The future of Hong Kong – The Pearl and the Dragon

Protesters form a human chain in Hong Kong’s Tsim Sha Tsui district in 2019 © New York Times / Redux / Eyevine

Two years ago, when anti-government protesters in Hong Kong staged a sit in At the international airport, someone explained to the journalist and businessman Stephen Vines, what the authorities hate. “I wish they would leave us alone,” said the young protester.

In the wake of the latest round of Hong Kong protests – Beijing has imposed a draconian policy National Security Law, arrested democratic leaders and suppressed most freedoms that were guaranteed until 2047 by an international treaty with the British – it is worth asking what would have happened if Chinese President Xi Jinping had left Hong Kong alone to enjoy the “promised high degree of autonomy”.

The answer suggested by three recent books is: Not much. That is, Hong Kong could have continued to thrive as a financial center and as a free, bustling, culturally vibrant city that is simultaneously Cantonese, Chinese, and cosmopolitan.

However, China, which under Xi, is now openly asserting its military, economic and defy the west In Asia and beyond, they chose the path of greater resistance by deciding to crush dissent in Hong Kong. All demonstrations – including the peaceful march in June 2019 at an estimated rate 2m of the city’s 7 million residents, young and old, rich and poor, believed to be among the largest mass protests in history by population – were reactions to attempts by Beijing and its incompetent proxies in Hong Kong to curtail liberties and secure that promise of meaningful universal suffrage. It was never achieved.

“[L]Being careful of citizens for their own devices is not the way for the Chinese Communist Party,” Vines concludes in Dragon Challenge. After the book was published, Vines himself escape from hong kong to the United Kingdom because of what he called the “white terror” sweeping the city.

A common theme from the books considered here – the other two are Michael Sheridan The China Gate, an official history of Hong Kong and its relations with the United Kingdom and China; And Nathan Low‘s Freedom, a first-hand account of the democratic movement from the youngest person elected to the provincial legislature – is how first the British and then the Chinese Communists repeatedly failed to consider the views of the people of Hong Kong. Both countries sponsored assumed that Hong Kong residents only care about money and not freedom.

This failure means that more than a century of British rule has infected Hong Kong with a virus of freedom and appreciation for the rule of law without allowing anything close to full democracy or self-determination (despite the belated democratization efforts by Chris Patten, the last British governor). It also means that neither the Chinese leaders in Beijing nor the business and civil service elites who apply in Hong Kong understand the attitudes and desires of ordinary Hong Kong residents.

Prominent British figures - including Prince Charles, the last British governor Chris Patten and then Prime Minister Tony Blair - at the handover ceremony of Hong Kong in 1997

Prominent British figures – including Prince Charles, the last British governor Chris Patten and then-Prime Minister Tony Blair – at the 1997 handover ceremony of Hong Kong © Mike Fiala / AFP

Polls and anecdotal evidence showed consistently strong support for the protesters, even after the protests turned violent and led to fierce clashes with the police, and after the favorite slogan became: “Free Hong Kong, the revolution of our time!” In late December 2019, six months before Beijing submitted a file Security Code Late at night without even informing his representative in Hong Kong, the Democrats won by a landslide win over In the provincial elections surprised the Communist Party.

Chinese leaders have long claimed that Hong Kong’s problems are the work of malign foreign agents, including the United States and the United Kingdom, but what these books make clear is that this was a domestic uprising sparked by Beijing’s refusal to accept continued autonomy for Hong Kong or the United States. The passionate claims of its people to their identity.

When the authorities imposed the closure in June this year the bestseller Apple Daily, an irreverent Cantonese newspaper founded by businessman Jimmy Lai, accused it of colluding with foreign forces. But the real reason for hating the newspaper in Beijing – and Lai himself prison – It was quite the opposite: it was a quintessential Hong Kong product that attracted locals, who flocked to buy its final version. Very few foreigners were able to read the newspaper, let alone influence it.

The shift from China’s official policy of non-interference in Hong Kong to one began backfiring a decade after Britain’s handover of its colony in 1997. The 2008 Beijing Olympics was a springboard for relations between Beijing and Hong Kong, with many Hong Kongers feeling fine-headed towards the mainland and even identify themselves as patriotic Chinese. Thereafter, relations began to deteriorate with Xi’s rise to power from 2012 and he took an increasingly Stalinist approach to the opposition.

Sheridan, whose book covers the entire history of Hong Kong, as opposed to others focusing on recent events, is the fairest of the three authors. It examines not only the views of Hong Kong residents and the British but also analyzes with a wealth of documentary evidence the motives of Chinese leaders in seeking to reverse historical humiliations, including the 19th-century Opium Wars that “wound the psyche of the Chinese”. She hasn’t healed yet.”

He notes that many foreigners were ambitious thinkers who underestimated the determination of Chinese communist leaders to take back Hong Kong, and overestimated the party’s reformist tendencies. China under Deng Xiaoping developed the “one country, two systems” formula to facilitate Hong Kong’s integration into the nation, not to preserve Hong Kong’s freedom and rule of law but to allow capitalism to flourish there for the rapid benefit of China. manufacturing. In other words, the idea was to allow economic difference, not social and political independence.

Even the Beijing Olympics were not what they seemed. “The Games were a turning point, but not in the way that foreign diplomats, who argued that they would engage China with the world and promote reform, envisioned,” Sheridan wrote. “Indeed, the Olympics achieved the opposite. It was a gift to the party’s authoritarianism, who rebuilt the national security state under the pretext of protecting the Games from terrorism . . . from then on, Chinese policy and attitudes toward the outside world would take a more hardline tone.”

Lau, now living in exile in the UK, was on the receiving end of that cruelty. His short and honest introductory book on Hong Kong’s recent failed struggle for freedom and democracy is further evidence that this was in large part a local phenomenon sparked by Beijing’s attempts to restrict the freedoms to which the city’s residents were accustomed.

The moderate and thoughtful law, unlike the radical instigator of Beijing’s imagination, quotes Vaclav Havel, the former Czech president, about how he never set out to be an opponent, but was pushed into it simply because he did what he felt. to do. For Lu, “97 was increasingly seen not as a ‘return to the motherland’—it must be added that it neither speaks our language nor respects our values ​​nor acknowledges our history—but rather as the replacement of one colonial power with another less tolerant and less liberal and even less accountable.”

Lu, the son of a construction worker, was born in Shenzhen on the border in Guangdong Province and moved to Hong Kong at the age of six. He was taken care of by his mother and became a student leader. He was elected at the age of 23 to the legislature in 2016, and was later impeached on controversial procedural grounds alongside other Democrats by pro-Beijing politicians who feared losing their dominance in the legislature. “It is easy to forget how difficult and fragile our liberties are,” he wrote wistfully from London.

Vines, who has made Hong Kong his home for more than three decades, defends Hong Kong’s freedoms and values ​​with equal passion as the law. He criticizes establishment figures, such as current CEO Carrie Lam, who groveled in Beijing and failed to defend the people of Hong Kong while preparing their escape routes with Canadian or British passports and often stashes of money and property abroad. .

There is agreement among the authors that China is communist only in name and political structure – in relation to law, power is exercised as an authoritarian “ethno-nationalist”; to Vines as “a form of hyper-nationalism that blends national pride with xenophobia” – and that Beijing’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, while covering up and resisting WHO investigations, has demonstrated how little it has learned since the Sars outbreak in 2002.

However, Vines stands out by finding reasons for optimism. While the law laments the spread of Chinese authoritarian influence around the world and describes Beijing’s treatment of Hong Kong as an “ominous warning to the free world,” Vines says Beijing’s nervous response to Hong Kong has already underlined the fragility of the Chinese model. He notes that the Soviet Union, the original guide to communist China, collapsed not from the Russian center but from its periphery of oppressed regions in Eastern Europe, and believes that Hong Kong had its “Prague Spring moment” in 2019.

Beijing’s crackdown on Hong Kong has certainly bolstered those in Taiwan who reject the idea of ​​their island being absorbed into China under the “one country, two systems” formula, and boosted anti-Chinese sentiment globally. Beijing has been so flagrant in violation of its international treaty obligations towards Hong Kong that the previously reluctant UK government granted a pathway to citizenship for three million Hong Kong residents.

Vines says Beijing’s final game in Hong Kong, which involves forcibly incorporating the territory into southern China and extinguishing “all remaining embers of freedom” is “an improbable mixture of the terrifying and the unreal”. He writes that China’s leaders “really believe that it is possible to have ‘Hong Kong without the characteristics of Hong Kong.’ But the people of Hong Kong themselves may prove them wrong.”

Unfortunately, even those who hope that Vines is right – he says all dictatorships seem impregnable until the moment they collapse – fear that this is just another example of Western wishful thinking about a rising China.

China Gate: A New History of the People’s Republic and Hong Kong Written by Michael Sheridan William Collins £25 / $29.95, 512 pages

FreedomHow do we lose it and how do we resist? Written by Nathan Law with Evan Fowler, Bantam Press £12.99, 240 pages

Dragon ChallengeHong Kong is the largest dictatorship in the world Written by Stephen Vines $29.95/hurst 20, 352 pages

Victor Mallet He is the Financial Times’ Paris bureau chief and former Asia editor

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