Hong Kongers have learned that restraint is met by those in power tightening their grip even more, says Kevin Yam, a political commentator
This is a by-invitation commentary in a series on “Hong Kong’s Future,” part of The Economist’s Open Future initiative, which aims to foster a global conversation across the ideological spectrum on vital issues. You can comment here or on Facebook and Twitter. More articles can be found at Economist.com/openfuture
IN THE Gospel of Luke, Jesus is reported to have said: “If you cling to your life, you will lose it, and if you let your life go, you will save it.” (Luke 17:33)
Now substitute the words “your life” with “Hong Kong”. That just about tells the story of how China created the conditions for the seemingly unstoppable protest movement gripping Hong Kong in the past few months, and how it can bring Hong Kong back to its fold.
In the first years after it resumed sovereignty over Hong Kong in 1997, China, wisely, took a mostly hands-off approach. In return, Hong Kongers generally viewed China, and more specifically its central government, positively. Even when 500,000 Hong Kongers participated in a protest in 2003 against a proposed anti-subversion law, the public mostly blamed the Hong Kong Government rather than China’s central government. The legislation was duly shelved. Hong Kongers did not keep protesting for more human rights or democratic guarantees, and instead quietly resumed their lives and the city returned to normality.
However, China failed to recognise or respect that gesture of goodwill from the people of Hong Kong. Instead, Chinese leaders set off down a path that led them to the present confrontation.
After the 2003 protest, China quietly stepped up efforts to meddle in Hong Kong politics. At a grassroots level, China cultivated local figures and helped them to take over various community-based bodies. Such bodies enjoy useful clout. They control who has access to community facilities, from housing estate noticeboards to meeting halls (hint: this is generally not good news for pro-democracy community activists), and can provide pro-China politicians with abundant resources for community events and election campaigns.
At the level of territory-wide politics, China also poured money into pro-China political parties and into the setting up of multiple policy think-tanks. Meanwhile, the business sector was pressed by China into ceasing or reducing donations to pro-democracy parties or groups.
These interventions gradually shut out opposition voices from local communities, as well as from the formal political process. The democratic opposition’s lack of resources also deprived them of the ability to conduct substantive policy research, making it difficult for them to offer meaningful alternative visions for Hong Kong.
China has continued this tactic of tightening controls after big protests. In 2012 hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers protested against an attempt to impose mainland-Chinese style patriotic education in the school curriculum. The curriculum changes were shelved, and again protesters offered an olive branch by ending the protests, rather than pushing for further guarantees and assurances. The Hong Kong Government’s response? They offered significant funding to schools that were willing voluntarily to adopt a patriotic curriculum.
Chinese leaders set off down a path that led them to the present confrontation
And in 2014, hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers participated in a 79-day occupation of roads in central business districts, in protest against China’s decision to restrict Hong Kong’s democratic development. The leaders of the protests repeatedly called on protesters to refrain from violence. This restraint was ultimately “rewarded” with zero movement on democratic development, mass disqualifications of anti-establishment figures from public office and the prosecution of several of the leaders of the protests.
That brings us to the current protests. They started with demands to withdraw a draft piece of legislation which would have allowed for the extradition of individuals from Hong Kong to China to face trial in courts controlled by the Communist Party. They have now snowballed into a movement against police brutality and in favour of full democracy.
Millions of Hong Kongers have participated in the movement, which did not end even after Hong Kong’s government suspended the draft extradition legislation and declared it “dead”. Hong Kongers have learned their lesson. They know that whenever they protest with moderation and with restraint, the response from those in power has been to ignore or to circumvent their demands, and then to tighten the noose further on Hong Kong’s political diversity and freedoms.
By seeking to tighten its control over Hong Kong, China has only succeeded in losing the hearts and minds of Hong Kongers. This is a pity. Hong Kong’s remaining freedoms and rule of law mean that it still is an important financial and economic window to the world for China. And some of China’s ideas over the years for integrating Hong Kong further into the Chinese economy have arguably made commercial sense. Unfortunately but understandably, Hong Kongers’ perceptions of those ideas have been poisoned by suspicions that behind them lurks an attempt to erode Hong Kong’s autonomy and distinctiveness.
By seeking to tighten its control over Hong Kong, China has only succeeded in losing the hearts and minds of Hong Kongers
Against this background, when it comes to Hong Kong’s current situation, few want to see the Chinese military or paramilitary police being deployed in Hong Kong to crush the protests. Most Hong Kongers are also realistic enough to know that China will not grant democracy to Hong Kong any time soon.
Beyond that, however, it matters little how the current protests end, whether it be through attrition or some intervention that stops short of the deployment of mainland forces. The tensions between China’s strangling of Hong Kong’s freedoms and autonomy on the one hand and Hong Kongers’ resentment on the other will remain unresolved.
Fundamentally, what Hong Kong needs is for China gradually to reverse years of ever-tightening control over Hong Kong’s community, social and political affairs. Doing so would ensure that Hong Kongers feel more, rather than less, of a sense of belonging to China. And with that, Hong Kong and mainland China can work more co-operatively as an integrated economic team, without this being resisted by Hong Kongers. A dynamic, open, confident Hong Kong that is comfortable with its place within China would be a win for Hong Kong, China and the world.
Alas, China’s recent actions suggest that it is, if anything, tightening its grip even further. That is bad news. Some might say that it goes against Chinese history for rulers to loosen controls. That is incorrect. Two of the most highly regarded rulers in Chinese history were the Emperors Wen and Jing of the Han Dynasty, who governed with a light touch and who decentralised power. Historical annals used the phrase “resting together with their people” to praise these emperors’ approach to governance. Hong Kong could definitely do with some of that now.
Kevin Yam is a Hong Kong lawyer and political commentator.
The views expressed in this article are his own and do not represent those of his employer or any organisations to which he may belong.
Article originally appear in The Economist on 22 August 2019