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How long will Hong Kong defy Xi Jinping?

July 18, 2019 20:26 IST

'The notion of a single unarmed town challenging the might of the People's Republic is a little absurd,' says Mihir Sharma.

IMAGE: A protester gestures as he tries to break into the legislative council building where riot police are seen during the anniversary of Hong Kong's handover to China, July 1, 2019. Photograph: Thomas Peter/Reuters

It has been a fairly crowded fortnight in terms of news, and so some might have missed what, for me, has been the most interesting and perhaps important story of the past fortnight.

This is a story that comes neither from India nor from Europe or from America, but from tiny Hong Kong, which has once again taken to the streets to protest interference by Beijing in the self-administering city's affairs.

When I say 'interference by Beijing' and 'self-administering', I am not being strictly accurate, of course, but that is because normal language cannot quite manage the shades of truth and falsehood that are necessary when dealing with authoritarian regimes.

The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region is technically self-governing, but its parliament and chief executive are not exactly democratically elected.

The current chief executive of Hong Kong, Carrie Lam, was picked by an electoral college of 1,200 people that is essentially stacked with pro-Beijing members. A chief executive of Hong Kong cannot be associated with any political party.

Thus what the people of Hong Kong are protesting is the decisions of their own chief executive, which they say are serving Beijing's interests and not their own.


In fact, they are protesting one decision in particular: A new extradition law that might allow the government to extradite residents of Hong Kong to mainland China for trial.

In the sort of absurdity one expects under such systems, the Hong Kong government's claimed reason for this new law is to ensure that a particular extradition of a murder suspect takes place -- but not to the People's Republic of China, but to the Republic of China or Taiwan.

To add to the absurdity, Taipei has said that it will not recognise extraditions under the law, in solidarity with Hong Kong's protestors.

Perhaps all such demonstrations are futile. We don't know how strong the pro- and anti-Beijing factions within Hong Kong are, because it has never been allowed to hold a free and fair election.

Further, the notion of a single unarmed town challenging the might of the People's Republic is a little absurd.

 Chinese President Xi Jinping inspects People's Liberation Army troops at the PLA's Hong Kong garrison, June 30, 2017. Photograph: Photograph: Damir Sagolj/Reuters

IMAGE: Chinese President Xi Jinping inspects People's Liberation Army troops at the PLA's Hong Kong garrison, June 30, 2017. Photograph: Photograph: Damir Sagolj/Reuters

Hong Kong's time is running out, after all. Beijing promised to honour 'one country, two systems' for 50 years after it was handed Hong Kong by Britain in 1997. Soon, half that period will be up, and the freedoms of Hong Kong residents -- including their freedoms of speech and assembly -- are already under threat.

Recently, for the first time, uniformed soldiers owing allegiance to Beijing were posted in the city, ostensibly to guard the Hong Kong end of a high-speed train line.

Most importantly, the government of Xi Jinping has shown that it believes that Beijing's new strength means it does not have to respect previously agreed on terms or norms.

Given that, one could well say that 'one country, two systems' is on its way out in practice even if not on paper.

Yet there is something worth considering about Hong Kong's anger.

First, it is a useful reminder of the limits to the popularity of Beijing's systems and controls. At a time when many hitherto democratic countries appear to be degenerating into 'managed', illiberal democracies, Hong Kong serves as a reminder that such managed democracies are hardly more popular.

Second, it serves notice to all large countries that they must be careful about sub-nationalism.

Hong Kong is a Cantonese city. And yet its evening news is now being broadcast in Mandarin. A majority of primary schools in the city use Mandarin. It's easy to see why this might happen even without political involvement: Mandarin is useful for business with China, and Cantonese itself has long been denied traditional structures of support and derided as only a 'spoken' language, without even an official dictionary.

But identities that form around language are resilient to political pressure. Again, something that seems relevant to us in India.

Third, it allows one to consider the fact that the acceptance of the Chinese Communist party's right to rule all Chinese people remains contested.

Shorn of all historicist mumbo-jumbo, the 'one China' policy means essentially that: It conceals a power grab by Beijing's leaders.

The question is how long the rest of the world will pay lip service to such a naked piece of political manipulation. Given that the notion that Taiwan should hold a formal referendum on the question of independence from the mainland is gaining ground, this is not an empty question.

At some point, governments might be forced to take a stand to defend Taiwan. For almost five decades, the world has backed Beijing's claims -- from India's restraint of Tibetan activists, to Britain's decision to hand Hong Kong back to Beijing.

As Xi grows in power, there is no telling how long this forbearance will last.

Mihir Sharma