The Hong Kong protests could lead to a fundamental breakthrough in the near future. While previous protests have not produced major results, the difference this time is that the international community is offering more than lip service.
Hong Kong’s controversial extradition bill sparked consecutive large-scale protests on 9 June through 12 June, and after a young man sacrificed his life, the chief executive of the Hong Kong government, Carrie Lam, was finally forced to back down and shelve the bill indefinitely.
However, the bill has not been completely withdrawn. The Hong Kong people continued to advance, with nearly two million — a historical record — taking to the streets on 16 June, demanding the complete withdrawal of the bill. They also want Lam to step down.
Since then, the situation has escalated. The protesters have not only accused the Hong Kong government of wrongdoing, but have also not ruled out experimentally setting up an “interim government.”
The protesters are fighting for the liberty and safety of Hong Kong: and they not just in a clash with the Hong Kong government but also against the powerful Beijing regime.
Since the return of Hong Kong to China in 1997, the people in Hong Kong have aimed to protect the existing rule of law and freedom, to expand democratic elections and to hold Beijing accountable for honouring political commitments. In spite of protests and struggles, so far they have failed to achieve meaningful success in this area.
In contrast, Beijing has consistently outmanoeuvred Hong Kong through its high-level control and influence. Beijing’s intelligent wooing and coercion has made chief executives more obedient to Beijing without looking after the interests of the local people. Just as governors of Hong Kong were appointed, Beijing followed suit to select chief executives who are obedient. Beijing has proved adept in carrying out fake elections carried out in a limited circle.
Chief executives in the current system, however, are not the same as the governors under British rule. Despite the non-democratic election of Hong Kong governors, the United Kingdom has a democratic system that guaranteed the freedom and independent judiciary of Hong Kong.
With the return of Hong Kong to China, Beijing’s autocratic system cannot guarantee what the Hong Kong people once enjoyed under the reign of the United Kingdom. Lacking vision, courage and determination during the colonization of Hong Kong, the United Kingdom did not push for democracy in Hong Kong before it was handed to Beijing. Chris Patten, the last governor of Hong Kong, made a last ditch effort to implement political reforms bringing democracy to Hong Kong. But it was already too late at that point. Beijing did its best to resolutely obstruct democratisation from happening, and the British themselves did not back his efforts.
Today Hong Kong has fallen into a dire situation in which freedom and basic human rights are significantly eroded by Beijing. For this the United Kingdom cannot escape blame. In hindsight, had democracy been implemented in Hong Kong before its return in 1997, Beijing may not have been comfortable in taking back Hong Kong.
Hong Kong’s Destiny
Previous political protests in Hong Kong have not yielded major results. So will the current protests also fade out as before without meaningful progress?
Beijing made a number of political commitments in negotiations with the United Kingdom. However, Beijing’s record since Hong Kong was handed back in 1997 shows that it has no intension of honouring the political commitments made in the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration.
But this does not mean that Beijing planned from the beginning to deceive the British and people of Hong Kong when both sides were entering into its commitments. Precisely when the Chinese and British were negotiating the agreement, China was implementing the Open Door policy to the outside world. China’s opening at that time, both politically and economically, was commendable.
Careful observation reveals the sequential changes in Beijing’s political psychology in with Hong Kong. At first Beijing was afraid that Hong Kong would become a base and bridgehead for subverting the Chinese Communist regime. Then Beijing discovered that leaders of Western democracies were prone to appeasement and short-sightedness, which encouraged Beijing to become increasingly bold and more offensive rather than defensive.
The Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 was a turning point in Beijing’s political orientation. China’s political relaxation came to an end, followed by rapid political stagnation and retrogression. Further, the lack of political courage and leadership of the then US President George H.W. Bush — who took no action against Deng Xiaoping’s military repression and tolerated the massacre, striking a conciliatory tone in private communications with Beijing — encouraged the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) toward a path of political degeneration.
The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing. The West’s appeasement of Beijing greatly contributed to encroachment into Hong Kong’s freedom and the rule of law. Perhaps now the world realizes that Beijing does not keep its commitments. The West previously presumed that treaties signed by Beijing merely could be trusted. But Beijing openly tore up the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration. In 2001, Beijing deceived US President Bill Clinton and the WTO, taking advantage of the conveniences of membership but refusing to implement the requirements of joining. The trust of Western democracies in Beijing has now been reduced to an unprecedented low.
Are we seeing a similar situation now? Are the brief demonstrations of police violence during the protests indicative of more drastic repression to come? Could Beijing simply stop the further escalation of the ongoing protests with military repression similar to that witnessed during the 1989 Tiananmen massacre?
Not at all.
First, Hong Kong is an international financial hub, and Beijing will think twice before resorting to force. Second, unlike some of his predecessors, today’s occupant of the White House, President Donald J. Trump, has shown that he is willing and able to criticize China. Third, the West was still preoccupied by the Cold War in 1989 and was ambiguous about Beijing. Today the West has begun to awaken to the threat of the CCP.
In all likelihood the Hong Kong protests will continue and, so long as the West continues publicly supporting the Hong Kong people, Xi or his agents in Hong Kong will not resort to force. It’s not that Xi would be unwilling but the realities of the situation prohibit him from military action.
The main reason that previous protests by the Hong Kong people achieved so little was the indifference of the international community, which offered little support and never more than lip service.
Now the time and tide have changed. When Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the US House of Representatives, spoke out with warnings that the United States-Hong Kong Policy Act, which defines Hong Kong as an autonomous entity for trade purposes, could be amended, this directly deterred the Lam government and Beijing. Other democracies followed suit.
If the Hong Kong people persist in protesting, it is highly likely that it will lead to a fundamental breakthrough and lay a solid foundation for achieving universal suffrage in Hong Kong in the near future.
When Beijing loses its grip in Hong Kong, Hong Kong will be the first domino in a series of social changes throughout China. This makes political change in China not so remote. With the right pressure, these changes could come very soon.
Chin Jin is the president of the Federation for a Democratic China and a doctoral candidate at the University of Sydney.
This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.