The PRC will not let go of Hong Kong, and will move towards the final erasing of any difference with the rest of its territory. In this context, the massive protests by Hongkongers are also the last gasp of Hong Kong as a free city. What the movement can hope to achieve is a delay in the erosion of norms in Hong Kong, but this will be matched by increasing pressure – economic, social or through sheer thuggery – from Beijing.
What should democracies do? They have not been very active in the case of Xinjiang, where untold numbers of local Muslims languish in re-education camps: for all the contempt that he is being held in by liberals, Donald Trump was the only one who made important symbolic gestures. They cannot go back unilaterally on the main dispositions of the retrocession agreement, which has been sanctioned internationally. Donald Trump has expressed this with his customary simplicity: "they (China and Hongkongers) will have to deal with that themselves.'' Lest we express indignation at this, let’s first hear the sound of silence from many of the Western engagers of China. At best, the EU’s Mogherini, together with the Trudeau government, have issued a joint statement that denounces “a rising number of unacceptable violent incidents” before it counsels "restraint". France and Germany have remained extremely low-key, if not mutic in their reactions. Yet, if there ever was a situation which proved the rejection by China’s CCP of any drift towards democracy, it is the present impasse in Hong Kong.
Part of this prudent reaction is explainable, if not justifiable. We should not encourage the Hong Kong people to raise their protests to a violent level, because at some point this is tantamount to assisted suicide, and the West will remain a spectator. If Hong Kong activists will get only token support, they should know it. There are achievable goals which we should pursue, even if they are only defensive: protecting our democratic systems from the politics of influence played by China’s CCP is already a hard task. Setting up a line of defense against China’s state-driven economy that cynically free-rides the open global system is also hard enough, given the special interests that lobby for China.
Yet, there is a minimum line to hold. We can and should express sympathy, including from governments, at local demands that would be deemed natural in any functioning democracy. Beyond this moral stand, there is a reality that should be pointed out to Beijing: Hong Kong’s enduring status as a member of the World Trade Organization and a separate customs territory, its financial status as a clearinghouse between China and the world, are largely tied to its administrative and legal autonomy from China. If China effectively pushes Hong Kong "into the abyss," why should China’s partners cling to a status that has been upended by the People’s Republic? If China upsets the gaming table, should we pretend the rules of the game stay the same? If Beijing, using the Shenzhen and the Greater Bay scheme, reduces the autonomy of Hong Kong to a convenient financial and trading loophole, why should others indulge?
The Hong Kong stand-off will likely endure, and evolve into a cat and mouse game. That would be infinitely preferable to a violent ending. It is unlikely that the central government can quickly put down the protests without using violent means. We should at least remonstrate to China’s party-state that the advantages China draws from Hong Kong are tied to its genuine autonomy. Shenzhen – or any special economic zone in China’s scheme – cannot claim this.
Copyright : Manan VATSYAYANA / AFP