The turmoil in Hong Kong is still going on full steam. Is an end in sight?
Backgrounder: During the Qing Dynasty, European countries pursued commercial opportunities in the Middle Kingdom. In order to balance its trade deficit, Great Britain aggressively introduced opium into the country. The Chinese effort to curb the widespread addiction led to battles, known as the Opium Wars, with the British. Defeated, China signed several Unequal Treaties with European countries, America and Japan, two of which involved Great Britain’s acquisition of Hong Kong Island in 1841, and Kowloon in 1860. These were followed by a 99-year lease of the New Territories in 1898. The history of China in the 19th century is replete with a great deal of territorial concessions to foreign invaders, which it has since reclaimed.
In 1997, as part of the handover of Hong Kong back to China, a policy known as one country, two systems, was instituted. According to it, Hong Kong, for the next 50 years, was to be allowed a measure of liberties, like the right to free speech and assembly, while China takes responsibility for its national defense and foreign affairs.
The present crisis was set off by a proposed bill that would allow charged criminals to be extradited back to China. The bill was temporarily shelved as the protests turned more volatile. That gesture proved not to be enough to quell them, so it was then altogether withdrawn. Instead of being pacified, the protesters ramped up their demands for, among other things, pro-democracy reforms and universal suffrage.
On the surface, this sounds like a marginalized group of constituents mobilizing to restore its recently violated voting rights. The reality though is that there were no directly elected seats on the Hong Kong legislature until just before its handover to China. Throughout colonial rule, the governors were appointed by the British, not elected by the locals.
Not only does Hong Kong not submit to the decisions of the executive government, China’s long-overdue right to rein its judicial system into the national fold is met with vociferous outcries of aggrievement. Yet, until this happens, the demonstrations will likely continue unabated. The press is giving short shrift to the curious coincidence between the liberal leanings of its judges, many of whom were educated in the U.K., and the, at best, token slap on the wrist that the agitators are almost assured of getting away with.
China proposed the mini-constitution to prep the handover because it was dependent on the colony’s bustling economy to fuel modernization in the rest of the country. Although the Basic Law was ratified in 1990, all decisions have to be approved by the central government. The standing committee not only has the ultimate power to interpret the Basic Law, it has unilateral right to coordinate it with the national platform. Deng Xiaoping, its Noachian helmsman, did vouchsafe the continuance of the colony’s capitalist system. Yet, although it is semi-autonomous, historically, Hong Kong belongs to China and was never an independent country.
Even Margaret Thatcher (British prime minister leading the negotiation) who sought to extend the 99-year lease, conceded the issue of sovereignty.[i] China’s sovereignty over Hong Kong in effect triumphs over any other legalese and pro-democracy rhetoric. This means the assembly has plenary power to define the range of the territory’s autonomy so that it can play its proper part in the nation. Hong Kong’s special status, conferred due to the turn of events during China’s colonized past, is not ipso facto irrevocable.
The claim of the erosion of civil liberties is predicated on Hong Kong’s entrenched view of itself as especial. It is an imperious posture that positions itself as more privileged than its disdained mainland counterparts, and therefore entitled to leapfrog over the political will of the central authority with impunity. It hijacks the narrative that all local governments across the country are subject to the same prescribed common law.
Sovereignty is the most compelling, consequential, and irrefutable of all the points in discussion. No amount of elegant buzz phrase posturing as “freedom” or “liberty” can sweat down this principle upon which a nation is built.
At any rate, the mini-constitution was meant to last for only 50 years. Even if its scope were broadened to accommodate Hong Kong’s interpretation, it will be fully integrated into China in 2047. The protesters are merely postponing the inevitable. Although the protesters deny that they are crusading to secede from China, an activist, Andy Chan, had called for just that in a talk hosted by the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Hong Kong last year.[ii]
The unrest draws the ire of the majority of those in Southeast Asia, especially in countries like Malaysia and Singapore where there is sizeable Chinese population (but generations removed from China, and who otherwise has no affinity to them.) They are disturbed by the conduct of the rabble. These are their takes:
a) The rationale for the initial uprising had been removed, i.e., the government gave in and retracted the extradition bill. Instead of being appeased, they switched tactics, ratcheted up their demands and escalated the violence. Whatever tenuous justification they might have had, it is smirched by this defiance.
b) The claim of police misconduct is not only outrageous but laughably hypocritical, if not for its irony. How many other police forces in the world, Asians muse, dispatch advance warnings, not once, not twice, but three times, before firing teargas into the mob? In fact, the protesters are complicit in perpetrating brawls and provoking the police into retaliation. Then they turn around and cry police brutality. They stand the call for “investigation of excessive police response” on its head, for, in the majority opinion, they are the ones holding the law in contempt. To further demand amnesty for arrested participants takes them beyond the pale of reason.
c) Their smear campaign against China is a disgraceful fishing expedition to secure outside intervention on their behalf. Groveling for foreign sympathy (e.g., waving American flags en masse) is beyond humiliating. This point is especially distasteful to the Chinese community, which takes the concept of “losing face” seriously.
d) Many major American media outlets are distortive in their reporting of the unrest, presenting a biased narrative to fit their own pro-democracy agenda. Freedom of press is not a license to obfuscate the facts.
In a public display of censure, the U.S. is steadfastly taking Hong Kong’s side. Americans love to cheer on the underdog standing up to the exploitative tyrant. But maybe we should pause to reflect on the import of these popular opinions.
Our support for Hong Kong is rooted in our deep misgivings about China. So we use the uprising to parlay our animosity into stinging criticism. We look at China with collective suspicion, a rare source of bipartisan unity. Instead of evaluating the merit of the protest in the light of China’s historical legacy, we muddy the debate with our broader grievances. We see the unrest as a potential leverage to be used to our advantage, say, during trade negotiations.
It is motives such as this that sours Southeast Asians’ attitude toward us. In their eyes, we have forfeited the right to criticize China. How can we accuse China of manhandling the crisis when our stratagem is to jump into the fray and denigrate our adversary?
Aligning ourselves with Hong Kong in this regard is analogous to inflaming the recalcitrant child of a rival to undermine said rival. China’s sovereignty cannot be overstated. If Texas were to demand secession, would we let international opinions sway our course of actions? Isn’t it then not only naïve, but patently unreasonable to expect China to relinquish its hold on Hong Kong, or even just to tamp down its authority?
We oversimplify the matter when we frame the protest as a struggle between freedom and authoritarianism. In China, no concept is free-floating on its own, but taken into consideration within a larger context. Thus, freedom is not an isolated abstraction, elevated to the exclusion of all else. Its relevance in the milieu is but one component for consideration for the broader good.
Water rises or falls to its own level. For all the claim of opacity, China’s policies have done much to bring millions of its citizens out of deep poverty. Its meteoric ascent to a world-stage economic power is a phenomenon to be reckoned with.
The success of its free-trade zones refutes the notion that robust economic growth is contingent on absolute freedom. But if it proves true going forward, then let China rehabilitate itself with structural reforms or risk the consequence of losing its prominence. Freedom thrives only in soil ready for it. It is not an issue for us to force.
The vast majority of mainland Chinese is not complaining about any perceived lack of freedom; nor does it pose an obstacle to their pragmatic enterprise. Freedom spreads over a wide continuum. How much of it does one need in order to thrive? The Chinese are quick to point out that it is secondary to other considerations, like, e.g. peace and security. In giving up a degree of freedom, they are not passively giving up a notion without which their life is meaningless. On the contrary, unfettered freedom, in their opinion, leads to chaos.
By letting buzzwords like “freedom” or “democracy” drive the conversation, we are in essence falling into a language trap. Our magnanimity renders us susceptible to just such a manipulative lexicon. But if we shake off the propaganda, we see that the protesters’ actions belie their rhetoric. Their initiatives are at war with, and fall far short of, their proclaimed objective.
There is a limit to rights. In any country, the right to assembly does not extend to illegal occupations of malls, the airport and disrupting flights. It is not a permission to surround police stations; set up blockades and strikes that bring the city to a standstill; invade a government building; vandalize shops and subways; and decimate public properties. How are they advocating for democracy if they are trampling dissenters opposed to their violence, and doling out vigilante justice to vulnerable bystanders perceived to not be in total agreement with their opinions?
There is a yawning gap between what they claim to believe in, and what they do. Democracy cannot work unless a point of view is not gagged for being contrary. Instead of affirming the values of democracy, they violate its central tenet. We ought to be deeply disturbed by the fact that our sympathy emboldens them on this misguided and unrealistic endeavor. We ought to be cautious about endorsing their indefensible, lawless conduct, thereby tacitly normalizing a questionable uproar.
Significantly, no one has stepped up to claim leadership position, so there is no quorum to hold accountable for the out-of-control atrocities. And there are no personal narratives of hardships documenting how the alleged attrition of civil liberties stymies their daily routines.
We can learn to match the Chinese — and this includes the people of Hong Kong; for all their protestation, they are ethnically and culturally one of them — in the fluidity of their thinking, and not limit our options through grudge-induced short-sightedness. We are uniquely positioned to beacon our sense of fair-play to the world. Let’s reaffirm the role.
[i] Burns, John F. “Hong Kong Accord Is Signed in Peking.” The New York Times 20 Dec. 1984.
[ii] Ramzy, Austin and Qin, Amy. “Journalist’s Expulsion Casts Shadows on Hong Kong’s Future.” The New York Times 2 Nov. 2018.
Moon Q is not pro-China, but opposed to the protesters’ hypocrisy, histrionics, disinformation, and misrepresentation.