By Eric Vandenbroeck
Why China's great rejuvenation by 2049 might be elusive
While US President Trump famously claimed that: I stopped Hong Kong being "obliterated in 14 minutes" by China, and given that, on Sunday Hong Kong will go to the polls it will be a timely referendum on support for a protest movement that shows little sign of abating and might , as we will see below, have further consequences for China at large.
I originally started to cover this subject when around 3,000 legal lawyers demonstrated in Hong Kong including the role of Chinese nationalism. Then in October the US House of Representatives passed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, whereby
Under the 2019 bill, if the U.S. government determines that Hong Kong is no longer autonomous, it must then reevaluate its treaties, agreements, and laws regarding the territory. That has some experts concerned that the legislation would punish Hong Kong. China, in turn, accused the United States of seeking to “destroy” Hong Kong and threatened retaliation.
The Hong Kong protests in perspective
Hong Kong is a former British colony handed back to China in 1997. It has its own judiciary and a separate legal system from mainland China. Those rights include freedom of assembly and freedom of speech. But those freedoms - the Basic Law - expire in 2047 and it is not clear what Hong Kong's status will then be. In a recent article titled All the context you need the BBC also detailed why Hong Kong is significantly different from other Chinese cities.
Then recently we had a situation where hundreds of young people, some teenagers, turned the redbrick campus of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University into a fortress. Clad in black, their faces masked in black too, most of them remained defiant as they came under siege. Police shot rubber bullets and jets of blue-dyed water at them. Defenders crouched over glass bottles, filling them with fuel and stuffing them with fuses to make bombs. Many cheered the news that an arrow shot by one of their archers had hit a policeman in the leg. After more than five months of anti-government unrest in Hong Kong, the stakes are turning deadly. Yet despite the violence, public support for the protesters, even the bomb-throwing radicals, remains strong.
Thus what started in June with peaceful rallies in opposition to contentious legislation has devolved into a steady stream of mayhem, with some protesters embracing violent behaviors in response to brutal police tactics with some now taking it to an extreme.
But the violence of the Hong Kong protests, and of the response to them, is hardly remarkable by international standards. Much worse has happened in Baghdad, Beirut, Santiago, and Tehran over the past months. But by the standards of both Hong Kong and China’s Communist Party, these events are shocking. No one would have predicted in May that a proposed change to the territory’s extradition laws could lead to a sustained rebellion lit by burning vehicles. For one thing, China seldom treats rebellion with anything less than dire repression. For another, Hong Kongers tend not to see themselves as revolutionaries. But that, it seems, is changing. The protesters are willing to use violence in the service of decency and their way of life, to burn universities in order to save them.
Hong Kong's recent independence
While Hong Kong has never been a democracy, in the later years of British rule it's Legislative Council (Legco) gradually became more representative of the people. The territory’s courts enjoyed genuine independence, and its citizens a free press. As well as boasting one of the world’s most vigorous economies, the territory bore most of the hallmarks of a free society.
Today, Hong Kong’s local district councils, for which elections are due to be held on 24 November, are the only tier of government chosen entirely through universal suffrage. But when China reclaimed the territory in 1997 it agreed that its form of government, courts, free press, trade relations, financial system and way of life should remain unchanged for 50 years: “one country, two systems”, in the phrase of Deng Xiaoping, then China’s leader. Though some of the territory’s autonomy was eroded in the 2000s, China largely kept to the deal, its concerns over excessive freedoms offset by a thriving economy and, to some extent, the opprobrium it would face should it break its word.
But around the time that Xi Jinping, China’s current leader, came to power in 2012, the rate of erosion quickened. The government in Beijing pushed for a highly unpopular program of “patriotic education” at schools to engender loyalty and self-defeatingly contributed to the radicalization of some of the territory’s young people. Proposed reforms that would have let Hong Kongers choose their chief executive, but in effect restricted the choice to a slate picked by Beijing, led to the Occupy Central protests of late 2014.
This year the issue originally at stake was a bill that would have allowed anyone in Hong Kong accused of a crime in mainland China to be tried there, which is to say, in a system Beijing controls. Outrage at this new erosion brought 1m people on to the streets. Carrie Lam, the territory’s chief executive, ignored them. Her intransigence led to even larger protests. Organizers claim that a demonstration on June 16th brought 2m on to the streets, a turnout almost ten times larger than Martin Luther King’s March on Washington provided by a population less than a twentieth that of America in 1963. Civil servants, church groups, executives and the staff of Hong Kong’s biggest employers all joined in, as did teenagers, children, and babes in arms.
The heart of the protests, though, was to be found among young, well-educated Hong Kongers fighting for their city’s democratic autonomy. For most of them, that fight was, to begin with, metaphorical. For some, those now known as the frontliners, it was not. They looked back on the non-violent protests of Occupy Central when, as Joshua Wong, one of Occupy’s leaders, put it, the police had arrested “anyone with a megaphone” and learned their lesson: they would be leaderless, anonymous and comfortable with violence.
In “Longstreet”, a 1970s television program, Bruce Lee tells his student “to be formless, shapeless, like water”; to take whatever form the circumstances require; to flow, creep, drip or crash. “Be water” became the movement’s watchword, votes on encrypted messaging apps its leaderless model of co-ordination.
The front liners’ early forays beyond previous norms, blocking roads with pavement railings and shouting taunts at the police, now seem, by their own admission, almost quaint. Direct clashes were few. The storming of Legco on 1 July, and the subsequent daubing of its chamber with slogans shocked the authorities and some of the populace. But the writing on the walls was in paint, not blood.
Other symbolic gestures were more aesthetically pleasing. A remarkably catchy, crowdsourced Cantonese anthem, “Glory to Hong Kong”, first heard at rallies, ended up sung by flash mobs of office workers during lunch breaks. A moment when a young girl and boy, forming a human chain, found themselves too shy to hold hands and instead gripped the two ends of a biro took flight on social media; within a day it had been mashed up with Michaelangelo into memes showing the spark of life, or freedom, flowing from one to the other. The “Goddess of Democracy” who graced the Tiananmen Square protests, herself a repurposing of the Statue of Liberty—appeared again, now known as “Lady Liberty” and kitted out with the practical but now also iconic appurtenances of protest: hard hat, gas mask and umbrella.
The police met the water’s rising tide with what in retrospect seems like tolerance. When, three weeks after the storming of Legco, the frontliners painted slogans on the Liaison Office, symbol of the Chinese Communist Party’s authority over Hong Kong, the police were furious at having been outwitted yet apparently taking its revenge later that night.
Later on the MRT, that night saw a decisive escalation. Men with triad links and metal staffs entered the Yuen Long station in the New Territories looking for democracy protesters on trains. They laid into passengers indiscriminately; local police, apparently turning a blind eye, failed to respond. That incident did more than any other to discredit a police force that used to be called “Asia’s finest”. Today, only Carrie Lam uses the phrase.
Since then protesters have vandalized (or, in protest slang, “renovated”) state banks, Hong Kong’s biggest bookseller (which is owned by the Liaison Office) and restaurants with sympathies assumed to lie with the Communist Party. Rioters now set fires not only on the streets but inside buildings. On 6 November a pro-establishment politician with known links to the triads in Yuen Long was stabbed in broad daylight. People fear being attacked simply on the basis of being Mandarin-speaking mainland Chinese. Nihilism is trumping romanticism: “If we burn, you burn with us”, a rebel slogan from the climax of the Hunger Games saga, has gained currency. Earlier this month it was given awful form when a bystander confronting protesters was doused with something flammable and set on fire (he survived).
Police commanders express bewilderment that the mass of ordinary, peace-loving Hong Kongers are not repelled by such scenes on the streets. Many are. But they are repelled yet more by the police. A survey published on 15 November by the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute found that 83% blame the government, and especially the police, for the increase in violence. In a separate poll, 51.5% reported zero trusts in the police force, up from just 6.5% before the protests began.
Hong Kongers are appalled that police have lined uniformed schoolchildren against walls for random searches and have arrested 11-year-olds. Reports are growing of physical mistreatment in detention. Rules of engagement that in July were consistent with best international practice, rubber bullets fired only below waist height, tear-gas used to disperse not to kettle, have been thrown out of the window. Beatings at the time of arrest have become commonplace, sometimes escalating to frenzy. On November 11th an unarmed protester was shot in the stomach at point-blank range. And all this with impunity. Officially, only one officer out of over 30,000 has as yet been suspended for any action against a protester.
It is possible to see a terrible symmetry at work, with frontline ninjas in helmets with camera mounts uncannily resembling the black-clad police of the rapid-action unit known as the Raptors. Each side’s epithets dehumanize the other, “dogs” for the police, “cockroaches” for the protesters. The litanies of brutality they recite match each other crime for crime. But a large part of the public, from taxi drivers to secretaries, sees no such balance. On 1 October, China’s national day, residents of high rises in Wanchai concealed hundreds of protesters suddenly cornered by riot police. Crowds scream at riot police in shopping malls and housing estates. Asia’s finest have become haak ging, “black police”.
Police commanders blame Carrie Lam and her administration for forcing them to deal with the ever-worse symptoms of a problem which can only be sorted out politically. But Dennis Kwok, who represents the legal profession in Legco, says the police now take direct orders from central-government officials. Chris Tang Ping-Keung, who was installed as police commissioner on 19 November, immediately changed the force’s motto from serving with “Pride and Care”, which aligned it with the citizens to whom it is nominally accountable, to serving with “Duty and Loyalty”. That will play well in Beijing.
Hold down a rising China..?
China’s official narrative about Hong Kong is that Western “black hands” are training, organizing and even paying protesters to destroy Hong Kong, part of a larger plot to hold down a rising China. When America’s Senate passed a bill supportive of the protesters on November 20th Beijing reacted with a fury that grew out of and fed that narrative. Many mainlanders, bombarded by state media with images of protesters insulting China or waving foreign flags, long to see the protests crushed.
The Chinese government is clear that it wants things sorted. But it has held back from sending in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and paramilitary police to quell the disturbances, indeed, though one can never know what a secretive leadership is planning, it may never seriously have been considered. In leaked comments from a private meeting with businessmen, Carrie Lam implied that China’s threats had been so much bluster. One of her advisers says that, although the protests represent a big loss of face to China’s leadership, the loss of face that would come with abandoning all semblance of “one country, two systems” would be worse.
For a government that makes much of its decisiveness under the brilliant leadership of Xi Jinping, the absence of anything resembling a strategy to sort out Hong Kong is striking. The best spin that officials can put on it is that their leaders are playing a long game, waiting for popular sentiment to turn against the protesters and reconcile itself to something like the status quo ante. This seems unlikely, but possibly looks more plausible if you sincerely believe, as hardliners say they do, that Hong Kong opinion polls cannot be trusted because they are conducted by universities and think-tanks that are hotbeds of Western liberalism and if your view of the territory has long been colored by reports from Liaison Office officials who tell you what you want to hear.
A deeper problem is that the government in Beijing has pre-emptively undercut the possibility of a satisfactory settlement. As the Hong Kong police argue in private, the unrest needs a political solution. But the Communist Party has systematically constrained the space in which the give and take of Hong Kong politics can take place. Those constraints created the dissatisfaction that led to the protests; coming to some accommodation would require setting some of them aside. But China’s leadership is unwilling to countenance such action. An example: when Hong Kong’s high court overturned a ban on face coverings imposed by Carrie Lam, the National People’s Congress in Beijing made its disapproval clear.
If expecting politics to work in a place where they have tried to remove that possibility fails, China’s leaders “have no Plan B,” according to a senior adviser to Carrie Lam with close links to Beijing. And so things are left in the hands of Lam and her paralyzed, incompetent government. Lam is showing the same intransigence in the face of calls for an independent investigation into the causes of the unrest and into police behavior as she originally did over the extradition bill. When in an unaccustomed fit of good sense she acknowledged the need to reach out to young people, she did so at a youth camp organized by the reviled PLA, and in the Mandarin of the overlord rather than Cantonese.
With no one in power taking the initiative and violence ratcheting up, the outlook appears grim. But the district-council elections set for 24 November where more than a thousand candidates will contest 452 district council seats in the city’s only fully democratic election, could possibly help move the action away from the streets. These elections, mostly concerned with rubbish collection and the management of public housing estates, have never previously been a big deal. This time democrats see them as an opportunity to show that the energy of the streets can be channelled into the ballot box.
With a democrat contesting every council seat and 386,000 (mainly young) new voters, the poll offers the chance for a symbolic coup de théâtre and, indirectly, a shift in the composition of Legco. Half of the committee’s 70 members are directly elected, six of the others come from the district councils. The election results will also affect the make-up of the committees, tightly circumscribed by Beijing, which every five years choose the chief executive.
It might seem strange, in the current circumstances, that the elections are going ahead. But both sides want them. Some of the protesters at PolyU said that though they view the elections as part of the tainted system they are determined to vote. The government, for its part, desperately wants to show that some things are carrying on as normal. And for the elections to go ahead, it says it needs calm. This puts democratic leaders in something of a spot. They need the frontliners to leave the barricades, yet saying so out loud would risk splitting the protest movement.
When his pupil in “Longstreet” worries that wateriness does not sound like the way to beat his fearsome opponent, Bruce Lee upbraids him: “You want to learn the way to win, but never accept the way to lose.” The Hong Kong protesters know that they are not going to win a liberal democracy any time soon. But nor do they necessarily need to follow Lee’s last advice: that the pupil must learn the art of dying. Some in Beijing acknowledge that a fundamental change has taken place in Hong Kong, and suggest that the central government will be “very cautious” about its next steps. In response to the suggestion that the Communist Party had lost the hearts and minds of a whole generation in Hong Kong, one thoughtful person in the capital said: “Oh, two.” That is the case for giving Hong Kong the political space to start sorting out the mess itself. It is not a case President Xi is likely to take to. But some waters flow slowly.
Why Hong Kong is in peril
Citizens may turn out in force for local elections on 24 November, which have taken on new significance as a test of the popular will and a chance to give pro-establishment candidates a drubbing. The government’s one concession, withdrawing a bill that would have allowed suspects to be sent to mainland China for trial, did little to restore calm. Protesters say they want nothing less than democracy. They cannot pick their chief executive, and elections for Hong Kong’s legislature are wildly tilted. So the protests may continue.
The Communist Party in Beijing does not seem eager to get its troops to crush the unrest. Far from it, insiders say. This is a problem that the party does not want to own; the economic and political costs of mass-firing into crowds in a global financial center would be huge. But owning the problem it does. The heavy-handedness of China’s leader, Xi Jinping, and public resentment of it is a primary cause of the turmoil. He says he wants a “great rejuvenation” of his country. But his brutal, uncompromising approach to control is feeding anger not just in Hong Kong but also elsewhere at China’s periphery.
When Mao Zedong’s guerrillas seized power in China in 1949, they did not take over a clearly defined country, much less an entirely willing one. Hong Kong was ruled by the British, nearby Macau by the Portuguese. Taiwan was under the control of the Nationalist government Mao had just overthrown. The mountain terrain of Tibet was under a Buddhist theocracy that chafed at control from Beijing. Communist troops had yet to enter another immense region in the far west, Xinjiang, where Muslim ethnic groups did not want to be ruled from afar.
Seventy years on, the party’s struggle to establish the China it wants is far from over. Taiwan is still independent in all but name. In January its ruling party, which favors a more formal separation, is expected to do well once again in presidential and parliamentary polls. “Today’s Hong Kong, tomorrow’s Taiwan” is a popular slogan in Hong Kong that resonates with its intended audience, Taiwanese voters. Since Xi took power in 2012 they have watched him chip away at Hong Kong’s freedoms and send warplanes on intimidating forays around Taiwan. Few of them want their rich, democratic island to be swallowed up by the dictatorship next door, even if many of them have thousands of years of shared culture with mainlanders.
Tibet and Xinjiang are quiet, but only because people there have been terrorized into silence. After widespread outbreaks of unrest a decade ago, repression has grown overwhelming. In the past couple of years, Xinjiang’s regional government has built a network of prison camps and incarcerated about 1m people, mostly ethnic Uighurs, often simply for being devout Muslims. Official Chinese documents recently leaked to the New York Times have confirmed the horrors unleashed there. Officials say this “vocational training”, as they chillingly describe it, is necessary to eradicate Islamist extremism. In the long run, it is more likely to fuel the rage that will one day explode.
The slogan in Hong Kong has another part: “Today’s Xinjiang, tomorrow’s Hong Kong”. Few expect such a grim outcome for the former British colony. But Hong Kongers are right to view the party with fear. Even if President Xi decides not to use troops in Hong Kong, his view of challenges to the party’s authority is clear. He thinks they should be crushed.
With Trump, even it has not yet been positively announced, is likely to sign the bill, requiring the government to apply sanctions to officials guilty of abusing human rights in Hong Kong, China is likely to lean harder on Hong Kong’s government, to explore whether it can pass a harsh new anti-sedition law, and require students to submit to “patriotic education” (ie, party propaganda). The party wants to know the names of those who defy it, the better to make their lives miserable later.
Xi says he wants China to achieve its great rejuvenation by 2049, the 100th anniversary of Mao’s victory. By then, he says, the country will be “strong, democratic, culturally advanced, harmonious and beautiful”. More likely, if the party remains in power that long, Mao’s unfinished business will remain a terrible sore. Millions of people living in the outlying regions that Mao claimed for the party will be seething.
Not all the Communist elite agree with Xi’s clenched-fist approach, which is presumably why someone leaked the Xinjiang papers. Trouble in the periphery of an empire can swiftly spread to the center. This is doubly likely when the peripheries are also where the empire rubs up against suspicious neighbors. India is wary of China’s militarisation of Tibet. China’s neighbors anxiously watch the country’s military build-up in the Taiwan Strait. The party cannot win lasting assent to its rule by force alone.
In Hong Kong “one country, two systems” is officially due to expire in 2047. In the current form, its system is likely to be much like the rest of China’s long before then. That is why Hong Kong’s protesters are so desperate, and why the harmony Xi talks so blithely of creating in China might elude him.
As for Xi, his intolerance of dissent and his vulnerability to bad information have made his government much more prone to policy blunders. Making matters worse, because a strongman must maintain an image of virtual infallibility, even demonstrably ineffective or counterproductive policies are unlikely to be reversed.
Xi’s grip on power is probably secure. But with decision-making dynamics at the top unlikely to change, he will become vulnerable to more challenges in the coming months. Indeed, 2020 may turn out to be Xi’s worst year yet.
As for Trump's boasting claim mentioned at the start of this article it has been speculated that the reference to "14 minutes" is because it takes exactly 14 minutes for the PLA to reach Hong Kong from Shenzhen by taking the Express Rail Link: