For the time being, Hong Kong has ensured its survival, but at the cost of a stronger political threat being held over it.
1989 was the year that more or less rounded off the 20th century with the fall of the Berlin Wall. But it was also the year when the Chinese student movement was crushed in Tiananmen Square, marking the birth of an authoritarian model that is today asserting itself as an alternative to democracy. This “totalitarian capitalism” regime that Beijing is exporting via its “New Silk Roads” is the subject of unprecedented protest in Hong Kong.
Under pressure from Xi Jinping and led by the ambitious Carrie Lam, the Hong Kong executive had prepared a bill authorizing the extradition of suspected offenders to China, in violation of the handover declaration of 19th December 1984. This new turn of the screw was the latest in a long line of measures that have strengthened Beijing’s grip on Hong Kong since 2012: limits placed on freedom of expression and the media, the ban on an independence party, the imprisonment of leaders of the “umbrella movement” in 2014, the kidnapping of five dissident booksellers in 2015, and the disappearance of the businessman Xiao Jianhua in 2017. The extradition bill was the final straw and provoked mass demonstrations culminating on 16th June with over two million people taking part, out of Hong Kong’s total population of 7.4 million. They forced Carrie Lam, acting on instructions from Beijing, to suspend the bill in order to curb the protests, which had taken both the Hong Kong authorities and the Chinese government unawares.
Ever since Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997, the principle of “one country, two systems” officialized by Deng Xiao Ping has been chipped away on many occasions. However, never before has such a crisis arisen. Above all, never before have the Beijing authorities backed down, so great is their desire to enforce the primacy of a single system based on the Communist party’s monopoly of power and their fear of any sort of claim to political freedom spreading to mainland China.
Xi Jinping’s decision to favor caution over recourse to violence must not be overplayed. However, it remains that Beijing’s back-down is highly symbolic and puts the image of the all-powerful Red Emperor cultivated by Xi Jinping into some jeopardy.
Against the backcloth of the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre, there are three reasons that can help explain the restraint shown by the Chinese authorities. Firstly, the position taken by the Hong Kong business community, which has clearly expressed its concern with regard to the attractiveness of the territory: even though Hong Kong only accounts for 3% of China’s GDP as compared to 16% in 1997, it still has a vital part to play in financing the economy – it raised 156 billion dollars of funds in 2018 as compared to 143 billion from Shanghai and Shenzhen, and it receives and manages 60% of foreign investment transiting to China. Secondly, the confrontation with the USA over trade, technology and strategy does not make it propitious to add another bone of contention, especially since the Chinese economy is undergoing a serious slow-down and Hong Kong’s role as an airlock takes on a new strategic importance because of increases in protectionist barriers and monetary tensions. Thirdly, Xi Jinping and the aggressive thrust he is giving to Chinese power are the object of growing criticism both within the party leadership and in Asia.
There is also proof that the authoritarian Chinese model, promoted as being superior to democracy, is being rejected by young, urban, educated and connected people (when they are able to express their views), and that the lack of political freedom and the rule of law are difficult to reconcile with an economy of high value-added services based on innovation. Above all, the people of Hong Kong are crystallizing the growing fears raised in Asia and the rest of the world about the Chinese system, which is based on a generalized digital surveillance of the population, the Communist party’s monopoly, and an imperialism which has come out into the open. Contrary to Beijing’s claims, there are a great many people, even in Asia, whose experience and conception of the Chinese dream are nightmarish.
For the time being, Hong Kong has ensured its survival, but at the cost of a stronger political threat being held over it, and, with the disappearance of its autonomy in 2047 looming over it, there is extreme uncertainty over its future. In the long run, Beijing – which wants one country and one system – will win out. But part of the destiny of the 21st century is being played out in the resistance of Hong Kong’s population to Xi-Jinping’s totalitarian capitalism; it shows the desire and the ability of Asia to mobilize in order to enable political freedom to find its feet. It is either this or give up on it for good and give in to China’s imperial ambitions.
(Column published in Le Figaro, 24th June 2019)