Hong Kong’s Pro-Democracy Movement and the Chinese Conundrum
The protest that erupted in Hong Kong since early June, triggered by stark objections to the extradition bill, has spiraled into a pro-democracy movement in the region. Beyond the political situation, the widespread, leaderless yet organised demonstrations reveal deep social and economic frustrations of the Hong Kongers. As the unrest enters its fourth month, the course of the events in the upcoming days also remains crucial for People’s Republic of China that is gearing up for its 70thanniversary on 1stOctober. With the rest of the world keenly observing Beijing’s measures, China seems to be in a conundrum, often changing its reactionary responses towards Hong Kong.
Despite wide opposition, the pro-China Legislative Council (LegCo) in Hong Kong passed an extradition bill, usurping the democratic members presiding the bills committee. While the current laws permit Hong Kong to extradite people upon legislature’s approval, the government introduced the bill claiming that it was unfeasible and could alert targets to flee before proper action. Eventually, following massive protests, the bill was suspended as people claimed that the proposed changes allowing Hong Kongers to be tried in mainland China will erode the region’s autonomy and freedom. Dissidents asserted that the Chinese legal system is opaque and often subordinate to the political structures, not always respectful of the rule of law. Although the citizens succeeded in removing the bill, the protests gained momentum towards larger demands of democracy.
In 1997, when the British returned Hong Kong to China, Beijing allowed the region to retain a high degree of independence, with the mainland responsible only for defence and diplomacy. Although “one country, two systems”, set to expire in 2047, states political and economic autonomy, only 40 of the 70 LegCo members are directly elected by the people (others nominated by business houses mostly pro-China) and the Chief Executive is appointed by a 1200 member committee, approved by China. Over the years, multiple protests for democracy have been observed in Hong Kong due the uncertainty post 2047 and increasing Chinese influence, like the Umbrella Movement in 2014. Currently, the discontent with the largely pro-China administration and its failure to represent the Hong Kongers, galvanised by the extradition bill, refuelled the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong now primarily demanding free election of Hong Kong’s leader and LegCo, withdrawal of the suspended extradition bill and stepping down of Carrie Lam (present Chief Executive).
The longest and largest unrest in Hong Kong since reunifying with the mainland seems to be spreading to include all sections of the population including lawmakers, civil servants, and even business houses. Mostly led by youth below 30 years, the movement has evolved to be a fight for the future of Hong Kong. Unlike older Hong Kongers, the younger generation did not grow up in a British colony and does not identify with the mainland, manifesting no pride in returning to the Chinese regime. According to Hong Kong University Public Opinion Program, the number of people expressing pride in being a Chinese citizen is at a record low, with an overwhelming majority identifying as Hong Kongers rather than Chinese. Despite being (seemingly) a leaderless rebellion, the sense of desperation and fear of Hong Kong losing its autonomy are powering the movement. While the driverless protests prevent protestors from becoming state targets, the nature of the crisis can easily turn violent and escalate since there is no set course of action, such as breaking into the legislature, shutting the city’s subways and airports, etc. Many suggest that the protest is constantly gainingmomentumas the political frustration is also fuelled by socio-economic issues. Studies have revealed wide income disparities, especially in the last 45 years. Hong Kong has emerged as the most unequal nation amongst developed nations with the highest Gini coefficient- 0.539 (2017). After Hong Kong was returned to China, it was hit by the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997 and SARS threat in 2003, worsening recession and unemployment, eventually leading to higher integration with the mainland in terms of trade and investment. As the GDP fell from an average rate of 5.1 percent in 1977-1997 to 2.6 percent in 1997-2017, the wealth gap widened as well. The younger generation equates the blame of poor economic opportunities, rising income inequality and reduced upward mobility to the pro China initiatives of the Hong Kong administration, which is not directly elected by the people. Aging population, low minimum wages, skyrocketing real estate, etc require immediate government policies to tackle the resulting social issues. In the absence of appropriate government action, the demand for a democratic government that acts in Hong Kong’s interests have strengthened.
Interestingly, the official Chinese response to the Hong Kong situation has been constantly evolving over the course of the protests. Initially, the unrest was hardly covered in Chinese media and traces of Hong Kong incidents were censored from the mainland’s social media platforms. Further, the Chinese state downplayed the number of protestors, claiming that majority of the public in Hong Kong were in favour of the introduced extradition bill. As the movement gained momentum, Beijing portrayed the protestors as a radical, violent minority. Eventually, as pro-democracy demands were raised, Chinese official statements were released comparing the agitation to a “colour revolution”, a term used to highlight a direct threat to Chinese party and its authority. Since then, police force and violence have heightened, and paramilitary forces amassing in the nearest city of Shenzhen has been reported. Following this, Beijing signalled that it has a responsibility to intervene as the Hong Kong administration’s capacity to h andle the situations seems ineffective. In parallel, Hong Kong’s administration repeatedly stressed that the ongoing demonstrations are disrupting the economy, a strategy to undermine support to the protestors. Additionally, Beijing have also claimed that foreign “black hands” are operating and funding the revolution, since pro democratic leaders were photographed with US leaders and protestors defaced the national symbol at central liaison office (Chinese representative authority in Hong Kong). Overall, this narrative seems to actively reduce positive sentiments towards Hong Kong protestors in the mainland. Moreover, Chinese origin accounts on social media have been found propagating a campaign against the dissenters. Twitter suspended over 2,00,000 accounts, and Facebook removed 7 pages, 3 groups and 5 accounts on account of depicting protestors as violent criminals or terrorist aimed at influencing public opinion around the globe. For directly connecting to younger masses, Beijing has also roped in popular figures like Jackie Chan and pop singers. However, despite these hard and soft measures, China has largely failed in curbing the ongoing crisis.
The varying responses to contain the rebellion highlight Chinese helplessness. Beijing’s long term strategy of subtly eroding Hong Kong’s autonomy has effectively been defeated. Ruthlessly crushing pro-democracy demands, as it did in Tiananmen Square protests, will undermine China’s carefully constructed role as a responsible state actor. Moreover, unlike the Tiananmen protestors, Hong Kongers have no allegiance to the mainland and are conditioned to certain levels of freedom. Suppressing their rights and removing its current level of autonomy will work against China and could further create tensions in Taiwan, prompting the island to declare real independence. Furthermore, it will invite international repercussions as UK has already announced diplomatic retaliation if the Sino British declaration is not honoured by the Chinese and US has hinted that the special privileges it extends to Hong Kong will be reconsidered if its status is changed. Despite Hong Kong’s declining significance to Beijing, it still handles 75 percent of offshore RMB payments and 63 percent of FDI into China. However, failure to quell the protests will hamper China’s image of invincibility and imply that Beijing caved in against mob action. This will weaken national pride amongst mainlanders, from which the Communist Party derives its strength. China seems to be caught in a tough spot, between one that wants to achieve stability by instituting leadership change and upholding one country two systems approach with integrity, and one that wants to portray itself as an ambitious rising power with unquestionable strength.
Renuka Paul is Research Analyst with The Peninsula Foundation.