radical that they are not solutions at all.
At a rally last week, Trump updated his infamous balderdash from March 2018 that “trade wars are good, and easy to win” to “I never said China was going to be easy. But it’s not tough.” These issues, however, are maddeningly complicated; otherwise someone would have solved them. The 1.7-million-person march on Sunday is the culmination of decades of frustration, which will take decades more to resolve, long after anyone needs to listen to what Trump says.