‘The bill is dead. The bill is dead.’
So began Tuesday’s press conference, called by Hong Kong’s top leader, Chief Executive Carrie Lam. The trouble for Lam and her government, and for Beijing, is that not only does this come too late, but that the roots of the protests go much deeper with a society that is fundamentally different – but not diametrically opposed – to what China has come to represent.
It was not always this way. In 1997, when Hong Kong was returned to Chinese sovereignty after 150 years of British colonial rule, there were positive signs that China was progressing towards joining the international community as an open, liberal and internationalist state. Those who bet on Hong Kong’s future, including my family, stayed not because we believed Beijing — very few people honestly did — but because our desire to stay outweighed our fears of the Party.
Back then we had reasons to be optimistic. We looked to Taiwan, a nationalistic one-party dictatorship that had ended with a peaceful transition.
Hong Kong had been a model of a free and vibrant Chinese city. So we presumed its free spirit and liberal institutions would – despite its democratic deficit – be a vanguard for reforms on the Chinese motherland.
Hong Kong’s executive-led colonial administration with its stark lack of political development would be key – we thought – to reassuring Beijing that Hong Kong posed no political threat to the Chinese Community Party.
Any means necessary
Hong Kong is in its second month of mass civil unrest and it is worth remembering that the protests rest on a fundamental assumption: that China is capable of becoming a state that guarantees the rule of law and press freedom.
But China is travelling in the opposite direction. Hong Kong has no China dream beyond those of the Greater Bay Area and Belt and Road — a Faustian pact to connect Hong Kong to the mainland at the price of greater physical and economic integration into an increasingly totalitarian system. The hopes of 1997 have been replaced by fear.
These protests, unlike those in 2014, no longer cling to the hope of progress, nor the aspirations of a people for genuine democratic political reforms as promised in both word and in spirit by Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law. There is no longer hope nor trust in the political system nor in Beijing’s intentions.
Today protests are marked by a sense of desperation, a ‘last stand’ as demonstrators call it, against the perceived erosion of fundamental rights and freedoms that had once defined Hong Kong both as a place and as a community.
Therefore Hong Kong is likely to remain gripped in the momentum of the current protests, which have been unprecedented in scale, appeal and provocation. The past month alone has seen two of the largest demonstrations in the city’s history, numbering many hundreds of thousands. The daily protests that show the level of discontent affecting almost every sector of society may ease, but the discontent will not.
More significant, both for the authorities and as an indication of the changing nature of the protest, has been the actions of tens of thousands of young demonstrators who have taken an increasingly aggressive and provocative line. This has included surrounding government offices, the city’s Beijing-controlled legislature and police headquarters; the targeted storming of the Legislative Council building and the deliberate defacement of symbolic property representing Chinese authority in the Council Chamber; and, most recently, facing police violence in the Mong Kok district of Kowloon.
The young have not been ‘radicalized by foreign forces’, as Beijing and some in the city’s pro-Beijing political elite insist, nor by the teaching of civic education in liberal studies classes. They have been radicalized in reaction to an excessively hostile police response to what began as a peaceful sit-in and the political inability of Hong Kong officials to openly question the response.
Beijing will not allow sensitive politics. The young, like Hong Kong’s political opposition, know they will be condemned regardless. Action no longer seeks dialogue but international attention.
The extradition bill, which would have allowed for the extradition of people in Hong Kong, including foreign nationals, to China, may have sparked the protests. But it does not fuel the discontent. The decision to pause the bill on 15 June, following four consecutive days of postponed Legislative Council meetings, did little to lessen public anger. On 16 June, a record number of people took to the streets in protest.
The proposed bill is significant not just because of what it attempted to legislate, but because it is an attempt to normalize relations between Hong Kong and China, while ignoring the key issue of historic distrust. The bill represents more than the fear of ‘legalized kidnapping’ but a far deeper and long held fear of creeping authoritarian rule.
Since 2014 Hong Kong people have been debarred from standing for election. Elected pro-democracy legislators have been disqualified, and political parties banned. Filibustering, an act of political desperation, has been stopped. The local identity has been challenged, and a nascent Hong Kong localist movement portrayed as ‘nativists’ and ‘separatists’, pushing moderates to the fringe.
Opposition is deemed unpatriotic. Publishers have been kidnapped. In such circumstances the ‘pragmatism’ demanded by the city’s political and business elite seems more like surrender.
As with so much that is wrong with Hong Kong today, what cannot be said is sadly the crux of the problem.
(The article is published on New Internationalist on 12 July 2019)