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Hong Kong on the Edge

Maj. Gen. (Dr.) G.G. Dwivedi, SM, VSM & BAR (retd.) was Defence Attaché in China, Mongolia and North Korea; has commanded a Division in the North East.
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  • August 27, 2019

    Hong Kong’s return to the motherland on July

    Since the handover, July 01 has been observed as a public holiday in Hong Kong to commemorate what is known as the ‘Establishment Day’. This year, instead of celebrations, it turned out to be a day of rebuking the Chinese rule, as anti-government protesters – displaying British era colonial flags – stormed and ransacked the City’s Legislative Council (or LegCo). Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s claims about the success of 22 years of Chinese rule sounded hollow. 1 Around a million of Hong Kong’s seven million population soon took to the streets.

    The ongoing protests have also laid bare the stark reality of a deeply fractured Hong Kong society with the City Administration and political leadership towing the Chinese Communist Party line and condemning the protesters as separatists and extremists. The anger of the protesters is more than palpable as they decry police excesses, feel betrayed by the Government, and let down by the social institutions. While the root cause of the protests is political, Chief Executive Lam instead of offering a solution has attributed the crisis to the economic factors 2

    The Genesis

    Violent protests against the City Administration began towards mid-June this year, largely arising from fear of eroding freedom. The tinder was Hong Kong Government’s move to pass the “Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation Bill” (or the Extradition Bill) which would allow Hong Kong citizens and foreigners accused of crimes to be extradited for a trial to the 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 record protests, Lam stated that the government won’t proceed with the bill until public anxieties and fears were properly addressed.

    Not convinced, a week later, thousands of protesters marched on the streets of Tsim Sha Tsui, one of Hong Kong’s most popular tourist areas, in a bid to gain support from the mainland Chinese visitors. On July 09, Chief Executive Lam finally admitted that her administration’s attempt to introduce the ‘Extradition Bill’ was a complete failure and assured that the government would not seek to reactivate it in the parliament. She clearly stated that “the bill is dead”. 3However, she refused to give in to the demand for a complete withdrawal of the bill from the legislative agenda which led to a provocative response from the anti-government camp.

    Hong Kong has been in a state of unrest for about eleven weeks now. Pro-democracy activists have also staged sit-in protests at the Hong Kong Airport which resulted in its partial closure as large numbers of flights were disrupted. In the latest weekend protests at Victoria Park on August 18, it was estimated that around 1.7 million flooded the venue. The daily rallies have been marked by increasing violence and confrontation with the police. Lam has refused to cave into the demands of the protestors which include a call for direct election to the City’s Chief Executive, currently chosen by Beijing.

    Meanwhile, Britain’s criticism of China’s handling of the protests was countered by Beijing when its envoy in London, Liu Xiaoming, stated that Britain should “refrain from saying or doing anything that interferes or undermines the rule of law in Hong Kong”. 4 The US National Security Adviser John Bolton too has warned China against creating another memory like that of the Tiananmen Square in Hong Kong.5 The Chinese Ambassador to the US, Cui Tiankai, had earlier blamed “ill-intentioned forces” for using Hong Kong to attack China’s “One Country, Two Systems” and creating chaos across the country.6 Recently, President Donald Trump suggested to his Chinese counterpart to reach out to the protesters for peaceful resolution of the issue.  Li Bijian, Minister and Deputy Chief of Mission at the Chinese Embassy in India, also recently wrote that “What happened in Hong Kong is China’s internal affairs, and no country or organisation has the right to interfere. China will resolutely safeguard its sovereignty, security and development interests and Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability.” 7

    “One Country, Two Systems” at Crossroads

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

    The ‘Hong Kong Special Administrative Region’ (HKSAR) arrangement was not without scepticism, vindicated by several protest movements since the handover in 1997. In 2003, the HKSAR Government made a bid to introduce legislation redefining the scope of ‘treason’ that would have drastically curtail the freedom to criticise the Chinese Government. In 2014, there were large scale pro-democracy protests demanding an end to China’s surreptitious encroachment on citizen’s liberties. These protests went on for months and came to be known as the ‘Umbrella Movement’. The Movement, however, fizzled out due to the government’s unrelenting stance on making any concession to the protestors.

    The basic character of Hong Kong has also steadily changed over the last two decades due to ‘Mainlandisation’ – a process of integrating Hong Kong with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) through various means. Mandarin has been promoted at the cost of local Cantonese as also to reduce the usage of English. Numerous infrastructure projects have been implemented to integrate Hong Kong with the mainland; case in point being the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Highway. Even the local media has increasingly resorted to self-censorship in reporting on issues about which the communist leadership is sensitive. The chief executives over the years have become more responsive to the efforts of the mainland leadership to gradually impinge on the civil liberties of the Hong Kong residents. There have been instances of people being frisked out of Hong Kong onto the mainland for detention and torture.  

    In economic terms, Hong Kong’s clout has diminished over the years. In 1997, its gross domestic product (GDP) was almost one fifth that of China while at present it is down to three per cent. With Chinese companies and financial institutions having a significant presence in Hong Kong, HKSAR’s dependence on the mainland has increased over the years.  Further, Shanghai given its rapid growth as China’s financial capital is emerging as a viable alternative to 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. This does not augur well for Hong Kong as its speedy integration with the Mainland by gradually eroding the “One Country, Two Systems” is in sync with President Xi’s “China Dream” of a ‘prosperous and powerful China’. Yang Jiechi, Member Politburo, Communist Party of China (CPC), has blamed the United States and other Western countries for stirring the trouble, whereas the movement appears to be indigenous. The ‘Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office’ in Beijing has strongly condemned the protests terming them as riots and ‘near terrorism criminal actions’. 

    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 the latest White Paper “China's National Defence in the New Era,” China retains the option to use force to unify Taiwan which it considers to be a renegade province and the one claiming to be an independent country. 8 As for Hong Kong, its political status as an undisputed part of PRC stands settled and the issue is not of independence but of autonomy.

    Given the current situation, Beijing wants the ‘City Administration’ to halt the protests and deal with the pro-democracy activists sternly. The protesters may have forced Chief Executive Lam to yield ground on the ‘Extradition Bill’ but in the long run, Beijing envisages the protest movement to peter out as it steadily tightens control over HKSAR. To this end, the communist leadership will increasingly resort to disinformation war, sabre-rattling by upping the ante and quelling dissidence through the well-orchestrated phenomenon of paid proxies. However, young activists like Joshua Wong, a Noble Peace Prize nominee who was convicted and jailed in 2017 and released recently are proving tough nuts to crack. 

    On August 06, massive drills involving some 12,000 soldiers of the Chinese People’s Armed Police (part of People’s Liberation Army or PLA) along with armoured vehicles were staged at Shenzhen, a city in southern China adjacent to Hong Kong. It was meant to convey a veiled threat to the protesters of a possible intervention. The PLA garrison in Hong Kong so far has remained confined to the barracks. Going by the past precedence, should the situation take a turn for the worst, the communist leadership has the will to put down the protests by force, catastrophic consequences notwithstanding. However, Global Times, a state-controlled English daily, in a rare reference to ‘Tiananmen’ has insisted that the country has more sophisticated methods than those employed thirty years back to handle the Hong Kong crisis.9

    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 appears to be at crossroads, set to be consigned to the archives well before 2047 – its expiry date.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.