Only a few people in mainland China are aware that, in one of their country’s most prominent cities, millions have been staging a rebellion. The impetus for the mass demonstrations in Hong Kong was a proposed law that would permit the extradition of individuals (including foreigners) to mainland China to stand trial, provoking fears that the law could be used as a tool to intimidate and muzzle critics of both the Hong Kong and Chinese governments.
Where the protests have received attention in China, the country’s ministry of foreign affairs and state media have been quick to claim the cause is ‘geopolitical’ – that is, external forces in the West have fomented the political unrest, with the aim of undermining China.
But the people of Hong Kong appear to be driven by that very human desire for autonomy, and they are not backing down. Following the Hong Kong government’s suspension of attempts to pass the bill through parliament – though it has not been withdrawn, as that might be viewed as capitulation– hundreds of the protestors are delivering petitions to the consulates of G20 members, asking them to defy China by raising the issue of the recent protests at the group’s forthcoming summit in Japan.
While China has said it will not allow such discussion, it is unlikely to be avoided when President Xi Jinping meets President Trump and other leaders at the G20. The ‘urgent’ Western intervention which the protestors are seeking will no doubt rile Beijing and reinforce their argument that the West is to blame, but it will be difficult for China to ignore the rising pressure to withdraw the extradition bill. There are also calls for international backing of an independent investigation into the Hong Kong police’s use of tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the demonstrators.
In light of these challenges to Beijing over Hong Kong’s cultural and political autonomy, President Xi faces a dilemma. Will he attempt to tighten his grip on the territory through his agent, Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam? Or will he judge itis better to try to dampen down the anger in the city, lest the trouble spreads to other parts of China?
At the moment, the principle tactic seems to be scapegoating. Ms Lam is being blamed for ‘strategic errors’ as Chinese state media continues to insist that foreigners are the main cause of the protesters’ anger. That is a deceptive interpretation but at least it acknowledges that Hong Kong’s politics are very much an international issue, partly for economic reasons. Around two thirds of foreign domestic investment into China flows through the city and it is also the primary offshore market for the renminbi, which China hopes to make a trusted international currency.
Hong Kong was handed over to China by Britain in 1997 but the territory’s constitution grants it a high degree of autonomy until 2047. That gives the United Kingdom a legal and moral responsibility to ensure that the promises made in the joint declaration are fulfilled.
America also has a role to play. The US-China trade war shows that the Trump administration is prepared to challenge China over its disregard for internationally agreed rules. Not everyone agrees with President Trump’s bellicose tactics, of course. But even those who balk at his fractious Tweets can appreciate that the citizens of Hong Kong are struggling for liberty. Those across the world who share their liberal values should offer moral support.
Global TV crews have been following events and broadcasting messages from the movement’s leaders, such as Joshua Wong. He told the press: ‘Carrie Lam and President Xi have turned ordinary citizens into dissidents.’
That comment immediately led to a rise in censorship in China, including attempts to ban any pictures of the protests on TV, online or in print.
For those of us living in the more liberal West, it can be difficult to understand that the Hong Kong protestors’ tenacity in such circumstances requires remarkable courage. But they are not only brave, they are shrewd. Although they encourage foreign journalists to tell their story, they hold back from campaigning through Instagram and WeChat, in case their online footprints leave a trail that leads to their identification and arrest.
This is a humanitarian issue for which they are crusading, and it goes far beyond the political machinations of China and the West, or the territory of Hong Kong. Their quest for fair and consensual government is one which is common throughout Asia and the rest of the world. They are thus an inspiration to millions who prize freedom and resist the spread of authoritarian state control.