After Covid-19 forced a temporary shutdown of protests in Hong Kong they have now re-emerged. Beijing representatives and their local supporters are proposing new challenges. There is no sign of an olive branch and compromise is not on the agenda of the upcoming National People’s Congress.
The management of this trade and culture hub continues to be a test of President Xi Jinping’s international credentials. Australia has much to gain or lose by decisions on the fate of the “Fragrant Harbour”.
Throughout the second half of 2019, Hong Kong was in turmoil and massive street demonstrations were escalating. While most were peaceful, there was a core group of violent protesters, and some appeared to be highly organised and trained, hinting at possible international links. The economy, which had been struggling for some years, went into sharp decline. Youth faced an uncertain future and income disparities increased between rich and poor.
The PRC office in Hong Kong had always co-opted support from the tycoons and was out of touch with ordinary people and their concerns. Chief Executive Carrie Lam handled the crisis ineptly. The first demand of the protesters was her resignation. Generally speaking, they seek to maintain the high degree of independence they were promised under the rubric of “One Country Two Systems”, which they fear will come to an end fifty years after the return of the former British territory.
The start of 2020 brought the pandemic. Hong Kong authorities, drawing on the bitter experience of the SARS epidemic of 2002/3, were able to limit the effects of the Covid-19 crisis and achieved remarkable success without resorting to the extreme measures that many other countries took. Up to 12 May there were only 1048 cases recorded and four deaths. During this time, however, Beijing stealthily strengthened its political control.
May 1, Labour Day, was a public holiday in Hong Kong. As fear of contagion subsided, demonstrators reappeared in shopping malls and subway stations. Although numbers were down compared with last year, the demonstrations were vocal and determined. Their demands remain unchanged and they have new cause for concern.
There is a political impasse in the Legislative Council, where pan-democrats are stalling approval of the chairman of the House Committee. Legislators resorted to fisticuffs over this issue on 8 May. The House Committee is in charge of the introduction of several controversial bills including one to criminalise disrespect of the national anthem. It would likely also be charged with the reintroduction of a security law as provided for in Article 23 of the Basic Law. This article states that the SAR shall enact its own laws to prevent treason, secession, sedition and so forth, but it has never been enacted locally because of successive protests over the last two decades, including a massive demonstration in 2003.
The loose wording of this Article clearly allows Beijing to clamp down on any dissent if it wishes. It was a sticking point in discussions even before the handover in 1997. Now there are rumours that Beijing is pushing for it to be legislated as soon as possible and is even contemplating alternative means to achieve its implementation if it cannot be passed in the normal way. One way this could be done is by making it a national law that must be applied locally.
The line being promoted by Beijing’s representatives is that unrest in Hong Kong is backed by the United States. The Liaison Office said that the US Congress-funded National Democratic Institute for International Affairs “glorified the series of terrorist violence by extreme radicals as ‘peaceful protests’, and defamed the HKSAR government and the Hong Kong Police Force, which have been safeguarding Hong Kong’s stability and the rule of law in accordance with the law.”
It would be most unfortunate if the future of Hong Kong got caught up in the present animosity between Beijing and Washington. This would blind Beijing’s eyes and prevent them from seeing the local reasons for the demonstrations. It is still possible for matters to be resolved by consultations between Beijing and Hong Kong without involving the US.
Australia has a stake in the outcome of the present impasse. There is a sizeable expatriate community in Hong Kong. It is a major trading partner in its own right and a source of investment. It is a financial hub, outranking any other mainland Asian city. More importantly, its location on China’s doorstep gives it a special role to play in the interface between Beijing and the world. At this critical time, when the global spread of Covid-19 underlines the need for closer international cooperation, Australia must continue to monitor not only the spread of disease but also the democratic health of our Asian neighbours.