Your editorial in Asian Affairs’ July issue rightly identified protests against an extradition bill as an open challenge to the Chinese Communist Party but history shows that both sides may have surprises in store.
Protest tactics in Hong Kong are dynamic and innovative. In June 1989, marchers held traditional parades, wrote posters and communicated with people in mainland China by fax. Annual vigils marked the Beijing massacre with speeches by democrats, dependent on print and broadcast media.
By 2014, a new group seized social media to rally and inspire their followers. They still marched and occupied symbolic space, but their witty, pungent messages were scrawled on post-it notes, spread virally through smartphones and sneaked past censors. The movement failed but it generated important lessons.
Today’s protesters go a tech-step further. Becoming ‘like water’, they leave few electronic footprints. They have targeted businesses and borrowed cheeky stunts from climate change activists. This is the smartest generation in Hong Kong history and it is dreaming up new things all the time.
For its part, the Communist Party has been consistently under-estimated. It is resilient, flexible and willing to innovate. It has studied turbulence across Asia, learning from the management of local protests in India, the manipulation of street politics in Myanmar and experiments with subtle autocracy in Thailand.
The party need not resort to violence: it has sovereignty, a military base, economic power and a loyal establishment. Its cyber-partisans give as good as they get. The Great Firewall means that most Chinese citizens are politically insulated. And time is on its side: 2047 is just 28 years away.
For those reasons the inspiration from Hong Kong may, in reality, be double-edged.
Former Far East Correspondent, The Sunday Times
China & Hong Kong: misjudgement of status
Whilst Hong Kong has benefitted in many ways from increasing economic ties to the Chinese mainland, it has also created greater societal issues such as the increase of the overall population due to Chinese immigration into Hong Kong, an erosion of certain services due to such population increases, tensions between Hong Kong nationals and mainland Chinese, a continued increase in house price of homes making it harder for Hong Kong graduates to get on the property ladder, steadily increases in an elite controlling property and wealthy versus ‘the rest’. The 30th anniversary of the Beijing Tiananmen square massacre in June this year partly inspired and has acted as a trigger for many Hong Kong citizens to mobilise. They fear China’s increasingly heavy hand at interfering in changes to existing laws and other societal issues that remain important to a majority of Hong Kong’s citizens in 2019.
This evolution should not surprise people watching from outside. Since Xi Jinping assumed power in China, various individual and company rights have steadily been eroded to the benefit of the CCP’s ability to lead and rule the country. Many wealthy Chinese opted already many years ago to move their assets and prime residential status to countries such as Australia, Canada, the UK, etc.Interestingly, these enlightened and educated Chinese citizens did not move to other autocratic countries but to countries offering democracy, education choices, and a better quality of life.
Even China would act foolishly to repress the growing dissent in Hong Kong, as many educated Hong Kong residents will vote with their feet. Already earlier this year in a survey, over 50% of 18-34 year old residents were contemplating emigrating to another more welcoming country. If the current situation with China escalates leading to actual further repressive tactics by China, there will be a massive brain drain of people leaving Hong Kong. Foreign business executives will increasingly relocate their businesses and investment to countries such as Singapore, Vietnam and India, dynamic economies. Hong Kong will gradually simply become another large, Chinese southern city long ahead of the two system rule ending in 2047, offering no substantial advantages compared to other Chinese cities.
Democracies and open societies can watch what goes on in many autocratic countries around the world and take strength from seeing where Hong Kong is today and what its young population yearn and strive for. For China’s influence and ‘soft image’ abroad, it will create more question marks than answers.