In Hong Kong, What Is Going On?

Sea of people in demonstration in Hong Kong, 16 June 2019
Sea of people in demonstration in Hong Kong, 16 June 2019. Source: Hf9631 [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]

Introduction

I will briefly summarise the situation in Hong Kong, first by give it a proper context in Part I. Next, in Part II, I will point out main flashpoints during the three months of protests in Hong Kong. In Part III, I will explain what the protest demands are. Then I will try to discern different factions in Hong Kong in Part IV. Finally in Part V, I will give my analysis of the protest, and how New Zealand should respond.

Disclaimer

First, let me say up front that I do not speak for anyone, not least for Hong Kong. In fact, anyone who claims to be “speaking for Hong Kong” is guilty of orientalism, mistakenly claiming that people of Hong Kong have only one, unified voice. In fact there are as many voices as there are people in Hong Kong (7 million plus). However there are convergences of opinion, and I will try to explain these convergences.

People of Hong Kong can also speak for themselves. They not only speak through social media, but through their actions. If you ask them directly, many of them will gladly tell you what they think. While there is a language barrier to English speaking audience, there are also English-language media in Hong Kong. To name three media outlets in Hong Kong that span the political spectrum, they are South China Morning Post, Hong Kong Free Press, and Radio Television Hong Kong. There are more polarising Chinese-language media out there, but reading these three will give people a taste of the different opinions in Hong Kong.

What I will do is to collate opinions in Hong Kong and give a balanced view and my own interpretation of the protest movement in Hong Kong, with a disclaimed bias that I was born in Hong Kong, and I know many people there still. The many freedom I take for granted in New Zealand is exactly the freedom many people in Hong Kong are fighting for. So while I do not agree with the violent tactics used by some of the protesters, my sympathies must lie with people of Hong Kong who are fighting for full political and civil rights. It would be the highest form of hypocrisy if I do otherwise.

I. Context

It is important to note that Hong Kong was a British colony for about 150 years, ceded to the UK after the Opium War. To nationalistic Chinese within and outside Hong Kong, it was a source of shame. In the context of the last 50–60 years, many people in Hong Kong enjoyed, or at least tolerated British rule better than Communist rule in China. Many entrepreneurs from China fled the Communist regime after 1949, to Hong Kong. Having their wealth in China nationalized by the Communists, they created their wealth again in Hong Kong. This has always been a source of tension within Hong Kong: between nationalistic ethnic Chinese who dislike or despise colonial rule, and pragmatic Chinese with western outlook who grew rich under colonial rule.

It is also under this tension that the notion “One Country Two Systems” is devised. China and UK negotiated the return of Hong Kong to Chinese rule, under the condition that Hong Kong will keep its very British colonial system for at least 50 years, while having a high degree of autonomy. China, on the other hand, can have whatever system it wants, but it retains control over foreign affairs and defense of Hong Kong. In 1997, Hong Kong reverted to Chinese rule and becomes a special administrative region of China.

However, after China’s economic reform, the opposing nationalistic and pragmatic Chinese outlooks are not so opposing after all. Since 1979, when Communists in China started economic reform, allowing private enterprise and foreign investments, Hong Kong increasingly became the conduit between China and foreign (mainly US and European) businesses. Hong Kong of course has long been UK’s dirty little secret. But after 1979, the cat is out of the bag. Hong Kong became the de facto financial and business centre of China.

Chinese in Hong Kong who are nationalistic grew rich over investment opportunities in China. Yet everybody in Hong Kong are still acutely aware that China, even after economic reform, is very unlike Hong Kong. Rule of Law as they know in Hong Kong does not exist in China. Overt corruption in China is rampant, while the covert kind exists in Hong Kong. This is the covert kind similar to US, where corporations have out-sized influence on government policy. In Hong Kong, the rot is with real estate, where housing is extremely unaffordable, year on year, and property developers have grown extremely powerful as a result.

People in Hong Kong never enjoyed much political rights under colonial rule, even if they have many civil rights, such as freedom of speech, freedom of movement, property rights and so on, protected under the Rule of Law. Following the Westminster system, there are three branches of the government in Hong Kong. The judiciary is meant to be independent. At most, people can elect some of the legislative branch of the government under colonial rule. However, the head of the executive branch was always appointed by the British government, i.e. the Governor of Hong Kong. One Country Two Systems is meant to usher a new era for Hong Kong, where people in Hong Kong can elect the head of the executive branch of the government and all members of legislative branch. The judiciary would remind independent. And people’s civil rights would remain.

In other words, One Country Two Systems was supposed to be an even better and more democratic version of colonial rule.

However, right from the start, many people in Hong Kong think One Country Two System is a charade. For an authoritarian Chinese government, the freedom people enjoy in Hong Kong is at best a nuance, showing that there is an alternative, non-authoritarian mode of government in China. The strategic reason for China to make One Country Two Systems work is that Hong Kong is such an important financial and business centre for China, messing with it may bring disaster for China as a whole. So the reason why China allows One Country Two Systems to (sort of) work is because of a strategic calculation: change the variables in the calculation a bit, and the sum may not add up.

In other words, Hong Kong is China’s golden goose, and as long as Hong Kong keeps laying golden eggs for China, Hong Kong will live. The analogy is popular and revealing because China does not treat Hong Kong as made up of people, but as an object to be used or discarded depending on circumstance. The objectification of Hong Kong is as accepted in China as it is overseas.

The first sign of China dragging its feet on One Country Two System is the observation that Hong Kong never enjoyed full political freedom under colonial Britain. That leads to the claim that Hong Kong does not need full political freedom in order to be useful to China or for Hong Kong to prosper. So while One Country Two Systems promised people in Hong Kong free and open election in all branches of government, including election of the head of executive branch of the government, the Chief Executive (currently Carrie Lam), China has no strategic reason to allow such election. People in Hong Kong within the pro-business faction also have no reason to have a democratic elected Chief Executive, who will be beholden to mere voters, not those with economic power like themselves.

Indeed since 1997, while Hong Kong’s economy continued to grow along with China’s economy, Hong Kong government had implemented little political reform. At best, the Hong Kong government maintained the political status quo, with Chinese masters rather than British masters. The Chief Executive since 1997 has always been hand-picked by China, just like any Governor of Hong Kong was hand-picked by Britain. The difference between China and Britain is that China wants a lot more control over Hong Kong.

While there is a pro-business faction in Hong Kong, their opponents are the workers and the proletarians (not necessarily an ironic turn of phase since we are also talking about Communist China). They are the 99% in Hong Kong. They are the ones having their wings clipped by the high cost of living and high housing cost in Hong Kong. Milton Friedman once used Hong Kong as an example to show that the freer the market, the more economic growth there is. Indeed Hong Kong as an economy is freer than most other countries, and there is enormous wealth in Hong Kong. The problem is that wealth is concentrated on the top: Hong Kong is also one of the most inequitable society on earth.

Generally there are two responses to wealth inequality: either become rich yourself (or pulling yourself up by your own bootstrap, or whatever the economic right wants to call it) or smash the unequal system. The former is the conservative response, the latter the redical response. And for many years, the proletarians of Hong Kong chose the conservative response to their own predicament: the stereotypical tiger mom in Hong Kong forces her children to do well at school, so the children would get a good job, earn lots of money and make her tiger mom proud. Ironically, Communist China during British colonial rule fermented the radical response in Hong Kong. But once the Communists are in power they do no such thing.

The Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong in 2014 is first overt sign that the proletarians in Hong Kong reject the conservative response to their predicament. The protesters in 2014 demanded that the Chief Executive of Hong Kong to be popularly elected, not hand-picked by China. A compromise was proposed that China can still hand-picked the candidates, then the people can vote which China-approved candidate can be the Chief Executive. And the proposal was duly rejected because it is not democratic enough. More importantly, the pro-business faction sided with China in 2014. The reason is that a free election would have taken away their power they currently enjoy, which is helping China to pick the Chief Executive.

It is important to know what happened to the pro-democracy protest movement in 2014. The Hong Kong government waited out the protesters that occupied business district, and the protest petered out. In the aftermath, the government arrested and jailed the protest leaders. Additionally, the government used every means possible to stifle the political power of protesters acquired through existing power structure, such as election to the legislative branch of the government. See this article for further details.

II. In Hong Kong, What Is Going On?

The protest movement in 2019 is sparked by Hong Kong government’s proposed legislation to allow extradition to China. Protesters see it as further attempt by China to erode One Country Two Systems. That is because they worried that people can be extradited on trumped up or invented charges in China.

Most importantly, many in Hong Kong saw the extradition as the red line, that if there is extradition to China, then it would be the end of the autonomy of Hong Kong. That is why there were estimated to be two million people who matched in protest on 16th June, out of the seven million total population in Hong Kong. The Hong Kong government’s argument for the extradition treaty is that it is used to prevent Hong Kong becoming a safe haven for criminals. On balance, the Hong Kong government’s argument does not stack up: effectively, the extradition bill will trade away Hong Kong’s autonomy for just a little bit of justice and security.

Since the massive protests in June, there are three incidents that changed the texture of the protest movement.

Invasion of the Legislative Council chamber on 1st July

The invasion signal that some protesters are willing to resort to violence. Previously all protests against are mostly peaceful. The force in display mostly came from the Hong Kong police firing tear gas into crowds. In fact most protests are still peaceful: from shining pen laser onto Hong Kong Space Museum, to forming human chain in protest, to blanketing public places with their concerns written on post-it notes. The slogan of the peaceful protest movement is “和理非”, which is the Chinese acronym for “peaceful”, “rational” and “non-violent”.
On the other hand, some protesters increasingly see that nothing short of a revolution can change the course of Hong Kong. The elephant in the room is that China can at any point deemed the protests, peaceful or otherwise, a national security issue and use the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to quell the protests. So far China has shown the capability but not willingness to do such. The radical protesters however think that if PLA does match into Hong Kong, it will galvanise the international community to Hong Kong. They know that this is extremely destructive but think it is necessary. They call this scenario “ 攬炒” (analogous to Cold War Mutually Assured Destruction, i.e. MAD), where China’s reputation is destroyed, but so will Hong Kong’s autonomy. Indeed, these radical protesters are willing to use violence against properties and the police. The invasion and defacement of Legislative Council Chamber is but one of the first skirmishes between radical protesters and the Police.
As July went by, many protests were peaceful but some protests got violent. In response the police stepped up their own level of violence, i.e. fighting fire with fire, with tear gas, beanbag rounds, and pepper spray, in order to quell violent protests.

Defacement of Legislative Council, July 1, 2019.
Defacement of Legislative Council Chamber, July 1, 2019. Source: Tam Ming Keung [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]

Violence in Yuen Long Mass Transit Railway (MTR) station on 21st July

Many people in Hong Kong do not see the proposed extradition law as bad for Hong Kong. They think that Hong Kong needs to integrate into China more, because China is becoming increasing powerful. They bought the party line from China, that China’s mode of development is superior to Western mode of development, that civil liberty and political rights are either unnecessary or must be sacrificed in order to build a powerful China. (Their distaste for liberal democratic values is not dissimilar to the alt-right ideology in US, Europe and elsewhere.) They see that the protests only bring chaos and disorder. Therefore they see the protest movement on the whole, violent or non-violent, as disruptive and harmful to Hong Kong.
There were pro-China and pro-police counter-protests condemning violence. But just like there are radical elements amongst defenders of One country Two Systems, there are also radical elements in these pro-China counter-protesters. On the night of 21st July, a group dressed in white wielding home-made weapon entered a MTR station in Yuen Long (a northern district in Hong Kong) and indiscriminately attacked train passengers. Some of the passengers were protesters returning home, but many had nothing to do with protest, simply returning home after work for example. Yet the mob dressed in white did not ask question, they simply beat everybody up.
The most aggravating factor for the protesters is that the police did not respond to the mob violence immediately. Many passengers called the police immediately when the attack begun, but it took police nearly 30 minutes to arrive. There were allegations that the police were in cahoot with the mob.

Video on Facebook of mob violence on 21 July Yuen Long MTR Station. Source: Stand News.

Police violence in Prince Edward MTR station on 31st August

Protester mistrust towards the police increased during July and August because of police tactics. Because not all protests are strictly peaceful, and there is no clear distinction between peaceful and violent protesters, police increasingly acted as if all protesters are violent, and therefore use violence against all protesters: batons, pepper spray, beanbag rounds, tear gas and water cannon. The chaotic protesters occupation of Hong Kong International Airport on 13th August showed that there is no clear line between violent and peaceful protest.
Police violence reached a new height on 31st August, where police entered Prince Edward MTR station, initially responding to an altercation between protesters and counter-protesters. Video footage later showed that police indiscriminately attacked passengers stuck in a carriage, with batons and pepper spray.

Video of police action in Prince Edward Station, 31 Aug 2019. Source: Hong Kong Free Press.

III. The Five Demands

Protesters coalesce into the so-called “五大訢求”/“Five Demands” as a result of months of protests:

  1. Withdrawal of Extradition Bill to China,
  2. Dropping charges against arrested protesters,
  3. Retraction of proclamation that protesters are rioters,
  4. Independent inquiry into police conduct,
  5. Free and open election for Chief Executive and Legislative Council.

The slogan for the protesters is “五大訢求,缺一不可”, which translate to “Five Demands and not one less”. Another popular slogan to describe their protest is “ 光復香港,時代革命”, which roughly translates to “restore Hong Kong, this is our generational struggle”, referring to the preservation of One Country Two Systems.

Banner of “光復香港,時代革命” in Hong Kong International Airport, with a different English translation. Source: Mozhizhai [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]

#1: Many people, not just protesters and counter-protesters, see the escalation of violence on both sides as regrettable, and place the blame squarely on Carrie Lam, the Chief Executive of Hong Kong. The reason is that almost everyone realise that only a political solution can placate protesters, but Carrie Lam had made very little concessions since June. She offered “suspension” of the legislative process to introduce extradition bill to China in late June. She went as far as claiming that “the bill is dead”. In July and August, Carrie Lam made little public appearance, occasionally condemned protester violence and then retreated from the public eye. After three months of protests, Carrie Lam finally withdrawn the bill in September. One down, Four to go.

#2 and #3: it is not clear how the police or the government can drop charges against all protesters. Some protesters clearly damaged properties and caused injuries, and under the Rule of Law so cherished by protesters, there must be punishment meted out by the law. This is the main internal contradiction of the protest movement as I see it.

#4 seems to be utterly sensible, given ample evidence of police violence.

#5 is basically the million dollar question: Is China willing to fulfil its promise under One Country Two Systems and allow free and open election in Hong Kong? (See last section.)

IV. Five main factions in Hong Kong

  1. Pro-Business Elites
    These are the high level government officials and business people who would do well either way, whether Hong Kong is assimilated to China or if it remains distinct under One Country Two Systems. The government officials did well under British colonial rule serving their British masters, they would do just as well under China Communist rule. Similarly, wealthy business people in Hong Kong navigated the treacherous business environment in China and come out on top. If Hong Kong becomes simply part of China, they can do equally well. Nonetheless, in the short term chaos and instability are bad for business, and bad for the reputation of government officials, so they tend to want a stop to protests, regardless of whether the underlying causes of the protests are addressed (i.e. The Five Demands).
  2. “Peaceful, rational, non-violent” conservatives protesters
    Most 99-percenters in Hong Kong believes that in Hong Kong, the Rule of Law is supposed to protect and punish the rich and powerful as much as ordinary citizens. That is meant to be protected by One Country Two System. But over the years, Pro-business Elites have steady eroded One Country Two Systems, whether to please their Chinese masters or for their own sake. The proposed extradition bill to China is the final straw that will broke the camel’s back, and they realise if they do not fight back, they would lose their freedom under One Country Two Systems. They are also pragmatic enough to know that China can easily crush their protests with the PLA, therefore they are strictly peaceful so they would give no cause for China to send in the tanks.
  3. Anti-Beijing radical protesters
    These are mainly disenfranchised young protesters resorting to violence. For these people, buying a house in Hong Kong is completely out of reach because of the crazy house price. Their effort to have their voice heard through existing political process were ignored, because government official used every means necessary to exclude them from the political process. Carrie Lam derisively dismissed these people as “having no stake” in Hong Kong, but many people know that these young radicals have their stake in society taken away in the first place.
  4. Pro-Beijing, Pro-stability counter-protesters
    Some of them are the Chinese patriotic elements in Hong Kong. They believe the party line that protesters are instigated by foreign elements and therefore do not deserve support. Some of them rightly called out the internal contradiction of the protest movement: that violent protesters are breaking the very rule of law that they claim to be protecting. There are also radical elements in this faction, such as those responsible for the indiscriminate attack in Yuen Long MTR station on 21st July.
  5. Apathetic
    These are the pessimists, who think that Hong Kong is a sinking ship, and that One Country Two System is a charade, and that the only sensible thing to do is to keep their heads down, ride out the storm, and move overseas. An obvious comparison is with Americans or Brits who moved overseas after the election of Trump or Brexit.

V. Final Analysis

As I’ve argued before, One Country Two Systems, the foundation where the freedom of Hong Kong is build on, depends on a strategic calculation of China: does China need a free and democratic Hong Kong to serve as a business and financial centre for the rest of China? If the answer is NO, that means China reckons that it can groom its own financial and business centre on its own (in e.g. Shanghai or Shenzhen), free of the colonial British elements, but still work just as well as Hong Kong. If the answer is YES, then Hong Kong will kept its freedom and perhaps even gain full democracy.

This is not a static calculation. The international community have a say on how this calculation will turn out. If the international community insists that a free and democratic Hong Kong is indispensable to doing business in China, then the calculation will favour a free and democratic Hong Kong. Most important, this is not merely a value judgement but also a factual matter.

In the New Zealand context, I would argue that Hong Kong will still be an indispensable conduit to New Zealand businesses trying to enter the Chinese market in the foreseeable future. Just ask Fonterra how well their investments were when they tried to enter the Chinese market directly: they have their Chinese investments written off completely. Hong Kong’s legal and business environment is similar enough to New Zealand, due to its British colonial background, that makes doing business in China via Hong Kong easier.

For defenders of civil and political rights in New Zealand, I would argue that supporting people of Hong Kong’s fight for civil and political rights is the only option. How can we say that people in Hong Kong do not need full civil and political rights, when we value our own civil and political rights so very much? In addition, as peace-loving nation, we need to condemn both protesters and police violence, and we must urge a peaceful resolution to the protests.

That brings me to Simon Bridges, and his sycophantic attitude to China. His report after visiting China recently made no mention that he raised the issues of Hong Kong, or even more seriously, the alleged mass internment of Uighurs in Xinjiang. We all know that China does not like criticism towards its own human rights record. (By the same token, Donald Trump’s American government disdains criticism towards American human rights record under Trump.) New Zealand, as a small nation, also has limited international influence. However, to say nothing when something is wrong is cowardice. True friends have difficult but constructive conversations on points of disagreements. Fair weather friends congregate only when their interests align. If New Zealand wants to endear itself as true friend of China, it must have constructive conversations with China, voicing support for civil and political rights in Hong Kong, batting for the liberty of Uighurs in Xinjiang, and so on. (By the same token, if New Zealand wants to remain true friend of US, it must have constructive conversation with the US voicing concerns for its immigration policies, and so on.)

I’m heartened by some of the support Hong Kong received in New Zealand, but the New Zealand government can do much more. Other than defending rights of people in New Zealand to express support or displeasure towards the protest movement in Hong Kong, the New Zealand government can and should engage more constructive dialogue with China, pressing both commercial and moral case in support of One Country Two Systems in Hong Kong, and urging a peaceful resolution of the protest movement.

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Fashionably Questionable

Fashionably Questionable

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100% contrarian. Sometimes I even express contrarian thoughts here. Living in Aotearoa New Zealand.