Embattled city

Protests in Hong Kong continue, with the authorities struggling to control the situation and both sides growing ever more forceful. And, as Duncan Bartlett reports, outsiders face the wrath of China if they step into the political fray

One of the most prosperous and sophisticated cities in Asia has witnessed chaotic scenes resembling a war zone.

As Hong Kong’s mass protests rumble on, police have used rubber bullets, tear gas and even live ammunition on the restive crowds of demonstrators. Many people have been injured, including some men who were mobbed when the crowds suspected them of being undercover agents of the state.

Shops and offices have been vandalised and the protestors used battering rams to smash through the reinforced glass doors of the city government’s headquarters, LegCo. Having stormed inside, the crowd tore down the Chinese flag, replacing it with an emblem from the era when Hong Kong was a British colony.

Hong Kong’s last British governor, Chris Patton, told the BBC: ‘We are witnessing the destruction of a great city, created by Chinese people, who worked within a framework of economic and political freedom.’

Challenging China

The Chinese government uses official outlets to portray the demonstrators as a destructive mob. State media claims they are pursuing ‘a pipe dream of succession’ and that they ‘betray the feelings of the Chinese people’ through their treachery and violence.

As a warning, Chinese television has carried footage of the People’s Liberation Army preparing to use military force. If Beijing gives the order, soldiers from the mainland could march onto the streets of Hong Kong within hours.

The protests represent a major challenge to the authority of China’s leader, Xi Jinping. So far, his tactic has been to allow his proxy, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam, to shoulder the blame for unrest. The Hong Kong police are left to try to quell the rebellion while lacking the tools to quench the underlying resentments.

Zombie government

The initial protests were against plans to allow the extradition of criminal suspects from Hong Kong to mainland China. Although that bill has been withdrawn from the local legislature, the demonstrations continue. One of the marchers’ core demands is for representative elections that are not manipulated by the Chinese Communist Party.

Lord Patten says: ‘We handed over to China a thriving economy and a free society. The Chinese made lots of promises to us. They said that the democratic changes that we had put in train would be continued and that Hong Kong would be responsible for working out its own legislative arrangements. But the Chinese Communist party has refused to give the zombie government of Hong Kong enough room to manoeuvre out of the crisis.’

The Chinese government insists that people in Hong Kong enjoy unprecedented democratic rights – more so than they did when the British were ultimately responsible for the city’s government and law.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing also maintains that the Sino-British joint declaration relating to the city’s governance, which was signed in the 1990s, is no longer relevant.

Power shift

In recent years, the balance of power has shifted significantly.

Professor Kerry Brown, Director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College, London says: ‘Twenty-two years ago, when Hong Kong was handed over to China, people did not conceive how quickly the Chinese economy would expand, to the point that it’s now several times larger than that of the UK. At the same time, Hong Kong has grown more remote from Britain.’

Under President Xi, adds Professor Brown, Western universalist values are being rejected in China, which has, he says, been culturally isolated for centuries.

‘Although there are a group of people in the UK who are very engaged with China – and clearly there’s sympathy in Britain for the problems in Hong Kong – Britain’s preoccupation with its relationship with the EU and Brexit has been a distraction. There is no longer the political capital that there once was to engage with China over Hong Kong,’ Professor Brown said during an on-the-record briefing at Chatham House in London.

Nevertheless, the protestors have made impassioned pleas for international support. They also hope that intense media coverage by networks such as the BBC and CNN will deter the Chinese from ordering a military crackdown. Such a move would provoke an outcry and could be hugely damaging to Hong Kong’s economy, through which much of China’s foreign investment flows.

Sporting contest

However, China maintains that the Hong Kong situation is a domestic issue. It has reacted with vehemence against what it sees as foreign interference, including a swipe at America’s National Basketball Association.

One of the NBA’s executives, Daryl Morley, tweeted his support for the protests, whichangered the Chinese authorities. As a result, the state broadcaster CCTV and the Chinese tech company Tencent decided not to air NBA games, despite the sport’s popularity in China. The tournament’s sponsor, Nike, saw its shares fall amid fears that it could also be caught up in the backlash against American corporations.

China maintains that the Hong Kong situation is a domestic issue

Beijing’s reaction to the NBA indicates its determination to maintain a pro-China narrative at home and abroad. This concerns the former Hong Kong governor Chris Patten.

‘Before President Xi, there was a feeling that China was moving in the same direction as the rest of the world and was becoming more open and accountable. Sadly, that is no longer the case,’ he told the BBC.

Lord Patten doesn’t believe that outsiders should comply with all of China’s political demands.

‘You do as much business as you want with China, but you do it on your own terms without sacrificing your values. We are only powerless against China if we sign up to the absurd proposition that you can only do business with them if you kowtow to their demands. But the idea that the Chinese will only do business with us – or only send their students to our universities – if we do what they want, that idea is absolute nonsense.’


Duncan Bartlett is the Editor of Asian Affairs and a former BBC Correspondent in Asia

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