By Danfes & Shankar Kumar
As Hong Kong hurts Chinese President’s invincibility, it is becoming hard for Beijing to escape from international gambit which is being played cleverly by US and its Western allies.
In the past few weeks, China’s top diplomatic envoys based in different parts of the world are busy explaining situation in Hong Kong in their own convenient ways. They seem to be desperate to tell the concerned international community members that anti-China forces are behind ongoing protests in the city-state. In fact, these Chinese envoys, instead of calling spade a spade, are sparing no stone unturned to term ongoing pro-democracy movement as an “organized and premeditated attempt by external forces to create social unrest” in the city-state, a former British colony which became China’s special administrative region in 1997 under one country, two systems framework.
But how hard they may try in their explaining of the situation in Hong Kong, the former British colony is deep under unprecedented whirlwind of protests against Chinese suzerainty. Some experts equate it with locals’ attempt to throw out China’s cultivated colonialism as Beijing is making sustained effort to impose its own rule of law by tearing asunder agreements which were signed by China and Britain in 1984. These agreements include high level of autonomy to Hong Kong, independent judiciary and maintaining certain rights to the residents of the city-state, which are not granted in mainland China. To be in place for 50 years–that’s until 2047, these agreements also include continuance of Hong Kong’s capitalist system.
Sharply different in ethos and culture from mainland China where the government drenched in communist ideology, doesn’t allow individuals to enjoy democratic right, right to worship and other fundamental rights, including that of writing and commenting against the state, Hong Kong residents started feeling heats of China’s authoritarian rule when anti-subversion legislation was introduced in 2003. The legislation prohibited treason, secession, sedition and subversion against the Chinese government, and outlawed theft of state secrets. It was shelved only after 500,000 people in Hong Kong came down the streets on July 1, 2003 to oppose it. Similarly in 2012, attempts were made to amend the curriculum of Hong Kong’s school system to include topics on China’s history and culture and national identity, in an attempt to win the hearts and minds of the city-state’s younger generations. This forced attempt by the Chinese government was met with strong resistance in Hong Kong when thousands of people attended a protest against the curriculum changes on July 29, 2012. Then the 2014 Umbrella Revolution was sparked by demands for reform in Hong Kong’s electoral system. China asked residents of the city-state to support only those candidates in election who were vetted by Beijing. Thousands of people took to the streets in Hong Kong in protest against mainland China’s sinister design to throttle genuine democracy in the former British colony.
Yet none of these mass protests lasted for weeks or months as seen with current movement which started after Hong Kong’s pro-China administration in June tried to introduce a legislation 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. In deep resentment against mainland China, protestors have on a daily basis since June, come out in the open to denounce Beijing’s anti-democracy move. They stormed Hong Kong’s legislative building, damaged public facilities and blocked the airport thereby creating problem in the way of incoming and outgoing flights. Schools and colleges have been closed down as students have joined Hong Kong’s common residents in fight against China. The fire of protest and agitation has spread beyond Hong Kong too. Reports are coming about eruption of fight in university campuses and academic institutions of Australia, England and the US between students from Hong Kong and mainland China over nationalist issues. While students from Hong Kong vociferously support democracy and individual freedom, Chinese students studying in American, Australian or British universities call boycott, protests and agitation launched by Hong Kong residents as a secessionist movement.
On the other hand, Chinese authorities accuse America and Britain for triggering anti-China drive in Hong Kong. “Some external forces have played a very disgraceful role in this regard. Instead of condemning the recent violent crimes in Hong Kong, some Western politicians criticized the Hong Kong government for stopping the violence and chaos and restoring order in accordance with the law, defaming China’s social system and internal and external policies,” China’s new ambassador to India, Sun Weidong said in his article in Indian Express on September 3.
Experts term such attributions as China’s familiar design to defame the whole protest movement as bad, insidious and disgraceful act. Earlier China’s lone tabloid English daily, Global Times termed the 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 said. This has, instead of quelling agitation in the city-state, aggravated protests with Hong Kong residents calling on Taiwanese to come out in support of their pro-democracy movement.
All this is happening when Beijing is witnessing turmoil across many parts of its territory. Xinjiang which takes up one-sixth of China’s landmass and borders eight countries, including Pakistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan is facing international criticism for its treatment against Uighur, a predominantly Turkic-speaking ethnic group, who have been reportedly detained in reeducation camps. Several media reports suggest that China has set up 39 camps from 2014 to August 2018 for reeducation of Uighur Muslims who are demanding their independence from China. It is reported that Uighurs have not only be banned from sporting beard, they have also been asked to avoid undertaking any religious practices. Hence, tension is widespread in the region. It is amidst this development, Hong Kong is searing under pro-democracy protests.
China is also facing a long trade war with the US. Since 2018, the two largest economies of the world have entered into one of the bitterest trade war against each other. While US President Donald Trump has accused China of unfair practices and intellectual property theft, Beijing is of the impression that the US is trying to curb its rise. So far the US has slapped tariffs on more than $360 billion worth of Chinese goods, while China has in retaliation, imposed tariffs on more than $110 billion worth of US products. The US imposed three rounds of tariffs last year and a fourth one was imposed this year in September. In the latest round of target against Chinese goods, the US administration imposed 15 per cent duty on Chinese imports from musical instruments to meat. Beijing has hit back with tariffs ranging from 5 per cent to 25 per cent on US goods.
It is in this atmosphere, if China takes punitive action against protesting people of Hong Kong, it will fly on the face of Beijing’s claim that it continues with principle of one country and two systems. Therefore, some experts suggest 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. Therefore, 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. The US President has expressed his hope that China and Hong Kong will be able to sort out their differences.
The European Union and other international community members, including Spain 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. While all this presents a tough picture 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.
But Hong Kong itself is staring at chaos. It is on the verge of a recession as its private sector activity plunged to a decade-low in August amid an escalating trade war and its worst political crisis in decades. The business survey, released recently noted “the steepest deterioration in the health of the private sector since February 2009”, adding that spreading pessimism had seen business confidence slump to its lowest on record. China sees the increasingly violent demonstrations as a direct challenge to its rule over Hong Kong. According to a survey by the HIS Markit, Hong Kong purchasing managers’ index (PMI), declined to 40.8 in August from 43.8 in the previous month. Any figure below 50 indicates contraction. According to the survey, new business fell to its lowest rate in a decade, as orders from China declined at a record rate. Nearly half of survey respondents reported reduced Chinese demand, citing the ongoing US-China trade dispute, a sharp depreciation in the Renminbi and large-scale protests as reasons.
However, it is a fact that Hong Kong threatens to become a prolonged political headache for Chinese authorities, including President Jinping. It should be remembered that the present trouble is rooted in the special nature of the relationship between Hong Kong and China. Imperial China ceded Hong Kong to Britain in the 1840s after the First Opium War. Hong Kong soon became a thriving international commercial centre with its special access to southern China. Hong Kong continued to serve as the gateway to China even after the communists took charge in 1949.
When Deng Xiaoping opened up China for foreign investment in the 1980s, low-cost production from Hong Kong moved across the border. As most of its manufacturing moved into China, Hong Kong reinvented itself as a major financial centre servicing the rapid growth across East Asia.
As he leveraged Hong Kong to modernize China’s economy, Deng was also determined to bring Hong Kong under China’s sovereignty. In 1984, the politically inventive Deng negotiated with Britain a framework for Hong Kong’s integration with the mainland based on the principle “One Country, Two Systems”. Under it, Hong Kong would become a part of China but retain a significant measure of autonomy for half a century. Integration over an extended period, it was hoped, would be painless. Britain handed over Hong Kong to China in July 1997, just a few months after Deng passed way.
Needless to say, Hong Kong is proving as a bugbear to China whose current approach to express firm public support for the Hong Kong police and the city’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, while warning protestors of consequence of violating rule of law of the land. Those who are familiar with China’s strategy say that Beijing has adopted an intimidation strategy and is trying to wait it out until at least early September, when school term starts — many protesters are high school and university students. The Communist Party of China is also preparing for the 70th anniversary of the founding of modern China, and is unlikely to take any antagonistic steps that will lead to aggravation of situation in Hong Kong ahead of the anniversary. The wait-and-see approach is similar to how it approached the 2014 pro-democracy movement called as Umbrella Movement in the city-state. The 2014 events saw protesters occupy parts of the city for more than two months but faded away without winning concessions from Beijing after key leaders were arrested.
But whether such strategy will be successful- is a major question lying uppermost on China watchers. In fact, Hong Kong is facing the most severe situation it has faced since the handover. Though, Hong Kong’s pro-China administration has withdrawn the proposed extradition bill which has sparked months of protests and plunged the city into the biggest political crisis in decades, but still fingers are crossed as protestors may not withdraw their agitation without getting assurance of no vendetta from police and other officials for their acts. Overall, Beijing is trying to resolve the situation immediately as it feels that the more it lingers, there are possibilities Hong Kong residents may head towards secessionists’ path. In that situation, it will be hard for China to control its turf as the US and its allies will leave no chance to breathe down its neck when it is trying to lord the world through its BRI strategy and cheap monetary policy.