A China Crisis, made in Hong Kong
Hong Kong residents are determined to continue protests against the Beijing-supported extradition law, which citizens in the entrepôt say will allow the Chinese government to increase oppressive tactics against the freedoms they enjoy.
When the British left Hong Kong in 1997, the handover included what is now a significant clause in the agreement - a clause that allows the previous colony a modicum of democratic independence. But this chafs China's single-party government, which regards Hong Kong as property stolen during the colonial period and, therefore, artificially separate when it comes to the rule of law.
With Xi Jinping, the politician serving as the general secretary of the Communist Party of China and the President of the People's Republic of China, imposing a hardline form of Communism on the country, the recent protests have unzipped his draconian flak-jacket and created a major diplomatic problem.
His Chinese conundrum is this:
He could order Hong Kong police to arrest and detain the protestors, at the risk of alienating the moderate citizens and the Taiwanese, who are vacillating about their own need for independence. Or he could do nothing and alienate his own hardline colleagues inside the Chinese Communist party.
In an editorial published on July 3, 2019, the People’s Daily official newspaper editorial was clear about what the authorities were considering:
“Laws are to be abided by, and law-breakers must be punished. Only by safeguarding the authority of law and defending the dignity of law can we ensure the prosperity and stability of Hong Kong, as well as the stability of the country,” it read.
There is a third option - Hong Kong authorities could try and target a handful of protestors for special public attention, throw them in prison and then bide their time.
This is the most likely scenario, one which the protestors themselves say will probably be the outcome of the low intensity uprising. And they are planning a long struggle.
The most significant legal difference between how Hong Kong residents are treated and how Chinese residents are treated centres around personal freedom. Hong Kong enjoys what is regarded as a limited democracy, with leaders that are partly selected by the people instead of by the communist party.
Hong Kong has its own government called a Special Administrative Region, where Xi Jingping is the overall premier but a chief executive, Carrie Lam, manages matters locally. Jinping’s position is ceremonial in this unusual legal situation, which poses a critical challenge in his ability to order Lam to carry out his wishes.
Lam has been directly nominated by the Central People’s government and is expected to merely pass on Beijing’s orders. Lam’s recent attempts to forcibly pass a law allowing residents of Hong Kong to be extradited to mainland China to face its particular brand of justice sparked the recent protests that saw 25% of Hong Kong's population take to the streets in protest. In not anticipating the anger this law incites, Lam clearly underestimated her own citizens.
She's not the only one guilty of this. China also committed a diplomatic blunder in 2015 when its secret service agents drugged and kidnapped a well-known book dealer, bundling him into a car in Hong Kong and driving him across the border. After being missing for eight months, 62-year-old Lam Wing-kee reappeared again, saying that he had been arrested for being a symbol of resistance.
As the manager of the Causeway Bay Books, he was known for selling literature critical of Chinese leaders. The cloak-and-dagger methods surrounding his arrest seem to have convinced Hong Kong residents that the mainland China's police force is both oppressive and serving a political purpose. This was made worse by Wing-kee's announcement that he would open his Causeway Bay Books shop in Taiwan instead.
A further wedge was driven between the two forms of administration and political culture when it later emerged that Wing-kee was one of five academics abducted around the same time. One of these, a Swedish national abducted by Chinese agents while on holiday in Thailand, is still being detained in a Chinese prison.
Police managed to crush protest action that flared in 2014, but the recent action by residents saw an estimated 2 million people - a quarter of the entire population - take to the streets. The 2019 protests pose a much more serious problem for Beijing - it can’t throw a sizable portion of Hong Kong into detention camps for 're-education' like it has with between 1.5 and 3 million Muslim Uighur people.
Hong Kong, unlike the regions to the west of the Chinese mainland, is connected to the outside world by its commerce and modern communication systems. It would be most embarrassing for the Chinese to be seen to be oppressing such “advanced” people by means of violence and incarceration.
However, as indicated by the Chinese People’s Daily editorial column, the central government’s patience has run out and it is calling for harsh action against what it deems the unlawful actions of Hong Kong protestors.
“The violent acts severely challenged the rule of law in Hong Kong, jeopardised the social stability of Hong Kong and blatantly challenged the "one country, two systems' bottom line," it warned.
Taking action may be easier said than done though, because Hong Kong has its own legal and judicial systems, while its police force is distinct and different to the mainland police.
It’s district organisation leadership are based on an open voting process and are not selected by party officials, with public servant models culturally similar to the British, and a common law is based on Roman-Dutch principles and not Chinese traditional social law.
Land tenure and personal matters, however, are linked to Chinese customary law. Beijing has indicated that it wants all systems to return to mainland Chinese authority and the hardliners want to tear up the agreement signed with Britain.
The protestors are well aware of this danger and have made it clear that for some this is a battle rooted in their existential survival. Despite the power that Lam wields, she has been forced to overturn her unilateral decision to impose the extradition law when huge numbers of protestors shut down the city state in June 2019.
Lam faces another serious problem in that most of the protestors are too young to have experienced the pre-Chinese period of rule but are nonetheless determined to fight for independence. A protest in 2003 against Beijing’s insistence at launching new national security legislation saw crowds of over 500 000 people take to the streets and scared authorities into dropping the plans.
But in 2014 the violence by police and the increasing radicalisation of the protestors boded ill for the latest round, where protestors broke into Hong Kong’s parliament precinct on July 1, 2019, and daubed the walls with anti-China graffiti.
The editor of China's official government mouthpiece publication, Mo Hong, has tried to whitewash the extradition law as benign.
“Meant only to strengthen Hong Kong's judicial independence, the amendments will not contravene the principle of "one country, two systems"', Hong wrote in a piece published June 13, 2019.
Residents, however, are not buying this brand of reportage as they gear up for a long struggle against Beijing. The movement has decentralised, with no identifiable leadership. Even Facebook groups used to mobilise have made each of the 100 000 or more members page administrators, meaning that it is near impossible to identify the driving forces behind the protest actions. Normally only a handful of members are designated with administrative power on a social media platform.
They are all masked and communicate by means other than the digital services monitored by the Chinese state, which means security agents are finding it far more difficult to target a handful for special attention as the with the movement and its almost anarchic style of protest gathering momentum.
The comments published on July 3, 2019, indicate that Beijing may act soon and with some force. The government mouthpiece regards Hong Kong as part of China and therefore, any actions which threaten the authorities there are linked to Beijing directly.
Chinese government media have also covered a People’s Liberation Army drill, which was carried out in Hong Kong at the end of June but was not reported at the time. The Straits Times reports that the PLA daily held the drill as part of the army "reviewing and raising the units' combat abilities in emergency dispatches".
The June 26 drill apparently included the army, the navy and the air force. With Chinese authorities now partially blaming “outside forces” for the violence in the first week of July, they are now calling for a criminal investigation into the storming of the legislature building.
Translation: “On June 26, Chinese troops stationed in Hong Kong dispatched some troops from the army, navy and air force to organise joint air and sea patrol drills in the sea and airspace near Hong Kong, focusing on improving the combat capability of the troops for emergency dispatch, temporary disposal, and joint operations.”