Beijing’s efforts over more than a quarter of a century to make Hong Kong and its people a contented and subservient part of the People’s Republic of China have largely failed.
A question for the Chinese Communist Party as the dust settles after the latest round of protests is: Does this matter?
Are Hongkongers’ demand for democracy and the high degree of autonomy they were promised before the end of British colonial rule in 1997 a threat to the political stability of the rest of China?
Does it matter if Hong Kong continues to seethe with political discontent, even if that leads to businesses fleeing and the territory shriveling as a gateway for trade and investment in China?
Beijing could within a matter of hours end Hong Kong’s status as a special administrative region and remove all visible signs of activism in the territory. But would it be worth the lasting recriminations and resistance?
The sensible answer to all those questions is: probably not.
But much depends on the mood within the top echelons of the party. There are persistent reports that President and party boss Xi Jinping is not as secure in power as he appears. Power struggles within the CCP often push contenders to make outlandish demonstrations of machismo to cow their opponents.
Hongkongers in great numbers despair of ever getting the representative and accountable government they were promised. But they have achieved a remarkable victory of the human spirit in the 22 years since the British left, and have fashioned a society and civic culture based on liberal democratic values that is uniquely their own.
Whenever in those 22 years the CCP or its proconsuls in the territory have tried to close off Hong Kong’s survival as a distinct community the people have taken to the streets in their hundreds of thousands in usually peaceful protest.
The latest round of street protests have been over the proposal by the Beijing appointed Chief Executive of Hong Kong, Carrie Lam, to enact legislation allowing extraditions to China.
Demonstrations against the law contended it would allow Beijing to snatch people considered dissidents, whisk them away from Hong Kong and subject them to the politically driven Chinese judicial system – leading to inevitable imprisonment, or worse.
These protests began in March, gathered pace through the spring and reached a crescendo on June 13 when an estimated two million people, more than a quarter of Hong Kong’s seven million population, took to the streets.
They resumed on July 1 when thousands of people stormed the territory’s legislature to prevent passage of the bill.
Unusually for Hong Kong protests, there was a lot of vandalism in the legislature and peculiar reticence by the police, leading to suspicions that agents provocateurs had been planted among protesters to discredit the demonstrations.
Demonstrators took a new tack on Sunday, July 7, when about a quarter of a million people gathered outside the Kowloon West high-speed railway station linking Hong Kong with mainland China. This is the travel hub for very many of the mainland tourists who flock to Hong Kong every day to shop, and those arriving on Sunday were greeted with banners and a chorus of chants explaining the nature of the local protests.
The effort to “educate” mainlanders and spread the seed of democratic revolution in China will probably have little effect. The Cantonese-speaking cultural minority in Hong Kong and neighboring Guangdong province are regarded with disdain by the Mandarin-speaking Chinese mainstream, and young Hongkongers in particular are seen as privileged offspring of a snowflake generation.
But on Tuesday, July 9, Chief Executive Lam announced her attempt to pass the extradition legislation was a “total failure,” and that “the bill is dead.” She went on to bewail her failure to listen to Hongkongers and promised to institute a whole raft of consulting mechanisms to avoid similar blunders in the future.
Still unsatisfied are opponents of the bill, including not only a large proportion of the territory’s lawyers but also many business people – who fear discontented mainland partners will have them whisked off, “disappeared” into China.
They say Lam’s statement that the bill is “dead” is not enough. She avoided the legally binding route of “withdrawing” the bill, thus leaving the fear that it isn’t dead at all; just hiding and awaiting a rebirth.
And Lam’s promise to consult Hongkongers more widely in the future would be funny if it were not so serious and sad.
Hong Kong’s administrative and political system has been purposefully constructed and gerrymandered to ensure that the territory’s people have minimal input into policymaking and no real power over legislative decisions. The whole structure is designed to keep effective power and control in the hands of people appointed by and beholden too Beijing and the CCP.
Beijing’s troubles with Hong Kong could have been largely avoided if the CCP trusted the territory’s people to govern themselves “with a high degree of autonomy.” But it doesn’t, any more than it is prepared to allow Tibet or Xinjiang to be truly autonomous regions.
The first major indication Hongkongers gave that when pushed too far they were prepared to stand up for their communal singularity came in 2003.
About half a million people, including many usually non-political members of the middle class, joined a massive march against a proposed national security bill. This was known as “Article 23” and would have imposed harsh sentences for treason and subversion.
Introducing the legislation was a requirement enshrined in Hong Kong’s mini constitution, the Basic Law. But many people felt sedition and subversion were amorphous terms that would be interpreted by Beijing as anything that defied the CCP’s interests.
Thus Article 23 was seen as a serious erosion of Hong Kong’s guaranteed right to freedom of speech and expression.
In the face of such wide public opposition, the administration decided it had no option but to shelve the measure. That is the way it has stayed, although many see the extradition law as a way of achieving the same objective of silencing dissidents.
The failure of the authorities to pursue the promised progress towards a directly elected legislature and chief executive have been a constant irritant since the 1997 handover, but another attack on Hong Kong’s cultural individuality surfaced in 2012.
The government tried to introduce “patriotic education” into the territory’s schools, which follow British-style broadly non-political liberal curricula. The change was seen as an attempt to indoctrinate future generations of Hongkongers with loyalty to the CCP. Again, mass demonstrations forced the government to retreat.
The limited progress on political reform came to a head towards the end of 2014. The Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, China’s ersatz parliament, issued a ruling that restricted how a chief executive of Hong Kong would be elected, even with direct elections. In essence, only candidates approved by the CCP would be allowed to run.
The decision prompted a student strike towards the end of September that year, which evolved into the occupation of Hong Kong’s Central and other business districts by upwards of 100,000 people.
The occupation continued until December 15, when police finally cleared the demonstrators from the streets.
But that protest, also known as the Umbrella Movement for the way demonstrators tried to protect themselves from barrages of police tear gas, changed the nature and culture of Hong Kong activism.
For a start, it was a protest by young people who were either babes-in-arms or had been born since the British left. Thus it was a home-grown resistance by people raised in native Hong Kong culture, not some geriatric hankering for a bygone imperial golden age.
Next, there were clashes between demonstrators and the police, the like of which had not been seen in Hong Kong since the 1960s. More than that, the usual police image of defenders of the people began to slip in the face of significant evidence of police harassment and unnecessary brutality.
And finally several of the protesters, notably leaders Joshua Wong, Nathan Law, and Alex Chow, were charged with unlawful assembly and imprisoned.
This created a new generation of political activist heroes whose influence was evident from the start in the latest protests against the extradition bill.
So where does Hong Kong and its relationship with Beijing and the CCP go from here?
Unless President Xi feels the need to lash out, Beijing will probably take some time to reassess the situation.
High on the list will be the position of Lam. She is clearly now a leader without authority, and will probably be challenged from all sides of the political spectrum.
Beijing will be reluctant to remove her because that will say the CCP was wrong to pick her in the first place. But if her administration becomes too chaotic and her position untenable, Beijing will look for a reason to replace her.
There are already signs that many businesspeople think Hong Kong’s glory days as a center for China and Asia trade and investment are over. For example, there are persistent news reports in Canada that many of the estimated 350,000 Canadians who live and work in Hong Kong are in the process of packing up to move home.
Hong Kong is not as essential to China’s economic wellbeing as it was thirty-or-so years ago. But a visible and dramatic withering of Hong Kong at a time when there are many questions about China’s economic stability and prospects will not be good for Xi and his regime.
Hong Kong’s fight has already convinced the vast majority of Taiwanese that they want nothing to do with Beijing’s persistent demands that they surrender their island nation to a similar “one country, two systems” political union with China. That conviction can only intensify.
The central question, though, is where do young Hongkongers who are committed to their cultural and political individuality go from here.
There is a strange and complex mood among them at the moment. The protests of the last few weeks have bred a strong spirit of solidarity, of communal mutual dependence, a feelingJona that they are freedom fighters challenging a dark and oppressive authoritarian power.
And yet there is also a deep fear that they cannot win, and that in the end their battle to defend and enhance the rights with which they were born is doomed.