For a city of only seven million, and one with a high level of development and wealth, Hong Kong has proved a hard place to govern since its reversion to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. An unknown quantity because of the lack of any proper democracy under British rule, we are now much more knowledgeable about what Hong Kong public opinion might be. It can be captured in one word: complex. Hong Kong in 2019 is divided, and frequently erupts in angry outbursts of protests.
Many of these are small scale. But in 2003, in 2014, and now in 2019 significant demonstrations involving tens of thousands of people have caused the local Special Administrative Region government to need to withdraw, or rethink, important policies it has initially enthusiastically promoted. Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s backdown over the extradition law on 16th June was one of the more dramatic, but it is not unprecedented. Her predecessor C Y Leung was forced to shelve proposals for new arrangements to elect Chief Executives four years ago.
Perhaps the city has been infected, a little late, by the same habit of being close to ungovernable that the British have become masters of. Ironically, for all the bragging about how British colonial rule in the city ensured it was in excellent shape when it was handed back, and how it left a legacy of efficient, good administration, what one can now arguably see is a Hong Kong system infiltrated with the same deep divisions and inability to find consensus as the one that isnow overwhelming the UK in its Brexit escapades. Trusty British rule is not working out so well in the UK. It seems that contagion has spread to a place Britain had such deep influence on over the century it ruled the island.
The British at least have the solace of universal franchise, and, despite all the complaints about Brussels and the EU, control over their sovereignty. Hong Kong’s great issue, and one that is becoming more intense as the Xi era in Beijing continues, is that it lives seemingly at the mercy of the country it is now part of. The nationalist tone of the Xi era sends waves across the politics of Hong Kong. There is increasingly little tolerance for the demands for exceptional treatment by the city. It lives more and more on sufferance. The question is whether the recent spate of protests has finally worn Beijing’s patience out.
Some would argue that Xi’s administration, as with the last time in 2014, can wait for things to calm down and then demand the Lam government to undertake reprisals against those who demonstrated lack of loyalty and dissent. This happened after Occupy Central and protests two years later when those accused of being ringleaders like Joshua Wong were tried and imprisoned for public disorder and affray. The problem with this tactic is that it clearly has not worked in intimidating others. By many accounts, the numbers on the streets this June was more than four years before. That implies that people are becoming more politicised rather than less.
Beijing can continue to exercise its edicts in the shadows, and slowly continue to assimilate Hong Kong to the mainland so that, by 2047 when the One Country Two Systems rubric is due to end, there is scarcely any difference between the two. For this, though, the issue is that 2047 is still a long way away, and in any case, Hong Kongese seem to be becoming more, not less, aware of their differences with their Mainland. The great nationalist messages do not seem to work in the same way once one crosses from Shenzhen into the city. Thus, the anger at trying to make insulting the national anthem of China a crime tied in Hong Kong recently.
Hong Kong is different from other parts of China – but not so as to be wholly separate from it. It is likely the Beijing leaders are nervous about what is happening in Hong Kong because of the way it might inspire and play to audiences back in China. This accounts for the clamp down on any news about the massive demonstrations in mid-June throughout the People’s Republic. Hong Kong remains similar enough to be disruptive and threatening. It still has the ability to pack a punch.
At a time too when the world is watching China with increasing intensity, alert for signs of pushiness and aggressiveness, still undecided about whether this grand new power is a threat that needs to be opposed, or a power that should be accommodated and embraced, the impact on the country’s reputation by doing anything overtly aggressive in the city would be massive. It would be the sign that China’s many critics and enemies were always waiting for to see a new behemoth appear, and no doubt mark a moment when a new, more complex, cold war for the 21st century begins.
For this reason, the smart money is on China only acting in case it absolutely must, and using up all other options beforehand. We are not at this point, yet. But that means Hong Kongese have to be responsible and prudent in the fights they pick. The extradition treaty one was worth battling over because of its immense implications. But a habit of perpetual protest would be risky, and probably counter-productive. Hong Kongese have learned the tactics of how to ensure they protect what they regard as their city’s key interests. But they are still searching for a strategy to define what those interests are, and how to choose between the battles they must fight, and those they don’t have to.