Over recent weeks, Hong Kong has been repeatedly rocked by mass demonstrations protesting the actions of its governing authorities. Public protests — somewhere — are a fixture of the international news. What makes these demonstrations noteworthy and very important are their scale and their location. Credible observers estimated the crowds at one point at nearly 2 million — over a quarter of the entire population of Hong Kong. These are not the first expressions of mass dissent in Hong Kong, but in several respects the city seems an unlikely venue.
When over a century of British colonial rule ended in 1997 and Hong Kong reverted to Chinese control, public opinion polls indicated widespread support for the change. The restoration of Beijing’s authority coincided with a period of rapid growth in China’s wealth and power. The last 22 years have been good to China and have produced growing pride and nationalist feeling among its citizenry. In 1997, Hong Kong was the wealthiest city in China. That is no longer the case because of the spectacular growth in Shanghai, Beijing and Guangdong. Nevertheless, Hong Kong has done very well as its ultramodern skyline attests.
Moreover, residents of Hong Kong enjoy rights of free expression not available elsewhere in China. This is the product of the unique “one country, two systems” formula — to last for 50 years — agreed between China and Britain. So what is the problem?
The problem is that Hong Kong’s relative autonomy and the personal freedoms that go with it are deeply prized by the people who live there — and they are deathly afraid of losing them. As China has become rich and powerful, it has also become increasingly authoritarian. The implicit (even explicit) contract that the government has with its citizens is “keep quiet; don’t question Communist Party rule and in return you will have economic benefits and the pride of being part of a great power.” And it seems to be working. Occasional expressions of public dissent are ruthlessly suppressed, but Chinese in aggregate live better today than they ever have. For the great majority that seems to be enough.
However, it is not enough for the people of Hong Kong who have tasted the forbidden fruit of free speech and even a bit of political democracy. The Hong Kong Legislative Council is elected, but the slate of eligible candidates is tightly vetted by Beijing and the more powerful chief executive is appointed by Beijing. There is a garrison of Chinese troops in Hong Kong. They remain on base and are largely invisible, but everyone knows they are there. The Hong Kong police, originally trained by the British, are professional and show a modicum of respect for the rights of citizens. Meanwhile, large numbers of tourists from China enter Hong Kong on shopping sprees — and their behavior routinely reminds the people of Hong Kong how different they actually are. Recent public opinion polls show a growing proportion of Hong Kong residents (particularly young people) identify themselves as “Hong Kongers,” not Chinese.
The dark question hanging over Hong Kong is whether, and to what extent and for how long, China will continue to respect its “two systems” pledge. From Beijing’s perspective, Hong Kong is, in political terms, a dangerous place. Subjects such as the Tiananmen massacre of 1989 are ruthlessly expunged from China’s media and school curricula, but in Hong Kong, there are large public commemorations. As China, under Xi Jinping, has become increasingly totalitarian, the contrast with Hong Kong becomes increasingly glaring. Not surprisingly, Beijing has taken several steps to strengthen its influence, while asserting it has “comprehensive authority” over Hong Kong. Last month, the Hong Kong authorities (at Beijing’s behest) proposed a new asylum law that would allow the return to China of criminals who had fled to Hong Kong. However, residents of Hong Kong saw a hidden agenda. Such a law could be used to arrest anyone in Hong Kong on any pretext and ship them off to China. There they would face imprisonment or worse, not because they were criminal, but because their political views were unwelcome. Suddenly, everyone in Hong Kong would be personally vulnerable to the Chinese “justice” system. It was fear that brought the population into the streets.
The history of China goes back four, even five, millennia. In that vast, often illustrious historical record, governance is invariably autocratic via a long succession of emperors. Chinese society is infused with Confucian values — hierarchical and socially autocratic. There is nothing to suggest the Chinese ever gave serious thought to democratic governance. One could reasonably conclude that democracy — an alien Western idea — has little or no intrinsic appeal to the Chinese and therefore poses no serious challenge to Communist rule. But that would be a serious mistake.
Taiwan is a Chinese country that was ruled in traditional autocratic style after an independent regime was established following World War II and China’s civil war. However, in the 1980s Taiwan’s dictator, Chiang Ching-kuo, initiated democratic reforms. For over 30 years, Taiwan has been a thriving multiparty democracy. The Sinicized cultures of Japan (following World War II) and South Korea (another dictator turned democrat) have similarly, and successfully, embraced democracy.
For Beijing, the danger is clear. Xi has made it abundantly clear that the survival of the current regime under Communist Party control is his single overriding objective. Developments in Hong Kong are not just a concern; they are a potential, mortal, threat.