Massive demonstrations in Hong Kong have set inhabitants of the Chinese-controlled territory (handover on July 1, 1997) against the Chinese government, with 1.7 million people involved in demonstrations on August 18, equating to 25% of the population.
The key issue at stake here is the shift in the political landscape in Hong Kong after the region’s government announced plans to amend its extradition law, as Hong Kong inhabitants fear Chinese control over the HK legal system, giving rise to concerns that they could lose their independence from Beijing. This means the risk that Hong Kong could lose some of its special status (one country, two systems since the agreement implemented in 1997), jeopardizing the personal safety of all HK inhabitants.
Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam stated on July 8 that the extradition bill was dead, but this did not appease demonstrators, who are calling for her resignation: not only was she was the instigator of the proposed amendment, but she is also not democratically elected – rather she is appointed by a 1,200-member election committee, mostly appointed by Beijing. The Chief Executive should be appointed via elections based on universal suffrage, but since the umbrella revolution in 2014, Beijing’s approach to HK has changed and the Chinese government no longer seems to want to comply with the initial democracy agreements.
This public backlash against political changes in HK is also due to the fact that the Chinese government meddles in legislative elections, stepping in to rule against one candidate or another.
China has taken a firm stand to quash this social unrest, and troops are barracked at the border with Hong Kong, involved in maneuvers although not intervening.
It is interesting to look back in time to understand what is happening and gain some insight into the Chinese government’s heavy-handed reaction.
During the UK handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997, it was agreed that there would be one country, two systems i.e. Hong Kong would remain subject to market forces and China would maintain a socialist system. China would be in charge of HK’s defense and foreign affairs, but the region would have its own constitution with a strong degree of autonomy from China, maintaining freedom of the press, freedom of assembly and the right to demonstrate, etc.
The agreement that came into force on July 1, 1997 was signed for a duration of 50 years – i.e. until 2047 – after which the one country, two systems set-up could become one country, one system.
But this is the very issue that is attracting concern in Hong Kong: the initial idea was that the two systems would converge, based on the assumption that China would develop economically and its political system would evolve towards the HK system, not vice versa. This was the idea put forward by Samuel Pisar i.e. greater economic affluence would lead to the gradual implementation of a more liberal and democratic political system.
However, judging by moves from Beijing, residents of Hong Kong look on as their system shifts and moves towards the Chinese political system. They are concerned that they will gradually be incorporated into this system and become just another Chinese province among others, which would mean access to information being more restricted and freedom of speech becoming much more limited than it is now: Hong Kong has a lot to lose.
The government in Beijing does not want to take the risk of allowing social unrest to gain a foothold, and has not shied away from repressing any demonstrations that take place across the country. To avoid this type of situation, the Chinese authorities take a very active approach to applying economic policy, and are strict in ensuring that social instability does not take root. This is one of the factors underpinning the widespread development of electronic surveillance in China, as facial recognition and the social credit system are ways of curbing these risks in a type of digital dictatorship engineered to avoid social strife.
This need for the authorities to curb unrest is exacerbated by the fact that growth is slowing and the Chinese economy is struggling to create all the necessary jobs.
In other words, the authorities in Beijing do not want the Hong Kong demonstrations to spread to the rest of China, which is fettered by more sluggish growth. This is a dangerous situation, as citizens in both Shenzhen and Guangzhou are closely watching how the Hong Kong-Beijing relationship pans out: a number of Shenzhen residents work in Hong Kong, so there is no longer a strict separation between the territory and the rest of China.
This battle of wills raises a number of questions.
Chinese military intervention in Hong Kong is one of the list of potential options, but this kind of political move could well draw parallels with the Tienanmen Square events in the spring of 1989.
This would be damaging for China as its international expansion has been exponential since 1989 and moves aimed at extending the country’s influence – such as the Belt and Road Initiative – would be threatened by military intervention. This would also be a major risk as that the country is involved in a stand-off with the US and is able to offer technological capabilities that could help skew the world balance in China’s favor: in this respect, the Huawei affair is symbolic as the company has the wherewithal to replace mobile telephone networks and swiftly migrate all European countries to Chinese 5G technology.
So this kind of move would trigger hefty risks at a time when China wants to challenge the US both economically and politically.
Meanwhile, a deterioration in Hong Kong’s status resulting from Chinese intervention and putting it on a par with other Chinese regions would increase mistrust of Beijing from all other world capitals.
However, this mistrust may only last a short while, and China can hope that its economic and technological firepower would ensure that it emerges as leader over the years ahead, with intervention having a limited effect over time. After all, the events of Tienanmen Square did not stop China growing and extending its influence in the world over the past 30 years.
Ultimately, the issue at stake here is China’s role in the world, as the country stands against the US in a worldwide economic and political battle of wills. Technological, economic and political leadership is being played for, and Washington has not managed to put an end to its contest with Beijing after Chinese retaliation forced Donald Trump to back down last week when he delayed border tariffs on electronic consumer goods to December 15.
China is also currently finding its domestic balance, and keeping Hong Kong’s current status would mean maintaining access to the rest of the world and allowing the rest of the world to have access to China. This communication is vital, although HK admittedly only accounts for 3% of China’s GDP as compared with 20% in 1997.
China could well be on the way to becoming the economic heavyweight it was before the industrial revolution in Europe. The choices it makes in addressing the demonstrations in Hong Kong will be a harbinger of just how it plans to act in this leadership role in today’s globalized world.