By Kumar David –
This is an H.G. Well’s version: Off the beaten track but you can’t rule it out; Hong Kong: Is this the future?
The mind of the leadership in Beijing, this time, is inscrutable. Last time in 1989 there where clear indications a fortnight if not a month ahead that Deng Xio Ping was hardening his position and had reached the conclusion that unless the protest movement in Tiananmen Square was dismantled the very foundations of the People’s Republic were threatened. The movement was crushed to save China, or at least so the Communist Party reckoned. This time there is no such threat. A majority of Chinese people are furious with Hong Kong (HK) and want the Central Government to act to end the “riots”; support for the CPC among the people is overwhelming on this issue. Mainland and HK students in overseas universities are brawling with each other, HK is politicised like I have never seen before in 36 years and divided internally as I never imagined possible.
Ordinary folk, media (mostly buffoons) and academics say either the demonstrators must climb down and end mob violence, or Beijing will send in the troops. Beijing will never capitulate so the consensus in HK is that between Armageddon and defeat for Beijing, the former is certain.
Let us speculate on a contrarian thesis. Things may not evolve in either of these two ways. Let’s image a possibility like this.
1. Beijing and HK Govt let demonstrations drag on as long HK doesn’t become ungovernable. “Let Hong Kong stew or let HK folk themselves bring things within survivable limits. Let the loony fringe rant so long as it remains a week-end side show”. How about something like this being the frame of mind of the Chinese leadership?
2. HK’s importance for China is overrated. At handover (1997) HK’s GDP was 17% of China’s, now it is a mere 3% because the Chinese economy has become huge. Neighbouring Shenzhen already surpasses HK in population, GDP, industrial output and technological sophistication. Beijing has lost faith in HK so it is pouring resources into making SZ a showcase beside which HK will dim.
3. The size of the Shanghai stock market exceeds HK. If the government wishes it can push it to far outpace HK. It’s really silly to bet against a $15 trillion economy and a population of 1.3 billion people.
4. If (a) to (c) are correct Beijing will not send in the tanks – though this will be unpopular with the Chinese people who are angry with HK and want it brought to heel.
5. China will quell HK not with guns but with economics, water, food and electricity (70 to 80% of HK’s water and 90% of its pork, beef, vegetables and fresh-water fish come from China, 25% of HK’s electricity is from the Daya Bay plant in Guangdong Province). But of course, China will never actually cut off water, food and electricity because HK people are Chinese compatriots.
6. What can derail all this is if HK’s delinquents, desperate to draw attention to themselves, escalate violence. The more Beijing ignores them the more frantic they become to hog the limelight. Some demonstrators are now calling for the return of British colonial rule while others are asking for Trump’s intervention. A pure death wish, if I ever saw one.
Before going further, I need to say that HK Chief Executive Carrie Lam sparked off the troubles by tabling (at Beijing’s insistence or with its consent) the now infamous ‘extradition bill’ and she provoked further unrest by refusing to withdraw it but only suspending it. More seriously the Chinese government has at times infringed on HK’s autonomy, promised in the One Country Two Systems (OCTS) formula, and reneged on the election of the chief executive by universal suffrage. There is a need to calmly negotiate all these matters once the violence subsides.
HK was a sleepy village of less than a million at the end of WW2; now it’s a bustling city that I love. Prosperity is due to: China-1, China-2, HK’s People, and the Colonial Legacy. China 1: When the revolution won in 1949 the money-pots of Shanghai and millions downtrodden by the horrors of anti-Japanese war and civil war fled to HK giving it a great demographic and financial boost. China-2: When an economic miracle fired-up in China, the biggest beneficiary was HK – entrepot, financial & banking centre, deal making hub. Even now 90% of all transactions that keep HK’s banks and financial markets buzzing are China related. The foundation of HK’s prosperity was the explosive growth of China’s economy
People: The industriousness and quickness of wit and reaction of HK people is legendary; without it, HK will be nothing. Finally, the Colonial Legacy: Traditions of jurisprudence, a law, top-class public-service and police force, and a fabled Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) have established a playing field making Hong Kong the envy of others. It is these traditions that China does not have and had better acquire if it wants to be not only a global power but also a civilised one in the modern sense.
In the long-run what will prove decisive for Hong Kong is not the military farces, if it happens, but its steady economic decline which now seems inevitable. Something that only people who have lived in China, HK or places like Singapore, or have close friends in Chinese communities will fully appreciate is the importance of trust and reliability – I will tell you a story in a minute. What has now happened is that HK has lost China’s trust; China will not protect and mollycoddle HK anymore; HK are not reliable as a compatriot anymore. Only someone familiar with the ethos will understand the importance of what I am saying.
The little story. I was with a friend YC some years ago, when something in the papers caught his eye. He jumped up and rushed out. When later I inquired “What happened YC?” he explained he had seen that his friend, say FC was contesting some post and needed sponsors and proposers. “FC did me a favour in (19something – many years ago) and I must return the favour”. That kind of returning a favour loyalty is quiescently Confusion – maybe you’ll find guidance somewhere in the Analects!
I can see two consequences of the loss of trust, one immediate, one further down the road. The Chinese language press is saying that Beijing has decided to “uncage the tiger”. It is no secret that Shenzhen was rearing to go and straining at the leash to be allowed to roar ahead and overtake HK “in everything”. It was said that the Central Government was holding Shenzhen back to shield Hong Kong from eclipse. Well the shield has gone; Beijing has decided to cut free the tiger let it roar and outshine Hong Kong.
The long-term consequence is that there were hopes that the Centre would agree to extend OCTS beyond the 50 years stipulated in the Basic Law; constitutionally there is no obstacle to an extension. Now forget it! With trust destroyed Beijing will never agree to any talk of extension. If things get really bad it is possible that the Chinese parliament (NPC) will enact a constitutional amendment to reduce the 50 years to 30 or 40 years.
If my speculations prove mistaken and if it is going to be military action (god forbid), it will be quick and decisive. One can speculate as follows: The PLA and PAP (People’s Armed Police) will take control of the airport and fly in airborne brigades, the navy will sail into Victoria Harbour and land battalions in Tsim Sha Tusi and Central to linkup with the garrisons. Helicopter bore units will secure power stations and strategic assets. The HK police will secure government offices, tunnels and transport hubs. I am sure PLA brass must be itching to showcase lightning speed capabilities and impress the world and their bosses after the Tiananmen Square debacle in 1989. Furthermore, will thousands of HK’s pro-China trade unionists and China supporters venture out to mop up? I shudder! A several-day blanket curfew will be better.
What this essay offers is a speculative hypothesis which is more desirable than the military option. It cannot emerge unless violence and rioting stops and Hong Kong becomes governable. If large-scale breakdown of law and order persists, obviously a State of Emergency will be declared and military intervention will ensue.