Last week, Hong Kong smacked Beijing twice. First, on June 9, one million people marched through central Hong Kong to protest the proposal of an extradition law that the Beijing-controlled government was pushing for. If the new law would’ve been confirmed by the Legislative Council, which has a pro-Beijing majority, all Hong Kongers would become subjects of the Chinese legal system, in which the rule of law counts less than the rule of the Communist Party. Thirsty for more freedom and autonomy after they were liberated from colonial rule, Hong Kongers challenged Beijing’s new patronage with unprecedented protest; on the eve of the debate in parliament that would’ve probably confirmed the law, an endless river of citizens flooded the streets for hours, effectively conquering the eight million-large city.
The gathering was so big that it could’ve easily overflowed Tiananmen, the biggest square in the world, designated by Mao Zedong. He used it during the Cultural Revolution whenever he wanted to incite his Red Guards. But one million mostly-young people in Hong Kong had no leader who would order them to “bombard the headquarters.” What inspired them to get on the streets of Hong Kong was civil consciousness. Dressed in black, they expressed their disagreement with the dictatorial regime in Beijing by demonstrating their capacity to manage the city themselves.
The march was peaceful and incredibly well-organized. The people on the streets were not guided by some nostalgia for British rule; Hong Kong, a former British colony, was handed back to China in 1997 before many of the protesters were born. They were too young and too distant in time and miles to remember the smell of blood and burned bodies on Tiananmen in 1989 when the People’s Liberation Army crushed young Chinese civil society. Very few of them lost someone loved on the square, be it a friend, or neighbor. It was 30 years ago and 2400 kilometers from Hong Kong. And yet, the countless protestors who flocked together on June 9 were raised and educated in the memory and spirit of Tiananmen, as their childhoods were dedicated to the commemoration of the bloody suppression, and their political action en masse is a reflection of it.
The future leaders of Hong Kong, therefore, the ones who are marching now and who in 2014 organized the Umbrella movement (fighting to preserve and expand democracy in Hong Kong) are the real children of Tiananmen. They are the boomerang that is returning to Beijing, which tried to erase the memory of one of the darkest days in contemporary history. Hong Kong did not forget, and its massive rally was just a few days from the 30th anniversary of Tiananmen. While in Beijing in those days reigned a dreadful silence, now a powerful footfall echoed across Hong Kong: 反送中! Oppose sending to China!
After the record crowd of protestors shattered the local leadership and silenced Beijing, the protest continued in much smaller numbers three days later, when the Legislative Counsel was supposed to have a final discussion before voting in the controversial extradition law. About 70,000 thousand youth, this time more aggressive and equipped like urban guerrillas, blocked access to the Council building. When the police tried to break their lines, with teargas and rubber bullets, they fought back with clubs and stones. Dozens of people were hurt and arrested. Nobody died. But after this extreme violence, both sides were scared and Lam, the Chief Executive, put the law on the back burner. The indefinite suspension of the bill did not mean its permanent withdrawal. After consulting with Beijing, Lam decided to wait for the situation to calm down and try again later on. She did, however, apologize to the Hong Kongers for forcing the law, promising to listen more in the future. It was a minor victory for the movement.
Lam’s words did not work. Seizing the momentum, the resistance movement doubled down. Last Sunday, not one but two million people descended onto the streets of Hong Kong. These images of the human tsunami are jaw-dropping. Watching the images from Hong Kong that day, one could believe that there is nothing superior to the power of the people; that this demonstration of unity, strength, reason, and peace can prevail above everything. It was among those rare moments in life that make you think, “Yes, humans are great.” It was democracy on the march. Mao’s Red Guards were nothing compared to this. Who would even dare to think of stopping this kind of force? The thrill of being enfolded in this human force was overwhelming and created the sensation that all our individual, egotistical thoughts should be thrown away, liberating us to join the joy of the crowds for a moment.
But let’s turn away from the hope and joy of Hong Kong’s children of Tiananmen for now. They have all my support and sympathy, yet it remains to be seen if they can survive, take over, and control their eight-million-large city as they would like to. What is the extent of their determination?
According to the agreement on returning Hong Kong to China, signed by Great Britain and China in Beijing, 1984, Hong Kong became China’s Special Administrative Region (SAR) in 1997. It belongs to the People’s Republic of China but has political autonomy and separate legislation from Beijing. Until 2047, Hong Kong has the right to enjoy more liberal laws and a multi-party system, and can gradually expand its election system to achieve universal suffrage. One must assume that the British while signing this agreement, convinced themselves that China would be an open and democratic society by then. For them, handing Hong Kong back to China was not a problem, as they assumed that economic reforms in China would lead to the expansion of democracy, similar to in Hong Kong. That is what the British must have thought when throwing the colony under the Chinese bus.
As we know now, this was one of the West’s biggest blunders in recent history. For decades, western investors were nurturing the empty hopes that growing the Chinese economy would make it more open and democratic. Of course, the same people who were propagating the myth of democracy as coinciding with the market economy were also filling their pockets by maximizing their profit margins with cheaply manufactured products.
The consequence of pouring foreign capital into China was the exponential growth of its economy. While in 1997, Hong Kong represented 18 percent of China’s GDP, twenty years later, the former colony contributes only three percent to the national economy. That, of course, does not mean that the HK economy is in collapse. It still grows modestly, but it is nothing compared to the mainland speed and volume of growth. So the words of Deng Xiaoping, who said that he wants Shanghai to become a new Hong Kong, were a prophecy. Seventy billion dollars of development spending later, Shanghai cemented its primacy over Hong Kong. Beside the redevelopment of the city, money was used to create business opportunities, and the stock exchange brought back the capital that fled the country after the communist takeover in 1949.
The boosting of Shanghai also had strategic importance. If Hong Kong would continue to dominate the Chinese economy with its economic model spreading into China, that could, according to the old school of thought, ease up more liberal forms of society. Deng’s move prevented all this, suppressing the idea of Hong Kong becoming China’s Trojan horse while opening the country to loyal and more patriotic capital. This, of course, was before the West started to invest massively in special economic zones, which became the ground zero of western optimism and blunder.
As it is now, however, Hong Kong cannot survive without outside support. While Hong Kong materially depends on China, there is a chance that Beijing, considering that the island economy is increasingly less relevant, may one day close the water and other pipelines that feed Hong Kong. Of course, in our day, this would be rude, and too obvious even for the people that manage power in Beijing. It would be seen as repeating the order to send the tanks on the square. Considering that this kind of action would not be, logistically speaking, easy to employ in such a vast urban conglomerate as Hong Kong, Beijing is smart enough not to show its cards of ruthlessness. It would immediately lose its hard gained international positions and sympathies.
But with the last two slaps in the face of Beijing, Hong Kong is now a top priority China’s enemy list. If the extradition law passes, Beijing would have created a silent tool to dismantle the Hong Kong resistance. It has now been flagrantly caught by this impressive generation of young Hong Kongers who are building their identity from scratch. The kids of Tiananmen know that building democracy and transparency are two important characteristics that separate them from China. But they also know that they are their only means of survival.
In this sense, Hong Kong is doing much to alert international opinion to the existing situation. The millions of protestors in Hong Kong are not only a message to Beijing but all of us. And since my friend here in D.C. just the other day reminded me that what counts is the politics of power, we should also be looking at what the U.S., for instance, can do to protect the independence of Hong Kong.
In 1992, the U.S. Congress passed the US-Hong Kong Policy Act to continue treating the city as a separate entity from mainland China. The law grants Hong Kong economic and trading privileges, such as continued access to sensitive technologies and the free exchange of the US dollar with the Hong Kong dollar. But as Min Xinpei explains:
The US-Hong Kong Policy Act has teeth to deter China from violating its commitments. In particular, it explicitly empowers the US president to issue an executive order suspending some or all of Hong Kong’s privileges if he or she determines that “Hong Kong is not sufficiently autonomous to justify treatment under a particular law of the United States.” In making such a determination, the president should consider “the terms, obligations, and expectations expressed in the Joint Declaration with respect to Hong Kong.”
Even a cursory reading of the US-Hong Kong Policy Act should make it clear to China’s leaders that their actions in recent years have already seriously jeopardized the city’s status as an autonomous entity. Such actions include the abduction of five Hong Kong-based book publishers, the disqualification on dubious grounds of democratically elected city legislators, and the imprisonment of pro-democracy activists. For the US, the passage of the extradition law could well be the last straw.
Willy Lam, a China expert at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, shares the optimism that the U.S. will raise its voice in the politics of power. He said that “the odds of the US Congress revisiting the Hong Kong Policy Act had risen after the protests, amid Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam’s ‘intransigence in the face of such an outpouring of popular opinion.’”
On the other hand, some analysts in Washington are skeptical that the Trump administration would push the issue hard, including at the G20 in Osaka later this month, which Mr. Trump and Chinese president Xi Jinping are expected to attend. As Ryan Hass, a China expert at the Brookings Institution, said, “President Trump has been unwavering in his indifference to developments in greater China concerning human rights, democracy, and rule of law. I don’t expect Trump’s brand to change as a result of protests in Hong Kong.”