Commentary on Political Economy

Tuesday 11 June 2019


The people of Hong Kong on the weekend exercised their freedom to turn out in record numbers against yet another tightening of the Chinese Communist Party's fist around the territory. Surely Beijing cannot ride roughshod over such a mass display of dissent? According to the organisers of the mass rally, about 1 million people marched in Hong Kong's oppressive heat.
Even if the true figure is half that, it would still represent one of every 15 people in Hong Kong. That's an immense statement of concern in any city, and especially for a people who are reputed to be interested only in business, indifferent to politics.
A peaceful mass protest in Hong Kong over an extradition bill descended into violence in the early hours of Monday as several hundred protesters clashed with a similar number of police outside the city's parliament.
Thousands more turned out in support in at least 29 cities in a dozen countries across the world, including in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Canberra. As The South China Morning Post reported it, "a wave of solidarity swept from Berlin to Brisbane on Sunday as demonstrators gathered around the world to support the mass protest in Hong Kong".
On the face of it, the people turned out in such force to oppose a proposed law to allow Beijing to take people across the border to stand trial in Chinese mainland courts. The people marched under the banner "No extradition to China". But in reality their concern is bigger. It is that this will be the "last fight" for Hong Kong's remaining freedoms, in the words of the former legislator Martin Lee, nicknamed Hong Kong's "father of democracy".
Because mainland China does not have an independent judiciary and citizens have no rights. China's courts are simply political. Anyone can be tried at the will of the authorities, and inevitably found guilty if that is the wish of the political leadership. If this law is passed in Hong Kong, Beijing could concoct trumped-up charges against anyone it chose. Dissenters could disappear across the border. Permanently.
And Hong Kong people have a lot to lose. Although the place has never been a democracy, either under the British or under Beijing, its people have civil liberties like freedom of speech, religion and association that are simply unimaginable in mainland China. And legal rights, too. For example, Freedom House gives Hong Kong an overall score of 59 per cent for the liberties its citizens enjoy, similar to the Philippines or Fiji. But it scores mainland China a dismal 11.
But if the people of Hong Kong are indeed in their "last fight", it seems to be lost. How so? Because, first, the Hong Kong government said so. About 11pm on the night of the peaceful mass rally, hours after nearly all the demonstrators had gone home, the government declared that it would be proceeding to put the extradition law to the local legislature as planned.
Hong Kong Chief executive Carrie Lam is "well known as a kind of stooge for Beijing and basically takes orders from [China's president] Xi Jinping", says a leading scholar of the Chinese Communist Party, Willy Lam of the Chinese Hong Kong University. In other words, the local government was unmoved by the record show of citizens' concern. This inflamed the radical fringe, some hundreds of protesters who then turned violent, overturning barriers and injuring at least three police officers. This display will be used in Beijing to dismiss the entire protest as an extremist movement.
Second, because Beijing said so. "It looks like Beijing will not succumb to pressure from this people power in Hong Kong because a member of the Politbureau Standing Committee spoke out in support of the extradition ordinance about a month ago," says Dr Lam. The Politbureau Standing Committee is analogous to Beijing's cabinet. "It would be a tremendous loss of face," he observes.
And what of Hong Kong's local legislature, the Legislative Council? The pro-Beijing members have a majority, partly because Beijing directly appoints half of them. The extradition law is now considered a fait accompli.
Illustration: Andrew Dyson
Illustration: Andrew DysonCREDIT:
Third, because there are bigger stakes at play. "Xi has a tendency to lump together policy towards Hong Kong, Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang", four zones with various degrees of historical autonomy from Beijing, and now all under pressure to yield utterly, Dr Lam says. "And Xi is now focussing on Taiwan. It is not possible for him to show weakness on Hong Kong because he wants to intimidate Taiwan. The policies on Hong Kong and Taiwan are intertwined to some extent. Xi is a super-nationalist."
Lam thinks that Hong Kong is on the cusp of full absorption into mainland China. "Hong Kong now is being used as a demonstration of Xi's success, a demonstration of Chinese sovereignty - he's a control freak."
Xi is engaged in "the Sinicisation of different parts of China with ethnic minorities, and while Hong Kong people are not an ethnic minority in facial features and so on, in their Western thinking, in their integration into global values they do constitute a minority, and Xi has very low tolerance for such dissimilarities".
"He will do whatever he can to enforce Beijing's sovereignty and thumb his nose at Western efforts to interfere with Hong Kong or Taiwan. He is a tough opponent of the Western order."
When Britain returned Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, it was under the Basic Law which enshrined the so-called "one country, two systems" doctrine. In other words, Hong Kong would be guaranteed to keep its unique systems and civil liberties even under mainland sovereignty. The Basic Law is coming apart at the seams.
Hong Kong's so called "Iron Lady", Anson Chan, was the chief secretary of Hong Kong from 1993 to 2001. She served under British rule and then Beijing's rule, too. Three years ago she said that Hong Kong's fate under the Basic Law was a vital concern to the whole world: "Because if China can, with impunity, walk away from its treaty obligations to Hong Kong, what does that say about China's attitude to its treaty obligations to other countries?" she told me. Once again, the world has been warned. The protests this week might have centred on Hong Kong, but freedom everywhere is under challenge.

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