For nearly three months now Hong Kong has been in the grip of roiling protests. These have rendered that once economically vibrant island, one of the original ‘tigers’ of East Asia, in a situation where it is seen as being on the brink of near-panic. In this continuing spate of violence there have been days when the city, and its lifeline, trade, have come to a stand-still. There is no obvious solution yet in sight. No one appears to have much of an idea as to how the matter will end. So those with financial interest in that territory wait with bated breath.
One can trace the history of the current turmoil back to the date of Hong Kong’s return from the British control to China in 1997. It was then agreed that under a ‘one country two systems’ principle of relationship with mainland China, the territory will largely function autonomously. With its trade -friendly penchant, Hong Kong remained a safe, open, welcoming, and dynamic economy, internationally well connected. Indeed it worked as a model for the Chinese authorities themselves at that point in time, when China was forging ahead, fuelled and fired by the Deng Xiaoping mantra ,‘to be rich is glorious’. Hong Kong was rich, and therefore a rightful claimant to glory. However, over time, with the phenomenal rise in China’s prosperity, many Chinese cities began to share in the windfall leading to a decline of Hong Kong’s importance in Beijing’s eyes. Consequently, the emphasis from focus on ‘two systems’ changed to the underscoring of the importance of ‘one state’.
Hong Kongers, used to their privileged status, and their distance, political and psychological, from the Chinese Communist Party, saw both shrinking. Unsurprisingly this development perturbed them. A sense of disaffection was quietly burgeoning. Then earlier this year Hong Kong’s chief Executive Carrie Lam announced the introduction of a legislation to allow for extraditions to mainland China. According to her this was prompted by sheer legal necessity to close down escape-routes for criminals. She argued the decision had no political content. Many young residents of the territory, already wary of China’s perceived growing influence, were unpersuaded. They smelt a political rat. In consonance with the Hong Kong tradition of peaceful protest, they came out in the streets to display dissent. This met with police opposition. The conflict that followed, grew in almost geometric proportions to a level that Hong Kong had never witnessed before. Even the Airport was not spared. It was subjected to several protester attacks throwing this global aviation and transport hub into utter chaos. This spread alarm, far and wide.
The protesters had placed five demands. One: the withdrawal of the extradition bill: two, an independent inquiry into use of force by the police; three, an amnesty for arrested protesters; four, the halt to categorising the protests as riots; and five, and this is key, Hong Kongers to be allowed to elect their own leaders. Some say the beleaguered Carrie Lam would have been happy to quit, but Beijing was not keen on a top-level change at this time as the choice of a successor would have been difficult. However, eventually, doubtless on a green signal from Beijing, which was evident in China’s quick endorsement of Lam’s announcement, she declared that the extradition bill would be withdrawn. But that had followed months of dilly-dallying. In the weeks of disturbance, more than 1100 arrests had been made. Pictures of police brutality had gone viral around the world. So, this concession was seen as insufficient, “too little, too late”. The immediate reaction of the protesters was rejection of the offer. Also, they queried as to the fate of the four other demands. Without those having been met even a dialogue was ruled out.
In order to signal spontaneity, the protesters had chosen a ‘leaderless’ form of revolt. While obviously there were those who provided guidance from behind the scene, they remained low-key. The idea was that arrests of some individuals, even if they were significant actors in the drama, would not dampen the movement in any major way. So far, this has been working to a large degree. Whether this method would survive a full blown crack-down, specially with mainland blessing, was uncertain.
Given the importance of Hong Kong in the global economy, and hence a genuine desire for its financial stability, the preponderance international sentiment seemed to be in favour of a settlement to the turbulence on the island. The ASEAN countries next door were very circumspect. Not so the Americans. This was expected. The Americans were locked in a trade-war with China. Senators, such as Chuck Schumer, the Democrat who is the Minority Leader in that House, said the withdrawal of the extradition bill was overdue. He asked that the Senate should consider debating the proposed Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act. An adoption would open the way to sanctions against government officials who undermine Hong Kong’s economy. Unwilling to go too far, to a certain extent in admiration for Chinese President Xi Jinping’s strong leadership, and chary of jeopardizing too bady any Sino-American talks, President Donald Trump was very muted in his reactions, hoping that the matter was handled in a “humane way”. His priority for human rights for Hong Kongers was not high enough to warrant a major annoyance to China.
The Europeans, were, however, caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, . The European Union likes to be seen as championing human rights. At the same time its leaders were unwilling to rock the boat of relations with China. As this article goes to press, the German Chancellor Angela Merkel is vising Beijing. Her ability to be outspoken is deeply constrained by the fact that China is the largest buyer of German automobiles.
So far, the Chinese have been remarkably calm. To foreign critics, they have remained content with the routine warning any “interference” in China’s “internal affairs”. They have also stayed away from any overt involvement in the suppression of dissent in the actions of the authorities in Hong Kong. Furthermore, they have welcomed Carrie Lam’s withdrawal of the extradition bill. But the million- dollar question is, how long will this restraint last. The pressure against the dam of calm is growing. There is no telling as to when the dam of restraint might actually break.
Dr Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury is Principal Research Fellow at ISAS, National University of Singapore, former Foreign Advisor and President of Cosmos Foundation Bangladesh