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Hong Kong’s Last Gasp

BLOG - 20 August 2019

The collective intelligence and the civilized behavior of the Hong Kong people who have again massively demonstrated on August 18 deserve admiration. 
 
But Hong Kong’s fate was sealed in 1984, when the Thatcher government signed the Joint Declaration for the retrocession to China in 1997. True, there was to be a 50-year reprieve as a Special Administrative Region run under the "One Country, Two Systems" maxim. But Deng Xiaoping had already insisted – in fact overruling Minister of Defence Geng Biao, Xi Jinping’s first boss – that PLA units would be stationed in Hong Kong after 1997. If at the time China promoted the idea that “Hongkongers rule Hong Kong”, it never agreed to a full democratic transition from colonial rule. Whatever the devilishly complex changes in electoral law since the early 1990s, it has been the basis of an agreement with the British that "functional constituencies" representing professional and interest groups, as well as appointed Electoral Committees, would balance the predictable effects of direct democratic vote. Neither Hongkongers nor China have changed: in 1991, two years after Tiananmen, democratic activists took 68 % of the direct vote. In 2016, they still represented 55 % of direct vote. The 2014 Umbrella Movement targeted, above all, the Electoral Committees. Today’s extraordinary mobilization again demands 100 % direct voting. China has wavered in its detailed views of Hong Kong’s electoral system, but it has never compromised on the main article – refusing direct democracy and controlling the appointment of the Region’s Chief Executive. 
 
What we are seeing is a delayed consequence of the Joint Declaration. It was only Chris Patten, Hong Kong’s last colonial governor, who attempted to inject more democracy into the future electoral rules, and he was pilloried by China for this belated attempt. The young have been at the forefront of the Umbrella Movement and of today’s massive demonstrations not only because they suffer from the huge economic inequalities in Hong Kong, but simply because they know they will be around in 2047 and beyond. In fact, they have understood correctly that the preparation for this date is already underway. The physical reunification of Hong Kong with huge infrastructures and the new Greater Bay Area, the subtle changes such as shifting transit control to city stations inside Hong Kong, the project for an extradition law that follows cases of rendition by kidnapping, the tightening control of the press by financial means all point to another reality: the protective cover of "One Country, Two Systems" has started dissolving well ahead of 2047. It is feigned naiveté to pretend we are surprised that this is happening.

Hong Kong’s fate was sealed in 1984, when the Thatcher government signed the Joint Declaration for the retrocession to China in 1997.

It is telling that the more activist component of the mass movement has chosen Hong Kong’s airport their distinct stand. Leaving Hong Kong behind is what a majority of Hongkongers, who do not have Commonwealth or foreign passports, will find more difficult to do in the future. In the world’s ultimate trading and financial city, they are stuck with the promise of rule by China’s CCP, which has only become more uncompromising with the passing of time. Beijing’s threats, the hardly more subtle decision of China’s State Council promoting Shenzhen as a "global model", SAR Chief Carrie Lam’s begging not to "push Hong Kong into the abyss" all point to an inexorable reality.

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

 

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