Chinese whispers

July 31, 2019

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IT’S relatively simple for the regime in Beijing to crack down on domestic dissent in mainland China. If matters seem to be getting out of hand, you can always send in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to liberate people from their illusions. It’s a bit harder, however, when it comes to Hong Kong.

In the 22 years since that territory reverted from British colonial to Chinese rule, sporadic protests have, relatively speaking, been handled with kid gloves. The hand-over took place in 1997, when the 99-year lease that Britain had coerced out of China in the previous century ended; the transfer of power arrangement entailed 50 years of autonomy under a ‘one country, two systems’ formula.

That compact hasn’t always worked to the satisfaction of Hongkongers, and there have been occasional protests throughout the present century, not least the umbrella demonstrations of 2014, whose demands included direct election of the territory’s chief executive. They petered out, but unrest this time appears to have gathered a momentum that may be hard to subdue.

It was sparked early last month by a proposed piece of legislation intended to decree routine extradition to China for those accused of crimes. The local authorities sought to clarify that political offences would be excluded, but Hongkongers were never likely to fall for that ruse, given that there already have been instances of people such as publishers and booksellers being whisked away to the mainland for defying the party line, and not resurfacing until they have repented their ‘sin’.

There has been no let-up in the popular agitation in Hong Kong.

It is widely presumed that Hong Kong’s current chief executive, Carrie Lam, was following Beijing’s orders in introducing this law. After an estimated one-third of Hong Kong’s population took to the streets in opposition to the proposal, Lam relented and declared that the law was effectively dead, albeit without formally withdrawing it. But there has been no let-up in the effectively leaderless popular agitation, which has morphed into something much broader than a protest against the extradition bill.

An invasion of the territory’s legislative chamber at the start of this month by a tiny proportion of protesters enabled the authorities to decry violence and extremism. It is not­a­ble, though, that police forces were uncha­r­a­c­teristically conspicuous by their absence on that occasion, as they were more recently when masked, white-clad members of criminal triads assaulted commuters at Yuen Long — many among them, but by no means all, making their way home from a protest march.

It has been conjectured, and may well be true, that the triads were in cahoots with the authorities. Even if that is an exaggeration, this instance of brutality feeds into the sense that criminals and the Chinese Communist Party are effectively on the same side.

Many of those out on the streets of Hong Kong weren’t yet born, or were still in their nappies, when the territory was handed over to China in 1997. They have come of age during the transitory stage, and given their easy access to the rest of the world — a privilege denied to most of their mainland contemporaries — it is hardly surprising that they are keen to push back against encroachments on their homeland’s semi-autonomy. They have little or no memory of British colonial rule, under which Hong Kong evolved into a formidable Asian commercial hub with limited political freedoms.

Those waving the Union Jack amid Hong Kong’s current troubles, based on partly fake nostalgia, are not all that different from those who unquestioningly kowtow to the Chinese flag.

What will happen when the agreed 50-year period of ‘one country, two systems’ draws to a close in 2047? Hong Kong lacks the leeway Taiwan has in protecting its indepe­n­d­ence, despite bei­ng claimed by China as a recalcitrant province. A gre­at deal will dep­end on how Beijing’s growing power is reflected in the decades ahead. But the signs are alarming in many respects.

What has been described as cultural genocide against the Uighur population of Xinjiang has been greeted with mild remonstrations from the West, and approval from many Muslim states, including Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, reinforcing China’s impression that its pre-eminence as a buyer, seller and investor trumps even its most egregious acts of repression.

It’s a different matter that many of its adversaries in the Belt and Road Initiative barely have a leg to stand on when it comes to neo-imperialism. There was a time not all that long ago when independence movements and newly independent nations picked either the Soviet Union or the People’s Republic of China as their potential saviours — and in many cases paid a heavy price for their choice. But at least they had a choice, unlike Hong Kong.

What may lie ahead in this instance is unclear. China may eventually swallow up Hong Kong, but for the moment the impression remains that, back in 1997, it bit off more than it can chew.

mahir.dawn@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, July 31st, 2019