By Shankar Kumar
When China is deep in perilous trade war with the US, it will hardly expect that fire of highly damaging consequences to erupt inside its territory. Despite hard try, it is, however, happening inside Hong Kong, a former British colony which became a special administrative region of China in 1997 under a one country, two systems framework. There is no end to protest that hit this highly dense populated place of the world in early June 2019 over Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing leaning administration’s proposed Bill called as Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation, seeking extradition of criminals or financial offenders to mainland China to face trial. Though this proposed bill has been withdrawn after the first round of demonstrations, yet protest continues as the people call for greater democracy and probe into alleged brutality of police officials against protestors.
In fact, for the first time since Britain handed over Hong Kong to Beijing two decades ago, this special administrative region of China with over 7.4 million people has turned into a huge bugbear for the second largest economic power of the world. Not only pro-democracy protestors stormed the region’s legislative council building and destroyed public facilities there, they also brought to standstill the city by calling shutdown and blocking the airport. Hundreds of in-coming and outgoing flights cancelled due to protests. Chinese authorities say “interference by certain external forces is a major cause of such disorder” in this financial hub. Writing an opinion piece in Hindustan Times, China’s Deputy Chief of Mission in India, Li Bijian said: “Some countries sympathize with and tolerate the violent activities, but criticize the Hong Kong government and the Hong Kong police for preventing violence and disorder according to law. This is equating violence to protest and law enforcement to repression.”
However, obfuscating international community is China’s lone tabloid English daily, Global Times’ stand to term ongoing demonstration in Hong Kong as an act of terrorism. “Since the “Jasmine Revolution” in Tunisia in 2010, a series of anti-government uprisings spread across the Middle East and North Africa. However, many countries experienced terrorism during the protests, including Islamic terrorism. In fact, many Arab countries suffered from the Arab Winter instead of peacefully actualizing democracy. The terrorist activities in Syria, Libya and other Arab countries synchronized with the colour revolutions. Even today, terrorism still haunts the Arab world,” Global Times, China’s lone tabloid English daily said. This is an indication of China’s move to adopt a tough measure to quell protests in its special administrative region.
A few days back the military garrison maintained by PLA in Hong Kong released a video showing an anti-riot drill in which soldiers with assault rifles, armoured personnel carriers and water cannons dispersing a crowd of protesters. When this failed to deter protestors, China rushed in armoured vehicles, trucks loaded with PLA soldiers and canons to Hong Kong. Social media is full of pictures showing Chinese army entering Hong Kong from Shenzhen. Signs appear to be ominous. But some experts still suggest that these could be China’s ploy to scare away protesters. They also say that beyond rhetoric or playing images of PLA’s deployment in Hong Kong to quell demonstration, China can’t employ force in actual sense against pro-democracy protestors as it is full of risks-operational and economic. In the aftermath of the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre which led to the killing of thousands of people in Beijing, China suffered huge economic costs on account of sanctions. At the time when China’s aggressive posturing in the Asia-Pacific region has only annoyed several countries and there is an ongoing trade war with the US, Beijing may think twice before adopting brutal measures against protesting Hong Kong residents.
Interestingly, India has not made any direct or indirect reference to Hong Kong in its statement, though, China did make reference to Kashmir after Articles 370 and 35A were withdrawn and the state was bifurcated into two Union Territories. Following New Delhi’s stern warning that Kashmir is an internal matter of the country, Beijing seems to have lowered its tone on the issue and has avoided siding with Pakistan on it as strongly as Islamabad expected from its iron friend. But following External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar’s loaded statement that he made during his just concluded three days visit to China, it is felt that Beijing could have taken note of hints that the EAM gave to it on managing bilateral ties. While addressing India-China media forum on August 12 in Beijing Jaishankar said: “The future of the India-China relationship will obviously depend on mutual sensitivity to each other’s core concern. It is natural, both as neighbours and large developing economies that there would be issues in our ties. Properly managing differences is therefore vital. As our leaders agreed in Astana, differences should not become disputes. That is how India-China relations can remain a factor of stability in an uncertain world.”
Yet call it India’s diplomacy, international attention is not as much focused on Kashmir as it is on Hong Kong. British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab lashed out at China for the current situation in Hong Kong. Directly speaking to Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam over phone, the British Foreign Secretary called for “meaningful political dialogue and a fully independent investigation into recent events as a way to build trust.” Britain has also underlined for high degree of autonomy in Hong Kong as per the joint declaration issued by London and Beijing in 1997. This riled China. Giving a snub to Britain, Hua Chunying, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said, the days where Britain ruled Hong Kong were long gone…The UK has no sovereignty, jurisdiction or right of supervision over Hong Kong. Affairs of Hong Kong brook no foreign interference.” US President Donald Trump has said he is sure China and Hong Kong will be able to sort out their differences. The EU and other international community members have called for protesters’ rights to be respected. “Over the past days, the people of Hong Kong have exercised their fundamental right to assemble and express themselves freely and peacefully. These rights need to be respected,” the EU’s External Affairs Ministry said in its statement. Indeed, a tough situation for China as it can’t extricate itself from Hong Kong imbroglio without assuring inviolability of the region’s autonomy and democratic rights of millions of its residents.