Hong Kong’s relationship with Beijing has been changed for ever
Whatever the precise figure, the demonstrations in Hong Kong were the biggest ever in the city and possibly the biggest in Chinese history against a government. Confident in the power of their unstoppable numbers a bloody catastrophe was just avoided by the good sense of Hong Kong people. The relationship between the people of Hong Kong and Beijing has changed forever. Hong Kong has not gone according to Beijing’s playbook.
While no evidence supports the view that the Chief Executive tried to push the immensely unpopular extradition legislation through on Beijing’s direct orders – things are not usually done that way – the Chief Executive would have well understood that an extradition law was a high priority for Beijing.
Ms Lam thought she had found the opportunity to do what had long been wanted – the return of a convicted murderer to Taiwan. In view of Hong Kong’s deep and growing mistrust of Beijing this rationalisation was flimsy at best.
Carrie Lam is a transitionary figure and one whose transition has just been hastened by the events of last week. One has to feel sorry for her. She is merely a bureaucrat, albeit highly capable who has held senior positions prior to Beijing’s appointing her as Chief Executive. As a bureaucrat by training and instinct she is unsuited to high political office. It is one of the strengths of democratic systems that by temperament politicians and bureaucrats inhabit different worlds. It seldom works when they try to cross over. They need each other but cannot fulfil each other’s roles.
Carrie Lam is tragic not because she was doing Beijing’s bidding – though that might be the result – but because she was trying to do what she probably genuinely believed to be the “right thing” by Hong Kong with little understanding of the politics. Her rational decision making left little scope for empathy with the people of Hong Kong. Her obvious distress at her press conferences was less from fear of Beijing or the people in the streets but her bewilderment as to why everyone could not be calm and rational and “move on together”.
As the leading representative of the pro-Beijing forces in Hong Kong, she is of the paternalistic type that accept not only the inevitability of Hong Kong’s return to the mainland but the need for it to be done on Beijing’s terms and its alone. The sooner the accommodation with Beijing is made, the smoother it will be and the better for Hong Kong.
The problem with this thinking is that the majority of people in Hong Kong do not agree and are prepared to go out on the streets in big numbers to say so. Like her two predecessors in 2003 and 2014, Lam’s failure to heed the mood of Hong Kong’s citizens has led to mass protests. The Chief Executive and Beijing now have a serious problem. Unable to protect their rights through the formal political process, the people have become experienced in and increasingly accustomed to doing so through mass protests.
Approaching the half-way point of the return to the mainland, Hong Kong today is more restive and independent than at any time since 1997 when the Basic Law was adopted guaranteeing Hong Kong a high degree of independence and protecting citizens’ rights under the One Country Two Systems (OCTS) policy. Beijing only has itself to blame.
In 2014, it thwarted democratic guarantees under the Basic Law by ruling that only candidates it has vetted can be elected thereby destroying the legitimacy of elected representatives. It is known to have disappeared five book publishers from the streets of Hong Kong to face political trials on the mainland. It continues to interfere in the appointment of senior academics and University administrators. All of which have undermined trust and goodwill in Hong Kong towards OCTS. In this context, expressions of popular resistance towards Beijing’s encroachments are likely to become larger and more frequent.
Most worryingly for Beijing, as in Taiwan, young Hong Kong people identify less with China and increasingly regard themselves as Hong Kongese or Taiwanese. Beijing’s battle for the hearts and minds of the next generation, which would be essential to win for the peaceful reunification of the country, now seems to be lost. Fortunately, the costs of greater violence if Beijing were to become more aggressive towards either Taiwan or Hong Kong are sufficiently high to stay its hand. The present uneasy status quo in Hong Kong is likely to continue, interrupted by occasional flare ups.
No matter how much Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative is trumpeted as a major foreign policy success, which even at this early stage is not unreasonable, his tenure is marked by two significant setbacks. The first is to provoke not only a trade war with the US but invite US containment militarily and more importantly technologically. The other is Hong Kong. Xi’s enemies will be watching.
Chaos theory holds that small, seemingly unrelated events, can trigger much larger ones via positive feedback loops. Last week’s demonstrations in Hong Kong may come to be seen as such a trigger. The implications go well beyond the future of Ms Lam. They reverberate to the leadership of Xi Jinping, Taiwan, and how the democracies, especially the US and UK, but also Australia, engage with China on the pathway leading to 2047 when OCTS is to end and HK fully integrates into mainland China.
In Australia, the China-fear crowd who see the United Front Work Department (UFWD) threatening Australia’s democracy could usefully gain some sense of proportion by looking at Hong Kong. Probably nowhere else on earth is the UFWD so active and so well resourced as in Hong Kong. Yet when Hong Kong citizens felt their democratic rights and the rule of law threatened, they flooded the streets in unprecedented numbers. The head of Hong Kong’s UFWD’s branch will be lucky to keep a job.
Australia needs to feel confident about the strength of its democratic institutions and defend them robustly while restoring relations with Beijing so that our voice may be heard. At the same time, we have an obligation to speak out in defence of Hong Kong’s rights under the Basic Law and in support of OCTS as the only means available to ensure Hong Kong’s stability and prosperity. Beijing needs to be persuaded that it is in its interests that OCTS continues beyond 2047.
Geoff Raby is a former Australian ambassador to China.