On Saturday morning, 22,000 teachers walked down narrow pavements in the business district in such measured fashion that they appeared to be stationary. Poignantly, they were supporting the right of students to continue their campaign of civil disobedience. The march was so peaceful that a posse of policemen took cover under the awning of billionaire Li Ka-shing’s office headquarters to protect themselves from the rain bucketing down, leaving the teachers to mind themselves.
A sea of protesters
The urban legend that the Great Wall of China is so large that it can be seen from the moon now needs to be recast for future generations: the demonstrations for democracy in Hong Kong have been so enormous and so admirable that they are worthy of such a boast. On 16 June, two million people in the city of seven million joined the protests against the government’s decision to try to pass a law that would allow the extradition of Hong Kong people to face trial in China. The proposed bill appeared to equate China’s courts, infamous for kangaroo trials where the outcome is predetermined by the communist dictatorship, with Hong Kong’s.
The city’s courts are the most independent in Asia; in the past decade a former chief executive of Hong Kong, a top civil servant and two property tycoons have been jailed for corruption. The extradition bill was seen as yet another encroachment by China on Hong Kong’s freedoms, notably its separate judiciary, police force and administration that were promised till 2047 as part of the terms of its handover to China in 1997 after 156 years of British rule.
On Sunday, 1.7 million people turned out for a demonstration that began in Victoria Park, the site of the annual vigil for the victims of the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing in June 1989 when students were killed by People’s Liberation Army troops. As images of Chinese military vehicles gathering just across the border from Hong Kong went viral earlier last week, Hong Kong’s protests appeared at risk of provoking an intervention by Chinese military garrisons in and near Hong Kong. Even without bloodshed, their very presence on the streets would imperil the city’s future as a financial centre.
Even an hour before the protest on Sunday, the 19 hectares of the park looked a sea of black-shirted demonstrators. Cries of “Free Hong Kong! Democracy Now!" interspersed with updates about the organizers’ complex negotiations with the police showed how different from China the city remains. As always in the past decade, the demonstration was part political rally, part civics lesson.
No Arab Spring moment
The massive protests of the past 12 weeks originated from hunger strikes by students and protests by 100,000 often pram-pushing parents who in 2012 forced the Hong Kong government to abandon plans for communist-styled “patriotic education" textbooks that airbrushed Tiananmen out of history and denounced democracy as bad for nations. The 2012 protests and the much larger shutdown of the city in 2014, the so-called “umbrella revolution", have been viewed as a Chinese equivalent of the Arab Spring.
This is a mostly mistaken parallel. The protests have no chance of spreading to communist China. And, Hong Kong’s citizens may be ethnically Chinese but they are refugees (or the children and grandchildren of refugees) who fled from a dictatorship to remake their lives in Hong Kong and have grown up in a liberal city with a free press. For them, communist China is a profoundly foreign, repressive country, especially for the youth who have been at the forefront of these protests.
The territory has its own mini-constitution, the Basic Law, and is lauded for being the easiest place to do business in the world with an incorruptible civil service known for its decency. (In June, while flying to Bengaluru, I discovered I had neglected to renew my resident’s visa two months earlier. The matter was resolved in five minutes, my apologies cut short by the immigration official’s concern that I get to the departure gate.)
Hong Kong had as high a per capita income as Britain at the time of its handover in 1997. But, its economy was and is bedevilled by absurdly high property prices created by oligopolistic property moguls, poor government policies and huge inequalities of income. China practices a form of crony capitalism and state-led capitalism that is not dissimilar, so the status quo remained. The absence of free elections promised by China to take place a decade after the handover in 1997 has festered like a sore. But, it has allowed Hong Kong to continue with its capitalist way of life and separate government.
Even this could now be at risk.
Watch video: Why Hong kong is at a point of no return
With the protesters
On Sunday afternoon as Victoria Park filled up with protesters, I spoke with Albert Ho, the former head of the largest pro-democracy political party in Hong Kong. Ho’s own reputation as a politician had been hurt by a compromise agreement he reached with Beijing almost a decade ago to widen political participation in the city that still fell far short of a free election. Ho dismissed last week’s widely published photographs of China’s armoured vehicles gearing up in Shenzhen across the border as mere “psychological warfare". “Hong Kong is a cosmopolitan city and a financial centre," Ho, a lawyer, said, underlining China’s need to preserve confidence in a city with a free movement of capital.
Indeed, more than two-thirds of the capital raised on Hong Kong’s stock market has been for Chinese enterprises and its state banks have large outstanding US dollar liabilities that look worrying, even without a political crisis in Hong Kong. In the past 30 years, the city’s stock market has raised as much as $1 trillion for state-owned enterprises as well as tech firms such as Tencent and Xiaomi that have valuations rivalling Silicon Valley’s. “Once they use force, that would be the end of Hong Kong. It would be (rendered) of no use to China at a time when its economy is weakened by the trade war," Ho said.
Struggling to make himself heard while the youngsters on stage variously shouted cries for independence from China, Ho spoke of his admiration for the “innovativeness" of the protesters who used encrypted messaging systems such as Telegram and a flash mob style of converging on protest sites such as the airport and then dispersing before the police arrived.
The success of more radical leaders such as Joshua Wong, whose political career started as a 15-year-old schoolboy after he led the protests against “patriotic education" in 2012 has pushed politicians such as Ho to the sidelines. But the diverse pro-democracy groups are in contact once again. Ho, who is a youthful-looking 68, said: “We are divided by strategy, but we are not divided."
Most of the younger protesters, for instance, support independence for Hong Kong. Ho’s generation knows Beijing would never even agree to discuss this. In the run-up to the handover of Hong Kong in 1997, there was a giant stopwatch-style clock in Tiananmen Square that counted down the days and hours to Hong Kong’s “reunification" with China. Its return signified the end of a period of humiliation by foreign powers.
The Chinese hand
The gigantic demonstrations over the weekend and the restraint of the police and the protesters defused the risks of violence, but also underlined that the political impasse in Hong Kong is no closer to being resolved. The city’s deeply unpopular chief executive, Carrie Lam, has shown an inability to engage with protesters and was almost robotic in her two press conferences since the protests began. She has made virtually no concessions, angering the city further.
Even before her selection in March 2017 by a pro-Beijing, business-heavy electoral college of 1,200, Lam, a career bureaucrat, seemed out of touch. She invited derision after she confessed that she did not know where to buy toilet paper. In an interview with the Financial Times last year, she discounted the underlying problem of unaffordable high property prices in the city that prevent even doctors and accountants from buying apartments and dismissed the young protesters of 2014 as being misled by “envy" of the rich.
“The government’s policies mostly help the property companies gain as much money as they can," said Stanley So, a 34-year-old advertising executive who has attended 20 marches in the past 12 weeks. So said he lives with his mother in a 300-square-foot public housing unit. His sister and brother-in-law live in a similar sized rented flat that they can never hope to buy.
Beijing’s response to the protests has been so divorced from the political and economic concerns of the young protesters in its textbook, dictatorial doublespeak that the communiques appeared to have been garbled in translation. Still, in private briefings in Beijing to Western journalists last week, foreign ministry officials sought to defuse the tension. They denied the view that Beijing will crack down if the protests continue into September in order to ensure that President Xi Jinping’s celebrations of the 70th anniversary of the founding of the communist republic in October go off smoothly.
The unprecedented decision to allow coverage of the protests in Chinese official media raises the stakes, however. Over the past few weeks, the attacks by the young protesters in Hong Kong on Chinese government offices in the city and a beating of a reporter from a Chinese communist mouthpiece at the airport last week has already had a chilling effect on tourism from China, which accounted for 80% of the staggering 65 million tourists who visited the city last year.
An uncertain future
The battle between Hong Kong’s young protesters and Beijing is already one in which everyone loses. On Friday, the city’s richest businessman, Li Ka-shing, issued full-page newspaper advertisements calling for peace. While professing his love for China, Li has for some years now reduced his holdings in Hong Kong and instead invested billions in water and power utilities in the UK and Australia. Now, many others in Hong Kong are also pragmatically planning to migrate to Singapore and Taiwan. Bank managers report a spike in requests for offshore bank accounts.
On 17 August, Beijing triumphed in a petty show of power over Cathay Pacific, Hong Kong’s highly regarded airline, when its chief executive Rupert Hogg resigned, which was first announced in Chinese state media even before the company had issued a regulatory filing. Beijing’s aviation regulator had threatened the airline, owned by the Hong Kong conglomerate Swire Pacific, with the loss of its landing rights in China on the dubious grounds that employees who supported the protests were a safety and security threat. Hogg is understood to have quit rather than provide a list of employees who supported the protesters.
In the mid-1990s, Li Ruihuan, an opponent of former president Jiang Zemin, aptly said of Beijing’s relationship with Hong Kong: “If you don’t understand something, you are unaware of what makes it valuable, and it will be difficult to keep it intact." State media has been happy to brand the protesters as manipulated like puppets by the “black hands" of the US, despite no evidence of this. US President Donald Trump, initially tweeted that the Hong Kong protesters were “rioters", in effect toeing the Communist Party line.
On 18 August, calls by young protesters for Hong Kong’s independence were followed by repeated demands for the resignations of the leaders of what remains a highly professional local police force, despite the occasional excessive use of force by the police in the past few weeks. The demands for independence may be part of a negotiation ploy but angers China and suggests an immaturity guaranteed to put the protesters’ goals of ensuring Hong Kong’s autonomy out of reach.
On both sides of what Lam described on 13 August as an “abyss" that the city risks being pushed into are implacable opponents unwilling to compromise.
Rahul Jacob is a former Hong Kong bureau chief of the Financial Times.