Shan Sonthra is a recent student intern at the IPA from The Lion Rock Institute, a free-market think- tank in Hong Kong. He holds a BSc from Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
During a clash with police on 22 July 2019, protestors vandalised China’s national emblem—in front of Beijing’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong’s central business district—by smearing black paint on it. The same night, a gang of white-shirted thugs wielded canes, pipes, and metal bars and ambushed protestors and pedestrians alike at a train station exit in the suburb of Yuen Long, indiscriminately beating civilians— young and old— while the district’s police were suspiciously slow to respond. Throughout all this, Beijing ordered the city’s government to fly the country’s and city’s flags half-mast in light of the passing of Li Peng, the former premier of the People’s Republic of China dubbed the “Butcher of Beijing” for his order to crack down on Tiananmen Square in 1989. The symbolism and threat were clear: go home or risk repeating history.
So unique is the political status of Hong Kong—“One Country, Two Systems”—that there isn’t a comparable example. It is one thing for casual onlookers to reiterate the fact that the city’s geographical location is inalienable from China—that no matter how much the city wrestles with its own dissonance in identity, it will forever be Chinese. It is another thing completely to live through it. Ceded to the British Empire in 1842 following the First Opium War, Hong Kong has since diverged from the historical developments of the mainland. We have had 177 years (at the time of writing) to develop our own mode of politics and commerce, to say nothing of our own culture, identity and history.
We have gone through five generations since being under British rule. We have developed a separation of powers, the rule of law, and a form of government non- interference that led famed economist Milton Friedman to once remark: “If you want to see capitalism in action, go to Hong Kong”. To sweep all that under the rug and tell the city to pipe down and accept being a part of China is akin to saying the United States could still conceivably be British in 1953, shortly after the Korean War, because they still spoke English. All of what makes Hong Kong the city we’ve known our entire lives is threatened by one bill. The proposed (then indefinitely shelved, but not discarded) extradition bill was intended to plug a perceived “loophole” in the city’s legal codes. The bill originally was a response to a murder in Taiwan involving a Taiwanese victim and a Hong Kong suspect. The Hong Kong suspect has since fled back to the city, confessed to the murder and is currently serving a sentence in the city for money-laundering. However, the laws—as they are currently crafted—are inadequate to arrange a formal extradition of the suspect (after he finishes serving his current sentence) to Taiwan where he would then stand trial … or so goes the official narrative.
Many assumptions are laden in the local government’s reactions. Chief among them, that Taiwan is indisputably a part of Greater China, which, in and of itself, is a fickle and contentious political debate; second, and currently more relevant, that Hong Kong’s earlier lawmakers somehow forgot to include an extradition bill to the mainland prior to the handover. Margaret Ng—an esteemed, Cambridge-trained barrister in the city—has said the current extradition bill that the pro- Beijing types decry as inadequate to extradite suspects to other parts of the country was by design, to ensure a firewall between Hong Kong’s judicial system and the mainland’s. The 1997 officials took measures to “protect the rule of law in Hong Kong and confidence in Hong Kong as an international hub free from China’s much mistrusted system,” Ng said.
Proponents of the extradition bill dismiss the riots and protests as mere childish histrionics, arising from generations romanticising a colonial era most of the current protestors have not lived through, and an ignorance about how far the mainland’s judicial process has come. Besides, they’d say, the extradition bill excludes extraditing suspects for crimes that are political in nature. But the people of Hong Kong have long been distrustful of any promises about the territory from Beijing. As far as we’re concerned, the central government has been extraditing politically outspoken individuals for some time now. In the past few years, incidents where Hong Kong citizens would inexplicably disappear only to reappear in mainland China to stand trial for trumped-up charges has been occurring quite frequently. The most famous case involved a bookstore owner-and- publisher in Causeway Bay, a commercial district, who had been forcefully kidnapped back to the mainland from Thailand to stand trial for a car accident charge more than a decade earlier. Four other employees connected to the store owner-publisher subsequently disappeared into the mainland, each facing trumped-up charges in court. In a twisted way, the fact the central government still feels the need to conduct these measures in the dark is still reassuring. However, writing this into law would effectively give the central government a blank check to our political and legal freedoms. Armed with legality, China’s authority truly would be unassailable. An unbelievable level of naiveté would be required to expect Beijing to then not clad its political censorship with a veneer of lawfulness.
On 10 June 2019, the day one million citizens took to the streets, police downplayed the turnout number, claiming only 240,000 showed up to oppose the bill. The Chief Executive of Hong Kong (the de facto leader of the city) Carrie Lam apologised on live television. Her apology was a mix of deflections interposed with personal anecdotes presumably intended to court a more down- to-earth image.
What instead resulted was a sense of condescension, especially when she used her role as a mother to segue into a metaphor for her relationship with Hong Kong and its eight million people, patronisingly suggesting there’s a gulf between the prescient attitudes of the ruling elite and the childish ignorance of the masses. This pitilessly parental quality didn’t go unnoticed by the furious public who were frustrated and tired of having their cries fall on the ruling elite’s deaf ears. In response, two million people, young and old, took to the streets again on 16 June. The metaphor also soon caught on and was incorporated into further protest slogans: “If Carrie is the mother of Hong Kong, then why doesn’t she want to see her children?” It took a city-wide work strike—a clever way to get the message across without risking getting buffeted by riot police—on 5 August to summon her into her first public appearance since 27 June.
The sentiment that ruling elites had been long stuck in their ivory towers—divorced from the realities of everyday life—is not novel, but rarely so pervasive as to cut across all segments of society. Shortly after the one million people march and the two million march, there was an event that has received much less press coverage, but arguably carries equal, if not more, symbolic significance: The Siege of the Legislative Council (Hong Kong’s quasi-parliament, or LegCo for short), or sardonically, “Mother’s Rally”. Roughly two thousand rioters—armed with hard hats, facemasks and blunt objects— stormed into LegCo to proclaim the institution as illegitimate. The rioters then vandalised the building’s walls, sprayed out sentences along corridors and granite pillars, and ransacked the legislative bills and other documents in the cabinets.
Police arrived to disperse the rioters, but most rioters had changed their shirts and melted into the crowd. Few arrests were made, and were only possible because they had taken off their facemasks so legislators could look them in the face.
Beijing broke from its traditional approach towards Hong Kong affairs on 29 July when the spokesperson of Beijing’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong held a press conference announcing Beijing’s stance on the ongoing protests. For the first time in recent memory, the spokesperson pointed towards an article that had been included in the city’s Basic Law, a kind of mini-constitution, where arrangements for the People’s Liberation Army to be involved in securing the social stability and order of Hong Kong are provided.
Beijing’s grip on the city is tightening, and palpably so. Tensions are high, but then again all of this was expected. In 2014, the world lauded how orderly our protests were— putting the word “civil” in “civil disobedience”. The Umbrella Protest—named after the tool used by students to defend themselves from tear gas—became a presciently apropos symbol: the protest became a moment where everyone could vent their own grievances towards the government.
Thus, the protest drew in different people with many different gripes. But the protest faltered where it had gain momentum: with so many stakeholders trying to steer the movement, the movement itself became effectively leaderless, and the protests carried on inertia alone.
In 2019, learning from the mistakes of 2014, the stakeholders elected to “do not split”—to maintain their unity despite conflicting views among themselves regarding what ought to be the priority of issues and what methods of protest the movement should adopt.
Beijing loves to remind Hong Kong that the city’s role is economic rather than political. But the context behind that reminder is nothing short of historical irony: the last riots that shook Hong Kong’s society to its core happened in 1967, when the Communist Revolution happening up north spilled over into the city. Left-wing radicals took advantage of the discontent brewing among the city’s swathes of newly arrived refugees, working in appalling factory conditions and living in squalor. Caught between sweatshop exploitation and distrusted colonial police officers on one side and communist revolutionaries claiming to champion their welfare on the other, the workers understandably aligned themselves with whoever they thought would best serve their immediate interests. However, ideology took over pragmatism for the communists, as they gradually crossed the line from labour protests geared towards achieving unionised wage bargaining to outright terrorism, such as setting a radio host on fire while he was on his way to the station.
Workers wishing for no more than an opportunity to provide for their families were dragged into ideological waters in which they had no interest. They were not keen on sinking their teeth in any revolutionary call to arms; they had barely escaped the ravaging civil war up north that they would do everything conceivable to not recreate the same situation from whence they had come in a place that they had deemed was their little island of opportunity. Sympathies for the communists waned drastically. The British correctly diagnosed what the people wanted: stability, infrastructure, institutions that inspired confidence among the locals. In brief, they designed Hong Kong using the blueprint for a non-interventionist government. The chief architect was Sir John Cowperthwaite, Financial Secretary of Hong Kong from 1961 to 71, who said:
“I should like to begin with a philosophical comment. I do not think that when one is speaking of hardships or benefits one can reasonably speak in terms of classes or social groups, but only in terms of individuals.”
Almost 50 years since he stepped down from his position, Hong Kong embraced its economic role only when it knew its rights were guaranteed.
Fast forward to late-August 2019. Beijing has just issued a nationwide boycott against Hong Kong’s premiere airline Cathay Pacific; state-owned banks have issued calls to dump Cathay’s shares; and state-owned enterprises are strictly prohibiting their employees from flying Cathay. Such temper tantrums are unbecoming of any great power. But for one that seems to globally counterbalance US’s economic heft? These lash-outs are unsettling. As the US-China trade war goes on, reasonable expectation suggests China would have opted for a gentler approach in courting foreign firms into its market. However, we are treated with a front-row seat witnessing how far China would go in sabotaging its economic short-term gains just to spite a company that goes against it. China is so obsessed with ensuring every firm knows that going against it is tantamount to self-immolation that it has forced a culture of political micro management into these companies, ranging from searching employees’ electronic devices to ensure there aren’t any anti-Beijing materials in them to outright termination. The world is witnessing how political China could get if a city refused its allotted role as just another economic city.
There was a description of Hong Kong people intended to be derogatory: “Hong Kongers just cared about making money”. In a way, this was correct. We focused on that because we had nothing else to worry about. As a city we understood how fleeting and precarious stability is to our prosperity. By the same token, scores of Hong Kongers had recently resigned from their jobs in protest against the political silence they were forced into because they understood what was at stake: there will be no prosperity without freedom.
At the time of writing, five deaths have been recorded from the protest, all a result of suicide. But history is replete with bloodshed and broken promises. And history is prone to be forgotten. Just ask some of the student leaders of the 1989 protests who are now working in Beijing. The author wonders how they felt when the government they work for ordered Hong Kong to fly the flag half-mast on 22 July. Win or lose, the streets of Hong Kong would eventually be empty of any protests, but the fact we still have people out there is a heart-warming sign the fight is not over.