Why did China back down in Hong Kong?

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Published: June 22, 2019 12:46:02 AM

One of the key factors behind China withdrawing is Taiwan, what with China still hopeful and dangling the reunification carrot.

The protesters are in no mood for reconciliation. Perhaps China’s missteps in Hong Kong have led to this, where China cannot but watch with dismay the candle of reunification flickering in the wind. As it is turns out, ‘Hong Kong Can Say No’

An extradition Bill that made an allowance for the extradition of criminals in Hong Kong (and those criminals who passed by the city) to mainland China sparked off large-scale mass protests in Hong Kong, a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of China. In the face of the Bill, a million (some estimates say 2 million) people took to the streets. In a surprise move, not only was the Bill suspended, but also the Beijing-backed Chief Executive of Hong Kong, Carrie Lam, apologised twice over. Why did China, the quintessential ‘strongman’, back down in Hong Kong?

The protests were hardly unexpected, given that the Bill could criminalise dissenters and opposition, subsuming them under China’s opaque ‘rule of law’. Disturbingly, the press has reported instances of miscarriage of justice, where China’s capital punishment system has erroneously executed suspects. This includes the case of Nie Shubin, a 21-year-old man convicted of rape (in 1995), who turned out to be innocent after he had been executed. The abduction and disappearance of publishers in Hong Kong (in 2015), including ones who published ‘grapevine’ stories of money and mistresses of high-ranking Communist Party officials, and abduction of a Chinese tycoon (in 2017) from the Four Seasons hotel, had taken Hong Kong by surprise.

China backing down has to do with several factors. For one, the sheer magnitude, scale and demographic profile of the protesters—without a leader—was an eye-opener of sorts, even to Beijing. In terms of numbers, 1 million protesters translated as one in seven (Hong Kong’s population is 7.4 million), a scathing statistic, given that the city has an estimated 3.8 million registered voters. Even after the Bill was suspended, an estimated 2 million (according to Hong Kong’s Civil Human Rights Front) took to the streets, demanding Lam’s resignation.

China is cognisant of the fact that while previous decades of civil disobedience in Hong Kong witnessed a large turnout of teenage students and the middle class, the recent protests suggest participation by sizeable numbers of the upper middle class and the elite. The Economist magazine called the protests an “organic movement, backed by local lawyers, priests, scholars and business lobbies that usually shun politics” (italics, author). It appears that the protest is greater than the sum of numbers may suggest, with representation across the demographic profile, where masses and classes, young and old, have come in unison.

That the protest went beyond the extradition Bill was more than evident to China. If anything, the extradition Bill was the proverbial “spark that lit up the prairie fire.” The undercurrent against China’s tightening political and economic grip in the last decades snowballed into the protest. Since 1997, when Hong Kong reverted to China as semi-autonomous with defence and foreign policy under China’s purview (but free speech and press), there has been a build-up of grievances.

In these two decades, Hong Kong, the ‘pearl of the orient’, has been displaced by a slew of brash new and old rich Chinese cities that have reinvented themselves. Although Hong Kong hosts the world’s fourth-largest stock market and an estimated 1,300 global firms are headquartered here, Hong Kong is losing its edge. Shenzhen and Shanghai, Tianjin and Beijing are no less dynamic, the newfangled, millennial version of Hong Kong—or at least in the making. Hong Kong, straining with limited land resources, old-style ‘matchbox housing’ and increasing dependence on China, is increasingly viewed even by the average Chinese mainlander as an average Chinese mainland city.

Among several critical issues at stake that Hongkongers want to be addressed includes universal suffrage (one man, one vote) to elect the Chief Executive (currently elected by the Election Committee; Lam was elected by 777 votes out of 1,194). The Umbrella Movement that raised universal suffrage threw up student leaders such as Joshua Wong and Nathan Law, but the movement died out. But not before the student leaders pledged that they would be back. In that sense, the ‘We Are Back’ resounding in Hong Kong streets today holds water.

Also, China cannot be impervious to Hongkongers’ increasing discomfort with China’s Greater Bay Area—Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macau as an integrated hub—which portends that Hong Kong be viewed as a part and parcel of this area, a blow to Hong Kong’s identity. And as much as China can take pride in stepping up connectivity to Hong Kong, this has come at a price. The Hong Kong-Shenzhen bullet train and Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge brings Chinese mainlanders to Hong Kong. It also entices Hongkongers to move to the mainland with cheaper and better housing, offices, co-working spaces and career opportunities—all of which can take a toll on Hong Kong’s identity.

Beijing’s Liaison Office in the western district of Hong Kong headed by representative Wang Zhimin, who supports ‘zero tolerance’ and ‘zero space’ for independence advocacy, garners little respect, unlike the British sense of justice and fair play.

Finally, one of the key factors behind China withdrawing is Taiwan, what with China still hopeful and dangling the reunification carrot. By suspending the Bill, China indicated its willingness to give the people of Hong Kong a listen, somewhat attest to the ‘one country, two systems’ rhetoric, and address Taiwan’s increasing misgivings about reunification. This was no mean climbdown for China, where nationalist fervour can reach a feverish pitch. One of China’s bestsellers, ‘China Can Say No’, honed China’s glory and also believed that foreign (western) powers plot and prevent China from reaching its influence (read Hong Kong, Taiwan).

The current scenario in Taiwan where presidential elections will be held in 2020 indicates the sheer precariousness of the China dream for reunification. President Tsai Ing-wen, who belongs to the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, and the one who strongly opposed the extradition Bill, has been approved as the candidate. As Tsai said, “This incident has made Taiwanese people feel that one country, two systems isn’t feasible.”

Even Terry Gou (founder, Foxconn Technology Group) who is seeking nomination as a candidate to challenge Tsai from the pro-China Kuomintang Party had to say on social media: “The one country, two systems practised in Hong Kong is a failure.”

Going back to protesters, who have given time to the Hong Kong government to retract the extradition Bill or else strike, they are in no mood for reconciliation. Perhaps China’s missteps in Hong Kong have led to this, where China cannot but watch with dismay that candle of reunification flickering in the wind. As it is turns out, ‘Hong Kong Can Say No’.

(The author is a Singapore-based Sinologist, and adjunct fellow at the Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi. Views are personal)

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