Hong Kong unrest tests China’s mettle

Published in IDSA on Aug 27, 2019


Maj Gen GG Dwivedi (retd)
Former Defence Attaché in China

Hong Kong’s basic character has changed under China’s control. The chief executives of the territory have gradually become more responsive to the efforts of the mainland leadership to dilute the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ arrangement by impinging on civil liberties. China has been blamed for whisking people onto mainland for detention and torture.

Hong Kong’s return to the motherland on July 1, 1997, marked the reversal of the ‘Century of Humiliation’ (1839-1949), a period during which China suffered a series of ignominious defeats at the hands of colonial powers. Forced to yield to the will of the victors, leasing of Hong Kong Island to Britain in 1898 for 99 years was one such act of concession.

Since the handover, July 1 has been observed as a public holiday (Establishment Day) in Hong Kong. This year, instead of celebrations, it turned out to be a day of rebuking the Chinese rule, as anti-government protesters stormed into and ransacked the city’s Legislative Council, displaying British-era colonial flags. Territory’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s claims of ‘22-year successful Chinese rule’ sounded hollow as the protests laid bare the reality of the deeply fractured Hong Kong society. Around a million of Hong Kong’s 7 million population took to the streets.

Violent protests against the city administration began in mid-June this year, arising from the fear of eroding freedom. The trigger was the Hong Kong’s Government’s move to pass the Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation Bill (Extradition Bill) which would allow Hong Kong citizens and foreigners accused of crimes to be extradited for trial to mainland China. This was seen as a deliberate attempt by the government to undermine the independence of Hong Kong’s legal system. Two days after the protests, Lam said the government won’t proceed with the law until public anxieties and fears were properly addressed.

Not convinced, a week later, thousands of protesters marched on streets of Tsim Sha Tsui, a popular tourist area of Hong Kong, in a bid to gain support from the mainland Chinese visitors. On July 9, Lam finally admitted that her administration’s attempt to introduce the Extradition Bill was a failure and assured that the government would not seek to revive it in Parliament. However, she refused to give in to the demand to withdraw the Bill from the legislative agenda, which led to a provocative response from the anti-government camp.

The daily rallies have been marked by increasing violence and confrontation with the police. The protesters have also demanded direct election to the city’s Chief Executive, currently chosen by Beijing. Hong Kong citizens’ real resistance is against People’s Republic of China. Li Bijian, Minister at Chinese Embassy in India has said, “What happens in Hong Kong is China’s internal affair. China will safeguard its sovereignty, security and development interests, and Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability.”

Hong Kong, which had been under British rule for a century and a half, had acquired the status of a major global financial centre. Therefore, at the time of handover, in order to maintain Hong Kong’s prosperity, its legal system and culture, the Chinese Communist leadership agreed to a unique arrangement, ‘One Country, Two Systems’, enshrined by Deng Xiaoping. It implied that Hong Kong will legally be part of China, but as a ‘Special Administrative Region’ with freedom to enact its own laws (excluding foreign policy and defence) and enjoy freedom of speech and independent judiciary for the next 50 years.

The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) arrangement was not without scepticism, vindicated by several protest movements since the handover. In 2003, the HKSAR Government Chief Executive made a bid to introduce legislation redefining the scope of ‘treason’ that would have drastically curtailed freedom to criticise the Chinese Government. In 2014, there were large scale pro-democracy protests demanding an end to China’s surreptitious encroachment on citizens’ liberties. These went on for months and came to be known as the ‘Umbrella Movement’. The movement fizzled out due to the government’s unrelenting stance against making concessions to the protesters.

Hong Kong’s basic character has changed over the past two decades under China’s control. The territory’s chief executives over the years have become more responsive to the efforts of the mainland leadership to dilute the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ arrangement by gradually impinging on civil liberties. China has been blamed for whisking people out of Hong Kong onto the mainland for detention and torture. Even the local media is restrained today while reporting on issues considered sensitive by the Communist leadership.

In economic terms, Hong Kong’s clout has diminished over the years. In 1997, its GDP was almost one-fifth of China’s, while now it is down to 3 per cent. With significant presence of Chinese companies and financial institutions in Hong Kong, HKSAR dependence on the mainland has increased.  Shanghai, given its rapid growth as China’s financial capital, could emerge as a viable alternative to Hong Kong.

Political developments on the mainland don’t augur well for Hong Kong. Since President Xi Jinping assumed power in 2013 as the Fifth-Generation Leader, the Communist Party rule has become more authoritarian and assertive, both at home and abroad. Yang Jiechi, politburo member, Communist Party of China, has blamed the US and other Western countries for stirring trouble, whereas the movement appears to be indigenous.

Today, China’s security concerns are primarily internal as it faces virtually no external threat. Hence, sovereignty and stability stand out as its key national objectives, implying ‘zero tolerance’ to any kind of dissent. As per its latest white paper, National Defence in New Era, China retains the option to use force to unify Taiwan. Regarding Hong Kong’s situation, Beijing wants the city administration to halt the protests and deal with pro-democracy activists sternly. The protesters may have forced Lam to yield ground on the Extradition Bill, but in the long run, Beijing expects the movement to peter out as it tightens control over HKSAR. However, young activists like Joshua Wong, a Nobel Peace Prize nominee who was convicted and jailed in 2017 and released recently, are proving a tough nut to crack.

Massive drills involving some 12,000 soldiers of the Chinese People’s Armed Police (PAP) — part of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) — along with armoured vehicles were staged at Shenzhen, a city in southern China adjacent to Hong Kong on August 6. It was meant to convey a veiled threat to the protesters of possible intervention. The PLA garrison in Hong Kong so far has remained confined to the barracks. Should the situation take a turn for the worse, the Communist leadership has the will to quell the protests by force, catastrophic consequences notwithstanding. However, Global Times, a government-controlled English daily, in a rare reference to Tiananmen, has insisted that the country has more sophisticated methods to handle the Hong Kong crisis than those employed 30 years ago.

The current impasse in Hong Kong poses the most serious challenge to the Chinese leadership since the territory’s integration with the mainland. The ‘One Country, Two Systems’ arrangement is at the crossroads, set to be consigned to the archives well before 2047— its expiry year.