It is a facet of human nature to gravitate towards the underdogs of this world and when covering mass anti-government uprisings, wherever they take place, the media and human rights groups tend to reflect that sentiment.
The fact is though ‘the people’ are not a monolith, among them are bad actors, and as we witnessed during the 2011 misnamed Arab Spring that delivered hellish outcomes to Syria, Libya and Yemen, people battling for a better life are often their own worst enemies.
Residents of the semi-autonomous city of Hong Kong who’ve taken to the streets almost daily over the past four months should be careful of what they wish for in light of looming unintended consequences. They are crossing red lines, unwittingly constructing a rod for their own backs and using violence to destroy the economic viability of one of the wealthiest cities on the planet, their own hometown.
The city has been driven to a virtual standstill. Stores, banks, rail systems and the airport are subjected to frequent closures. And now that emergency law has been imposed heightening anger, the prognosis for a peaceful resolution has dimmed.
The police outnumbered and unable to cope have now resorted to using live ammunition. If this grave situation spirals further, it is surely only a matter of time before China is obliged to make a move despite its reluctance.
What began as a largely peaceful protest against a new extradition bill that was subsequently quashed in response to protesters’ demands has morphed into calls for independence from China. Chinese flags have been defaced, visiting Chinese officials attacked and chants asking the United States to intervene are common.
The idea that Hong Kongers could be extradited to the mainland to be tried for serious crimes was rightly viewed as a breach of the ‘one state, two state’ principle. People saw this as a slippery slope to authoritarianism. The mistake of Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, was her failure to see the writing on the wall caught between the will of her people and instructions from Beijing.
She dragged her heels until violence broke out and in doing so forfeited the trust of her fellow citizens. Lam has been exposed as being firmly in Beijing’s pocket and few are falling for her tearful apologies. Once the offending bill was binned, the protesters came up with new wholly political demands, among them her resignation.
“It is open season on Hong Kong’s government, with everyone and their mum bashing our top officials these days as they flounder about and clutch at straws, drowning under a tsunami of protest, chaos and anarchy,” writes South China Post columnist Yonden Lhatoo, who blames the government for refraining from using emergency powers to tackle lawlessness because “it lacks the stomach and is terrified of international criticism.”
The people of Hong Kong, in particular the youth, are out to retain the democratic freedoms they’ve always enjoyed under British rule and thereafter in accordance with a Sino-British treaty stipulating that the city will retain its capitalist system and freedoms under the ‘one state, two systems’ principle until 2047. Foreign policy and defence, however, rest with Beijing that also has the right to step-in to prevent Hong Kong imploding which is happening today.
Whereas I fully sympathise with the aspirations of Hong Kongers and admire their determination to retain their liberal lifestyles in perpetuity, their goals are wholly unrealistic. Like it or not, Hong Kong that was previously leased to Britain, is indisputably a Chinese territory.
To imagine that the Chinese government would ever grant the city independence is a pipe dream when to date it has never dropped its territorial claim on Taiwan—officially known as the Republic of China—under the ‘One China’ principle. Barring a miracle or God forbid a World War, in 2047 Hong Kong special status will end.
Rather than continue to bash their heads against a brick wall that has the potential of bringing that date forward, the city’s ethnically Chinese residents, constituting 92 per cent of the population, would be best served making the most of the freedoms they currently enjoy before facing the hurdle of unification in 28 years’ time.
China is opening up and is using capitalism to its best advantage. Who knows but it is possible that China will evolve over the coming quarter-of-a-century into a country that Hong Kongers can be proud to call their own!
Linda S. Heard is an award-winning British specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She welcomes feedback and can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.