Hong Kong adrift and China without an anchor

Beijing should realise that political reform rather than economic lures is what resonates in Hong Kong

As Hong Kong’s turbulent summer of protests continues unabated, China’s patience with its restive southern city could be wearing thin, and it has hinted at using the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to quell the protests. That would be disastrous for both Hong Kong and China.

Angry and frustrated young Hong Kongers have confronted the city’s government with a series of demands, including the withdrawal of a bill that would allow people to be extradited from Hong Kong to China. The government has said it will shelve the bill temporarily, but will not scrap plans to reintroduce it at a later stage.

The extradition bill is only the latest issue that has brought people out on the streets. In 2014, young people occupied the streets of central Hong Kong for several weeks demanding among other things universal suffrage rather than the current electoral college to chose the head of the Hong Kong government. Earlier, students had protested attempts to introduce what was described as patriotic education into the school curriculum.

The Chinese government is increasingly a target of the demonstrators, who recently attacked Beijing’s liaison office in Hong Kong and defaced the Chinese national emblem. In China’s view, this was a grave provocation, and appears to have triggered a threat to bring in the PLA to end the protests.

The Tiananmen shadow

In a rare public statement, the head of the PLA garrison in Hong Kong, Chen Daoxiang, warned that “violence should not be tolerated” and that the PLA “was determined to protect national sovereignty, stability and prosperity of Hong Kong.” To drive home the message the PLA released a video of anti-riot drills showing heavily armed soldiers supported by helicopters quelling demonstrators.

If PLA troops and tanks rumble through Hong Kong’s streets it would effectively end any pretence of Hong Kong’s autonomy within China. It would spell the end of Hong Kong as a city open to the world, where freedom of expression and the rule of law prevailed.

For China, it would be a rerun of June 1989, when troops and tanks were used in Tiananmen Square in Beijing to crush students protesting for reforms. That action taken at the urging of Deng Xiaoping quelled the unrest, but threw China into a decade of international isolation at a time when it was desperately seeking to modernise its economy and emerge as a global power. The G7 refused to deal with China, World Bank loans were frozen, and many western countries imposed trade sanctions.

Potential global fallout

Any violence in Hong Kong with the Chinese military will produce a strong reaction from China’s main trade partners. The United States is already engaged in a trade war with China, and the Trump administration has slapped additional import duties on Chinese goods to force it to end what it describes as predatory trade practices. Military action in Hong Kong will only strengthen support in the U.S. for tougher trade and economic sanctions. Similarly the European Union can be expected to react strongly to any action by the PLA in Hong Kong.

China’s leader, Xi Jinping, is extremely conscious of the legacy he wants to create as the most consequential leader modern China has had, alongside Mao and Deng Xiaoping. Sending tanks into Hong Kong is not going to help him achieve this. But neither can he allow his authority to be defied in Hong Kong in a way that would not be allowed anywhere else in China.

China does not understand what fuels the anger in Hong Kong. It has fallen back on the standard argument that governments confronted with popular protests tend to use: foreign forces are behind the unrest. Yang Jiechi, a PolitBuro member of the Communist Party of China, has said that the U.S. and other unnamed countries had been stirring up trouble in order to undermine Hong Kong.

But there is no evidence to show that these protests are anything but home grown, and the continuing tragedy is that the Chinese leadership is either unable or unwilling to understand the roots of the anger in Hong Kong.

A disconnect

The hard fact China has to face is that 22 years after the British withdrew and Hong Kong returned to Chinese sovereignty, the former colony is drifting further and further away from China, rather than getting closer to the motherland.

The Hong Kongers who are at the forefront of the protests were all born shortly before or after Hong Kong returned to Chinese sovereignty. They have only known Hong Kong as a part of China. But their identity, outlook and worldview is not mainland Chinese, but distinctively Hong Kong. They speak Cantonese, not Mandarin. They look to Japan, Korea, Taiwan and the western world for their culture, not the mainland. When they travel on holiday, it is not to China but to other parts of the world. When they go abroad to study, it is not to China, but to the west. Like their parents who grew up under British rule, they have no desire to be integrated with the rest of China; they are suspicious of Chinese intentions.

China’s leaders had thought that greater economic opportunities in a booming China would help bind Hong Kong to the motherland. The booming cities of the Pearl River delta have become closely economically integrated with Hong Kong, offering jobs in cutting edge industries to young Hong Kongers.

But these economic lures have not enticed them. Their desire is to to preserve what they see as the Hong Kong way of life. And for that to happen, they demand their own elected government, not leaders appointed by the Chinese government. This is more than China is willing to concede, and therein lies the seed for future tragedy in Hong Kong.

Thomas Abraham is a former Editor of The South China Morning Post in Hong Kong

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Printable version | Feb 26, 2020 4:54:51 AM |

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