Written by Walter C. Clemens, Jr.
Hong Kongers have earned the right to genuine self-rule. This essay suggests how this could happen within the framework of “One Country, Two Systems.” But Hong Kongers’ demands for freedom go against the tide of repression—not just in Russia, Turkey, and India but especially in China. Claiming that he will restore China’s former glory, President Xi Jinping is becoming the country’s most supreme bully since Mao Zedong. Establishing a totalitarian dictatorship, he uses omnipresent surveillance cameras to grade everyone’s behaviour. His Great Firewall filters information from outside. Human rights lawyers and dissidents languish in jail. More than a million Uighurs endure concentration camps while their children learn Xi Jinping Thought in boarding schools. Similar destinies are rolling out for Tibetans and other minorities. Defying an international court, China claims most of the South China Sea. What fate awaits the demands of Hong Kongers for freedom?
Hong Kong police have now shot real as well as rubber bullets and used water cannon against demonstrators. People’s Liberation Army forces in Hong Kong have been reinforced. Even as threats from Beijing and Hong Kong authorities mount, pro-democracy demonstrations have continued. Why? The Hong Kong journalist Thomas Hon Wing Polin writes that the root problem is the “enemy within” – large swathes of the Hong Kong civil service “attached to Western values” and not to the rightful “sovereign,” i.e., China. Indeed, some 80% of Hong Kong judges, Polin laments, are “pro-democracy.” How horrific!
In the same vein as Mr Polin, former Hong Kong leader Tung Chee-hwa asserted last July that the civics class mandatory in high school since 2009 is “one of the reasons behind the youths’ problems today.” The “liberal studies curriculum is a failure,” he said. According to Tiffany May and Amy Qin, liberal studies was introduced by British colonial authorities as an elective in 1992. Its advocates now say the course teaches students to be analytical and objective, even when it comes to examining the Communist Party’s flaws. In mainland schools, by contrast, children as young as age seven are taught to love the party and embrace “Xi Jinping Thought.” Ideological purity – not truth – is the priority. Authorities in Beijing and in Hong Kong are discussing how to reshape Hong Kong education. The city’s education bureau has told teachers that if asked “difficult questions” about current events, they should reply, “I don’t know” or “I don’t understand it either.” But the Hong Kong Professional Teachers Union declared its support this summer for students participating in peaceful protests.
Jonathan Power offers a very different explanation of Hong Kong unrest. The British gave China too good a deal “in accepting limits on Hong Kong’s democracy.” Indeed, they should have given Hong Kongers more of a role before departing, as in India and Nigeria. Still, Power concedes, British governor-negotiator Chris Patten probably did all that he could to protect Hong Kong’s fledgling democracy.
Like many Western leaders and observers, Patten had some grounds to hope that mainland China would gradually become more liberal or, even if this did not happen, Beijing would not smash the golden egg of a rather independent Hong Kong. Since 2012, however, Xi Jinping has tightened the screws within Han China, in Tibet and Xinjiang, and also in Hong Kong. All this adds to the reasons why Hong Kongers want guarantees against Beijing’s interventions.
While supporters and critics of China take sides, the reality is that the general public, civil service, educators, and business tycoons in Hong Kong have produced an astonishing societal and commercial success. They have distinguished themselves from the “sovereign” in many profound dimensions. Hong Kong has skyrocketed to 7th in the world in “human development,” according to the UN Human Development Programme, far ahead of the United States at 13th and China at 84th. Hong Kong has the world’s highest life expectancy at 84.1, much higher than the US at 79.5 and China at 76.4. Per capita income in Hong Kong is $58,420, again much better than the US at $54,941 or China with $15,270.
Wealth gaps and high housing costs are serious problems, but Hong Kong protestors say their concern is with freedom and not economic issues. In any case, Hong Kong has the means and brains to ameliorate economic gaps. The World Economic Forum says Hong Kong is the third most competitive economy in a world where Singapore and the US are first and second respectively; while the United Kingdom ranks 9th and China is 28th. Hong Kong’s skill base is strong. Expected years of schooling in Hong Kong is 16.3 years, nearly equal to the USA at 16.5, and far ahead of China at 13.8. For its 7.4 million people Hong Kong has seven universities, available at low cost.
Unlike most Chinese, Hong Kongers have full access to the world. Some 89% of Hong Kongers use the Internet, slightly above the 87% in the USA or the 54% in China, where a great firewall blocks access to many sites. There are 259 cell phone subscriptions for every 100 persons in Hong Kong versus 124 in the United States and 115 in China.
In early 2019 Freedom House ranked Hong Kong as partly free — strong in civil liberties but weak in political rights, while China is quite unfree in both domains. Transparency International says Hong Kong is the world’s 14th least corrupt country; China, the 87th. Just over half of Hong Kongers (and mainland Chinese) in 2017 said they were overall satisfied with life compared to 70% of Americans. In 2019, however, as central authorities tighten their grip across all of China, large numbers of Hong Kongers have for months defied official admonitions, police tear gas and bullets, white shirted mercenary thugs, and military threats from Beijing. Hong Kong civil servants and other professionals have joined students to demand withdrawal of the notorious extradition bill. Whereas protests of just 2.5% of the population achieved major political change in Algeria and Sudan, more than one in five or six Hong Kongers have taken part in pro-democracy demonstrations. They have done so with minimal support from Western governments, not even from Great Britain, whose 1984 joint declaration with China, according to Beijing, is now a non-binding historical document “lacking any practical significance.”
These Hong Kong protests go far beyond the extradition bill. They challenge the premise that Hong Kong’s way of life can continue when subject to an increasingly repressive totalitarian dictatorship in Beijing. Like the American colonials who defied King George in the 1770s, Hong Kongers demand self-governance. Like Americans then, Hong Kongers share much of the oppressor’s culture. Unlike the Americans, Hong Kongers speak a language, Cantonese, incomprehensible to most authorities in Beijing, and dislike being forced to learn and communicate in Mandarin. Unlike the Americans, Hong Kongers are too small in number and too close to the “sovereign” oppressor to fight for their freedom. But they are demonstrating their solidarity in ways that trouble Chinese authorities concerned for their reputation and image.
Americans won their freedom not just by arms but also by the moral appeal of their demand for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. They claimed that if government undermines these goals, people have a right to alter or abolish it and institute a new government. It is nearly unthinkable that Beijing would countenance independent statehood for Hong Kong. Neither Taiwan nor Singapore offers a viable model for Hong Kong. Beijing threatens to reincorporate Taiwan by force but, deterred by ROC forces and patrols by the US Navy, mainland China has tolerated Taiwan’s de facto independence for some seven decades. Hong Kong is not separated from the mainland by the Taiwan Straits and lacks its own military defences or any kind of security commitment from the US.
Still, authorities in Beijing could compromise with guarantees of real self-rule for Hong Kong. The “One Country, Two Systems” principle could be modified to a federalist model reserving all powers to Hong Kong except those specifically allotted to the central government in Beijing. This arrangement would ban all dictates and controls from the mainland on Hong Kong’s government, educational system, business practices, or way of life. While Beijing might reason that this model might be acceptable for tiny Hong Kong, Communist authorities would surely worry that it might then be demanded by border peoples in Tibet, Xinjiang, or Inner Mongolia. Focused on maintaining China’s unity, Beijing will resist any formula that could weaken central control. In the long run, however, a more liberal, federal approach could encourage non-Han peoples and other dissidents to seek mutual gain within the framework of the “People’s Republic.” Chinese might come to see that, as in the “United Kingdom,” a unitary system can jeopardise unity.
Walter Clemens is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Boston University and Associate, Harvard University Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies. He wrote North Korea and the World: Human Rights, Arms Control, and Strategies for Negotiation (2016) and Complexity Science and World Affairs (2013). He is book review editor of Asian Perspective. This article is a part of the special issue on the Hong Kong protests and their impact on Taiwan.