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Photo: Annabel Symington/AFP
Photo: Annabel Symington/AFP

Hong Kong and the umbrella revolution

For too long, it has been claimed that Hong Kong's residents don't really want democracy. These demonstrations show how patronizing that view is

Wang Zang is a Chinese poet who was taken into custody in Beijing on 1 October because he posted a photograph of himself holding an umbrella on the Internet. The umbrella has emerged as the unlikely icon of demonstrations in Hong Kong, where thousands of people including students and professionals have taken over the city’s business district, demanding political reforms. The police force has used tear gas to disperse them. Thugs possibly controlled by triads have tried to scare them away by intimidating them. But they have remained non-violent, using the humble umbrella to protect themselves from the gas, if not the blows.

Compounding the irony, even as some 50 of Hong Kong’s business elite asked the demonstrators to go home, nearly as many human rights activists and academics in China bravely supported the demonstrators, blaming Hong Kong’s administration for misleading Beijing. By holding his umbrella in that photograph, Wang was expressing solidarity with the protesters—they are still able to do what many of his billion compatriots cannot. For how long, that is the question.

When Britain handed over Hong Kong to China in 1997, which the novelist Paul Theroux described as “a Chinese take-away" in his novel Kowloon Tong, the question was whether Hong Kong’s unique character would survive. That meant a laissez-faire economy that respected civil liberties even though it was not a democracy.Hong Kong had the region’s freest press and its formidable Independent Commission Against Corruption bowed to nobody.

Between the time of the signing of the Sino-British Accord of 1984 and the handover in 1997 there had been one dramatic event—the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, when Chinese troops cracked down on demonstrators in many cities across China. Many—perhaps thousands—died, and many more remain unaccounted for. Would China safeguard the freedoms Hong Kong enjoyed that it said it would under the Basic Law? Maintaining the currency peg is one thing, but what about preserving freedom of the press?

In the years since, China has grown into one of the most important economies in the world and Shanghai has emerged again as a major financial centre, challenging Hong Kong’s leadership. Conservative businessmen stress the importance of good relations with China as Hong Kong’s economy is getting more integrated with China.

The test recurs each year on 4 June, when thousands of Hong Kong residents unfailingly congregate at Victoria Park and hold a candle-light vigil, remembering Tiananmen. China doesn’t like it but doesn’t do anything about it. This is partly due to that Basic Law, which is meant to protect Hong Kong’s character for 50 years.

One of the vaguely worded commitments of that Basic Law is at the heart of the current crisis. As per the rules, Hong Kong’s next elections, in 2017, are to be based on universal franchise. But the rules also say that Beijing would select the candidates. And unsurprisingly, the candidates Beijing prefers are pro-Beijing. Would Hong Kong be more like China in 2047, or would it be the other way round? That’s the real question.

For too long, some Sinologists, businessmen and economists familiar with Hong Kong have claimed that the city’s residents in particular and the Chinese in general don’t really want democracy. They want to prosper and they like the stability, rule of law, and efficiency that Hong Kong’s administration ensures. These demonstrations show how patronizing that view is.

Expectedly, the Chinese media has reacted harshly. The government mouthpiece People’s Daily published a commentary which sounded eerily similar to the warnings issued a quarter century ago, preceding the crackdown in Tiananmen. Would China do the same again?

Who knows? China is inscrutable. On one hand, if China backs the Hong Kong administration squelching these protests, it could have devastating consequences for the global economy because Hong Kong is an economic powerhouse in its own right. That may not worry China’s leaders. They play the long game, which includes sending a powerful message to domestic dissenters that they can take a blow now to sustain the Communist Party’s supremacy. On the other hand, even though China’s foreign exchange reserves are about $4 trillion, its economy is now simply too intertwined with the rest of the world. Can it revert to the isolation that even limited sanctions might bring?

Perhaps the unanticipated outcome of these demonstrations is gradual transformation in the way China’s leadership wields power. China reviled and insulted Hong Kong’s last British governor, Chris Patten, who said that the only way to deal with China is by treating it like any other country. If it glares angrily, stare back. China respects strength in its rivals, not acquiescent kowtowing. Patten had limited time in China, but he succeeded in broadening the political space. By staying firm on their demands, the demonstrators in Hong Kong are doing the same.

The outcome isn’t assured. Hong Kong might become another Chinese city. Many think it already is. Or China might become a bit more like Hong Kong. We do live in interesting times.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Your comments are welcome at salil@livemint.com. To read Salil Tripathi’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/saliltripathi

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