By Dr. Alexander Görlach, Senior Fellow, Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs
What is happening in Hong Kong concerns everyone who believes in a future for democracy and open societies. The autonomous region, promised fifty years of democracy free of interference by Beijing at the time of its handover from Great Britain to China in 1997, is increasingly being pushed up against a wall by the Chinese authorities.
For a time, the demonstrators, around two million in number, made themselves heard with great effect. They took to the streets to protest an “extradition directive.” According to the terms of the directive, anyone Beijing wanted could have been extradited to the People’s Republic of China. That would have meant the end of Hong Kong as an independent legal jurisdiction – but also the end of Hong Kong as a financial marketplace. Because not only residents of Hong Kong, but also any foreign citizen could have been prosecuted and extradited by China’s communist leadership. Since what prevails in China is the opposite of the rule of law, the people of Hong Kong fought it tooth and nail. Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive and under Peking’s control, had to withdraw the controversial decree after weeks of effective demonstrations. All that she ever said, however, was, “The bill is dead.” It was not officially retracted.
How would Beijing respond to the defeat of its viceroy? I was in the city when the people of Hong Kong began to ask themselves this question. Around two weeks ago, it did in fact look like a victory for the pro-democracy demonstrators. Beijing was seeking to avoid making provocative statements. Ms. Lam claimed that it had all been her idea. Of course no one in the city believed her. What did seem probable, however, was that she had assured Beijing that she had any expected protest against the extradition directive under control. Her assessment proved to be false.
Shortly after my departure, masked thugs wearing white T-shirts beat passers-by, journalists, a pregnant woman and peaceful demonstrators (wearing black T-shirts) in the Hong Kong subway. The police looked away. Since then, the situation has escalated precisely, as it appears, according to Beijing’s wishes. On the Mainland, mobilizing the so-called “People’s Liberation Army” from its Hong Kong barracks to restore order is being contemplated – after the city’s police, also controlled by Beijing, had willfully abandoned it.
Supposedly, there have already been troop movements on the border between Hong Kong and China. Government media provide distorted reports about the protests entirely in accordance with the Communist Party line, but official media are no longer able to monopolize events. A million people from mainland China who have relocated since 1997 now live in Hong Kong. They talk to their relatives in China on a regular basis. There are also countless travelers who fly back and forth between China and Hong Kong. They have expressed their solidarity with the people of Hong Kong, although usually anonymously on the Internet, or on the display walls set up in the city where well-wishers leave Post-It notes.
Beijing will therefore more strenuously attempt to compel Hong Kong to submit to its yoke. A delegation of party leaders from Germany’s liberal Free Democrat Party recently discovered what this means. A trip planned long beforehand brought Christian Lindner and some other members of parliament to Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Beijing. In the capital, they encountered an icy reception, with appointments canceled and handshakes denied. The reason, according to the Chinese deputy foreign minister: The delegation had visited Hong Kong. According to the deputy foreign minister, this was unacceptable in Beijing. The paranoia and demand for control in Beijing have progressed so far that a long-planned visit to Hong Kong is now classified as an act of provocation and interference in Beijing’s internal affairs.
The plan was once for Hong Kong to be incorporated into China step by step under the slogan “one country, two systems,” while retaining its own culture, its democracy and its legal jurisdiction. This concept has failed. “One country, two systems” was also supposed to become palatable to the inhabitants of the neighboring island of Taiwan, which regards itself as independent but is branded as a renegade province by the People’s Republic. The people there, disillusioned, are now turning their back on the slogan. The Taiwanese already see themselves as independent, while the people of Hong Kong, due to the pressure from Beijing, are now beginning to put their own identity first and distance themselves from China. There is talk of independence.
Beijing has opened Pandora’s box. The chaos is benefiting President Xi, as it will allow him to obtain an additional third term in office that is not actually foreseen by existing regulations. If the democracies in Hong Kong and Taiwan can be branded, as he sees them, as menaces to China, he would be able to style himself as the savior of the nation – by means of emergency legislation if necessary. The fate of Hong Kong and Taiwan will show whether the free and democratic world is capable of showing Beijing its limits.
Dr. Alexander Görlach is a Senior Fellow to the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs and an affiliate in the “In Defense of Democracy”-program by the F. D. Roosevelt Foundation at Harvard University. In the academic year 2017-2018 he was a visiting scholar in Hong Kong and Taiwan. @agoerlach