Hong Kong protests run deep and go beyond just democratisation—a manifestation of the latent social and economic undercurrents
China and Hong Kong tied under “One Country, Two Systems” has China focussing on the first half “One Country” with recent plans of introducing “patriotic education” in Hong Kong. Hong Kongers eye the latter half “Two Systems” instead, which explains the five-month boil. China may not have moved the People’s Armed Police (PAP) to quell the protests as it did in Tiananmen in 1989 fearing a global backlash, but China’s Hong Kong strategy is no less a hardline one. From (accusations of) employing “Triads” to beat up protesters to banning face masks to new “enforcement mechanisms” for law and order to letting businesses and schools stall—all of which impact the economy—in the hope of bringing Hong Kongers to the negotiating table.
Protests began in Hong Kong on June 9, against an extradition bill whereby suspects in Hong Kong could be sent to mainland China for trial. The extradition bill proved to be the proverbial last straw on Hong Kongers back. Furious Hong Kongers, one in seven, (Hong Kong population 7.4 million) took to the streets. The China-backed Hong Kong government under Chief Executive, Carrie Lam failed to read the depth of anti-China sentiment. Lam dilly-dallied pulling out the extradition bill, but in the process, matters went from bad to worse. In the course of the protests, several demands arose, such as the release of arrested protesters and an independent enquiry into police actions.
Hong Kong is of prime importance to China. This was more than evident from the proceedings of the recently concluded Fourth Plenum of the Central Committee of the Communist Party (CP). CP officials indicated that “enforcement mechanisms” will be rolled out soon, and plans to re-look the manner in which the Chief Executive and key officials are selected are on the anvil.
How are the protests impacting everyday life in Hong Kong? Despite negative reports, Hong Kong is almost as famously “business as usual”. Recent conversations by this author included a Hong Konger (who naturally prefers to remain anonymous) who said that Hong Kong is “always functional, perhaps with shorter queues at all operational tourist sites”, while British tourist Alice Reilly visiting Hong Kong said, “at no time, did I feel threatened in Hong Kong and loved it, though the Airport Express did not run on time and the stations felt edgy.”
There is no doubt that Hong Kong’s steely economic image has taken a hit. Though Heritage Foundation (a think-tank based in Washington, DC) ranked Hong Kong as the world’s freest economy with an economic freedom score of 90.2 in 2019 (China ranks 100 on the same index of 180 countries), Hong Kong has slipped into economic recession for the first time in a decade. Predictions are that it will worsen in 2020. Tourists have dropped, visitors from mainland have sharply decreased, retail has suffered and restaurants are in the red. Hong Kong economy shrunk 3.2% in the three months to September, higher than the 0.6% contraction forecast by economists in a Bloomberg poll.
Until recently, Hong Kong was known for its keen Chinese-style business enterprise and sleek Western-style infrastructural efficiency—not for protests or Molotov cocktail-wielding masked protesters. Nor was Hong Kong known for police brutality or a government more attuned to Beijing than its own people. In fact, Hong Kong was considered a blip for modernisation theory, which co-related economic democratisation with political democratisation.
Despite Hong Kong being a “high-income economy” (since 1987), and not withstanding its vibrant civil society that has nurtured community organisations and NGOs, it did not ride the wave of democratisation that swept the world since the 1970s. In this, Hong Kong kept company with Singapore and Brunei, highly developed but with weak democratic credentials. In fact, what is happening in Hong Kong has already made Singapore wary, with Yale-National University of Singapore canceling a course on political protests called Dissent and Resistance in Singapore, that was to be organised by local playwright Alfian Sa’at.
Unlike Singapore which decolonised and had the Peoples Action Party (PAP) emerge as the dominant party, Hong Kong decolonised, but did not democratise. Hong Kong’s political destiny as a former British colony for 150 years led it to China’s political embrace with the Sino-British declaration in 1984, paving the way for reversal back to China in 1997. A mini-constitution (Basic Law), separation of powers between executive, legislature and judiciary, free press and independent judiciary came as guarantors of Hong Kong’s autonomy. Hong Kong became China’s Special Administrative Region (HKSAR). Both sides are discovering the nitty-gritties of the unprecedented political experiment in history where a yawning gap separates theory and practice, rhetoric and reality.
To be fair, the Hong Kong impasse looks different to both sides. As one indignant Singapore-based Chinese Cao told this author “Hong Kongers consider themselves superior to the Chinese, but tell me, in what way are they better than me? Just because they speak English and wave the US and UK flag (as a few protesters have done recently)?”. The Chinese have not stopped short of calling Hong Kongers out as “running dogs of colonialism” (as one Professor of Peking University did publicly several years ago, in 2012). In fact, the dominant Chinese narrative of “One Country” coated in the saccharine of patriotism has stoked resentment in China’s domestic audience, who consider Hong Kong as nothing but a disgruntled renegade to the fold.
On its part, China cannot comprehend what, where and how it got wrong. China’s way of political and economic integration has been sinicisation and homogenisation of vast tracts of polity and people, including in recent history. Inner Mongolia, where Mongol (nomadic) ethos is in decline, Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR), where a social-grid system of management is in place, and Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), where the demographic map has been dramatically altered, are examples. Hong Kong was to be formatted along a similar graph. Only that “mainlandisation” or “provincialisation” as Hong Kongers allege, back-fired.
Hong Kong protests run deep and go beyond the coin of just democratisation —they are a manifestation of the latent social and economic undercurrents. Protests against Article 23 (in 2003) and the Umbrella Movement (in 2014) were a prelude. Issues such as Hong Kong capitalists in collusion with the government (business-state collusion), “property hegemony”, “matchbox housing”, inequality (gini coefficient, a measure of inequality was 0.539 in 2018, with zero indicating equality) and denial of universal suffrage (or popular mandate) collated as the collective erosion of Hong Kong identity and core values. This explains why a disorganised pluralistic civil society shapeless and formless “that flows like water” has taken up the cudgels against Beijing—at random places such as shopping malls, at train stations, at the Central Business District, re-grouping and dispersing aided by messaging apps such as Telegram, WhatsApp and Signal.
China has so far met only one demand of the protesters, the formal withdrawal of the bill, but this too after foot-dragging and delay. What happens next? Many articulate that Hong Kong as a developed financial centre with rule of law is indispensable to China. Many Chinese shun that opinion saying “With or without Hong Kong, a fraction of China, China is sure to progress”. But the reverse, whether Hong Kong can progress without China is becoming an exceedingly difficult question to answer. With China’s authoritarian resilience at its best—Hong Kongers with no bread or cake may come to the table, or so China hopes.
An unintended fallout for China is that the entire HK saga is not a wonderful advertisement for a “China rising” nor will this coax Taiwan to consider reunification under a “One Country, Two Systems”.
The author is Singapore-based Sinologist, and adjunct fellow at the Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi. Views are personal