Monday, 29 September 2014

Hong Kong protests show China's strength and weakness

Riot police used tear gas and pepper spray September 28 to disperse tens of thousands of pro-democracy protesters gathered in central Hong Kong in a remarkable display of authoritarian force.

Student protest leaders associated with the Hong Kong Occupy Central movement last night announced the launch of a mass civil disobedience campaign outside the city’s government headquarters. The campaign calls for an extended blockade of Hong Kong’s financial centre.

According to protest leaders, the demonstrations are in response to alleged Chinese interference and have begun three days ahead of schedule. The demonstrations were planned for October 1 to coincide with a national holiday, but growing protest momentum required a quick change of plans.

Then in a surprising turn, the Chinese government launched armed police onto the streets who began fighting with protesters. Many of the riot police now carry firearms which - although likely carrying rubber bullets - indicate that Beijing takes the protests seriously and wants the space cleared.

The arrival of riot police significantly changed the dynamics of the peaceful protests. Demonstrations are a common occurrence in Hong Kong. However, the demographics of these protests include growing numbers of middle-aged and middle-class Hong Kong residents. No longer is it simply a student-led protest.

The residents of Hong Kong to a large extent see themselves as superior to their brethren on the mainland and somewhat beyond the Beijing’s authoritarian control.

While no single aspect can be blamed for the current unrest, there is a growing desire in the city for independence from China and anger at broken promises.

During the transition from British rule in 1997, an assurance from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) promised Hong Kong citizens a democratically elected leader independently chosen in 2017. And yet Beijing has emitted disturbing signs all year that it may renege on this assurance.

In late August the Chinese government announced its intention to control the election of Hong Kong’s next chief executive. The election is not set to run until 2017, but a senior official in China’s National People’s Congress said that the CCP will “vet” a handful of potential candidates.

The CCP later released a statement saying their decision represents “rapid progress in Hong Kong’s democratic development”. Both statements stirred a growing feeling of claustrophobia in Hong Kong and catalysed a mostly student-led movement slowly gaining traction through September.

Beijing’s harsh crackdown is part of an effort to stop the spread of unacceptable democratic tendencies around China. Should the police fail to quell the protests early, the demonstrations could rise in intensity. In addition, unexpected violence from either side could devolve the protests into a riot which neither Beijing nor Hong Kong desires.

For China, the question of how much democracy to give Hong Kong will never be solely about this city-state.

According to the World Bank, Hong Kong generated more than 18% of China’s GDP in 1997 when it was handed to Beijing from British control. Now the city contributes only 3% of the total.

In other words, plenty of other Chinese cities are as large as or larger than the former colony. It is no longer the goose that lays the golden egg. This affords Beijing some room to move when it comes to the question of democracy and freedom.

The World Bank figures suggest that not only do Beijing’s heavy actions reflect a concern with the spread of democracy, they indicate the CCP might be willing to act harsher against demonstrators in Hong Kong than it has in the past.

If China’s success doesn’t rely on autonomy of Hong Kong any more, then the stability of Hong Kong doesn’t mean as much to Beijing as it used to - hence the heavy crackdown.

The Chinese Communist Party detests the idea that “virtues of democracy” could spread from Hong Kong to much more important economic hubs in Shanghai, Guangzhou or others. Democracy as a concept is relatively embraced in China, but anything the CCP cannot control is considered threatening.

A possibility for political compromise is still possible at this early stage, but it will fade if the protests exacerbate. Hong Kong residents were already sceptical of gaining democratic freedom but Beijing’s desire to control the upcoming elections did nothing to assuage their concern.

The heavy-handed crackdown on protesters indicates Beijing may not allocate fundamental freedoms for Hong Kong after all. How the various protest groups will respond is largely unknown.

However, not all of the protest groups want the same thing while a number of Hong Kong citizens attach greater affiliation with the mainland and CCP authority than they do with democracy. Many in this group are older, middle-class citizens. In this sense the demographics of the protests will be important to monitor.

Beijing has already made it abundantly clear it will not tolerate a chief executive of Hong Kong who is resistant to mainland authority. The line it will need to tread carefully is the one separating more democratic freedom from the desire for outright independence from China.

As long as Hong Kong stays officially “Chinese”, anything less could be considered tolerable for Beijing. But the proceeding political manoeuvres will determine if that is still the case.

From the international perspective, Hong Kong has been competitive for much longer compared to mainland China. Should the city-state begin to function more like China’s other cities, it could lose its uniquely competitive edge.

Further violence and sustained protests could also scare investors away from Hong Kong which has been regarded as a relatively safe place to do business for decades.

More broadly in the immediate region is China’s relationship with Taiwan.

The “one country, two systems” concept functioning now with Hong Kong previously suggested China could tolerate democracy or at least an alternative to communism. By extension, Taipei hoped this could lead to improved relations with Taiwan in the future.

Taiwan is now looking at the situation in Hong Kong with deep suspicion. China has turned a conciliatory face towards Taiwan over the question of future administration, but what is happening in Hong Kong reveals China’s truly pragmatic goals for its historic territories. Goals that Taiwan won’t like the look of.

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