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Hong Kong: What Went Wrong

“We are the meat on the chopping board,” said Martin Lee, founder of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party. “They have set a precedent for Beijing to legislate on Hong Kong’s behalf.” Or as Dennis Kwok put it, former member of the Legislative Council, put it rather more succinctly: “This is the end of Hong Kong.”

It’s a premature death. The ‘joint declaration’ of 1997 by which Britain handed over its wealthy colony on China’s south coast to the Communist regime in Beijing promised that Hong Kong could keep free speech, the rule of law and a high degree of autonomy for fifty years. Twenty-three years later, it’s over.

Those characteristics, so different from the Party dictatorship, contempt for human rights and lawlessness that rule in the rest of China, were precisely the qualities that made Hong Kong Asia’s financial capital. That was to Beijing’s advantage in 1997, so it agreed to live with ‘one country, two systems’. China would be reunited, but Hong Kong would remain different.

That served China’s purposes at the time, because it still needed a capitalist ‘window on the world’. It’s not very relevant today, when the country has the world’s second-biggest economy and companies that want to trade with China are much likelier to set up in Shanghai or Beijing. Hong Kong retains a residual value for Beijing, but it shouldn’t push its luck.

Most people in senior political, business and media positions in Hong Kong understood that and acted accordingly. They walked a tightrope, defending the territory’s essentially ‘democratic’ values, but they never, ever suggested that Hong Kong should have full democracy, because that would be intolerable to the Party in Beijing.

So the modus vivendi between Beijing and Hong Kong rattled along year after year, until eventually a new leader came to power in Beijing who dreamed of standardising, centralising and controlling everything. Last year, Xi Jinping started trying to whip Hong Kong into line.

Beijing pressured Carrie Lam, Chief Executive of Hong Kong’s government, to pass legislation that would let Beijing bring criminal charges against Hong Kongers, extradite them to China, and try them in Communist Party-controlled mainland courts (which have a 99% conviction rate). It would have ended Hong Kong’s autonomy and put every one of its residents at the mercy of the Party.

Lam reluctantly put the new law on the legislative agenda, and the people of Hong Kong, led by the students, predictably began demonstrating against it. This is a ritual dance that has been staged before, and when the citizens had adequately expressed their dislike of the proposed legislation, it was withdrawn.

It was never certain that this would work again, for Xi is very determined and Hong Kong’s importance to China has dwindled. But it might have worked, and won Hong Kong another five or ten years of autonomy. Indeed, Lam did withdraw the offending legislation (by slow steps, so as not to embarrass Beijing) – but the protesters did not stop.

The demos continued and grew more violent, and the demands escalated. By the end of 2019 the protesters were demanding full democracy, which was politically suicidal in the Chinese context. Then the coronavirus emergency shut everything down for a few months, and it looked like the political crisis had subsided. But of course it had not.

This week the Chinese People’s Congress in Beijing, the regime’s rubber-stamp parliament, will pass a special law banning subversion, separatism, acts of foreign interference and ‘terrorism’ in Hong Kong. The demonstrators are already back out on the streets, and the new law allows ‘security forces’ from the mainland to operate in the city. The stage is being set for the final act.

I don’t usually point out that I called things right (and I NEVER point out when I got things wrong), but it was blindingly obvious where this was all heading by mid-summer of last year.

On 31 July I wrote: “(The protesters) must never challenge the Communist regime’s ultimate control, but from time to time they have to demonstrate to Beijing that tolerating a local aberration like civil rights in Hong Kong is less costly politically than ending it by force. They have done enough to achieve that for now, and it’s probably time to stop.”

On 2 October I wrote: “The protesters have won what they originally came out for: the withdrawal of the extradition law. Their other demands will never be granted, because they imperil the ultimate authority of the Communist Party. It’s time to collect their winnings and step away from the table.”

On 24 November I wrote: “If they go on demanding free elections under universal suffrage for the Chief Executive and the Legislative Assembly, sooner or later Beijing will feel compelled to intervene and crush them regardless of the financial and reputational damage it would suffer. So it could go the distance, and end in tragedy. That would be a great pity.”

And then I stopped writing about it, because I couldn’t stand what comes next. I still can’t.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 14. (“Most…Beijing”; and “On 2 October…table”)

Taiwan Election 2020

“Over the past few years, China’s diplomatic offensives, military coercion, interference and infiltration have continued unabated,” said Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen on New Year’s Day, as the January 11th election neared. “China’s objective is clear: to force Taiwan to compromise our sovereignty.” But every leader of her Democratic People’s Party (DPP) has always said that.

“Moreover, at the beginning of last year China’s President Xi Jinping proposed the one country, two systems model for Taiwan,” Tsai continued, as though it were some new horror. But every leader of Communist China since Deng Xiao-ping has promoted the one-country, two-system model. What’s new here?

What’s new is that a year ago Tsai Ing-wen was universally seen as doomed to lose this election, but now she’s expected to win it hands down – and the reason is that Hong Kong, the territory for which the one-country-two-systems formula was originally invented, has been engulfed by chaotic and increasingly violent protests against Beijing for the past seven months.

The protests are driven by the belief of most Hong Kongers that the mainland Chinese regime is cheating on that sacred formula. When Britain returned its Hong Kong colony to Beijing’s rule in 1997, the two parties agreed that, for fifty years, the prosperous city-state could keep its existing more-or-less democratic system, including free speech, independent courts, and the full panoply of human rights.

Taiwan was promised the same terms if only it would ‘reunite with the motherland’. But early last year, only 23 years into the 50-year deal, Beijing forced the Hong Kong government to introduce a law making it possible to extradite Hong Kongers to face trial in mainland courts. And Hong Kong, so peaceful for so long, blew up in Beijing’s face.

Chinese Communist courts have a 99.9% conviction rate and the police have a record of extorting confessions or manufacturing evidence. Hong Kongers saw the new law as a direct assault on their freedoms, and although the proposal was eventually dropped by a frightened HK government, the demonstrations have continued and intensified.

Now the protesters are demanding full democracy. They will never get that in Hong Kong, ‘two systems’ or not, because those ideas might then spread to the rest of China and undermine the Communist monopoly of power. Whereas the people of Taiwan have already had democracy for three decades, and they don’t want to lose it.

China is a monolithic, authoritarian surveillance state of 1.4 billion people, but just 130 km off its east coast 26 million Chinese people live in a society as democratic (and sometimes as turbulent) as Italy or the United States. Moreover, they have three times the per capita income of mainlanders. And the harder Beijing tries to gather Taiwan into the fold, the greater the support for Tsai’s pro-independence DPP.

Exactly one year ago, Chinese President Xi Jinping warned that Beijing “makes no promise to renounce the use of force and reserves the option of taking all necessary means” to achieve unification and implement “one country, two systems” in Taiwan. That was when Tsai began her electoral come-back: from thirty points behind the opposition Nationalist Party (KMT) then to twenty points ahead now.

The KMT was the ruling party that came out of the 1911 revolution that ended several thousand years of imperial rule in China. However, it lost a long civil war against the Communists in 1949, and at least a million of its senior members and its troops withdrew to Taiwan (which they ran as a dictatorship) to plan a comeback.

The KMT insisted it was still the legitimate government of all China, but the comeback never happened. By 1996, after a decade of reforms, it lost Taiwan’s first fully free election to the pro-independence DPP, and the two parties have alternated in power ever since.

The curious thing, however, is that neither party ever really comes down off the fence. The DPP never says outright that it would like to make Taiwan a separate and independent country. And the KMT never says that it would accept reunification under the ‘one-country, two-systems’ formula, just that it would like closer relations with the mainland.

That’s because the electorate would never vote for reunification with a Communist-ruled China, but Beijing would invade rather than allow Taiwan to declare independence. A recent opinion poll showed that 85% of all Taiwanese voters support either the status quo or a declaration of independence, while only 6% want reunification with China

There are other, mostly domestic issues in Taiwan politics, which is why the KMT sometimes wins, but whenever the main question is reunification with China the DPP wins easily. That’s why Tsai Ing-wen will win the election next Saturday: nobody in Taiwan can ignore what is happening in Hong Kong.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 11. (“The KMT…since”)

Hong Kong Protests

After the 17th consecutive weekend of increasingly violent protests in Hong Kong, the first protester was wounded by a live bullet on Tuesday. 18-year-old student Tsang Chi-kin, one of a group of about a dozen students attacking a policeman who had become separated from his comrades, was shot in the chest as he struck the man with a metal pole. He is expected to survive.

A hundred other Hong Kongers, civilians and police, were treated in hospitals on the same day for injuries incurred during what the Beijing regime calls “riots”. The violence has grown over the months, and sometimes that is an accurate description of what is going on in the streets. Even if the protesters are in the right, they are definitely a lot less non-violent than they were at the start.

What is remarkable (though rarely remarked upon) is the restraint shown by the police who, although employed by the Hong Kong city government, ultimately serve the repressive dictatorship in Beijing.

It’s only relative restraint, of course – we are not talking about the Royal Canadian Mounted Police or ‘kindly British bobbies’ here – but during months of escalating violence they have still managed not to kill anybody. Even on Tuesday, when the rest of China was marking the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic, the protests in Hong Kong continued and nobody died.

To understand how remarkable this is, ask yourself this. How many protesters would American police have killed by now if equally violent protests had been taking place in the streets of a major American city every weekend for the past four months?

This is not proof of how nice China’s rulers are. It’s evidence of how worried they are. They dare not make too many concessions to the protesters, but they want to avoid using major force against them – doing another Tiananmen Square massacre, so to speak – because they think the price would be very high. They are right about that.

When Britain returned the colony of Hong Kong to China in 1997, it was China’s main financial window on the world. That’s why it was granted a special status in China (‘one country, two systems’) for the next 50 years. It has free speech, the rule of law, all sorts of privileges that do not exist in the rest of China – but ultimately it must bow to Beijing.

Two decades later, its status as a global financial centre remains a major asset for the regime, but there are red lines that President Xi Jinping will never cross, like letting Hong Kong people choose their own government in a free election. This is now one of the protesters’ demands (although it wasn’t at the start), but it simply is not going to happen.

The Communist Party rules through carefully chosen, mostly non-Communist puppets in Hong Kong, but it does rule. As Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, explained in a private meeting with business leaders last month, her freedom of action is “very, very, very limited.”

She got into trouble in the first place by putting forward a new extradition law that would have allowed Hong Kong residents to be tried in Chinese courts, where accused people have few rights and the conviction rate is 99%. She probably did it against her own better judgement, but the orders came from above.

When the public pushed back, sensing that this could be the beginning of the end for Hong Kong’s relative freedom, Lam probably wanted to drop the matter, but it took her months to persuade Beijing to let her do it. In June she “shelved” the law, in August she said it was “dead”, but only in early September did she actually get Beijing’s permission to withdraw it.

Too little, too late. By then the protests had escalated far beyond the specific law to sweeping demands for democracy in Hong Kong. Most people outside China will sympathise, but it cannot happen. The Communist regime’s first priority is its own survival, so it will not permit such an example to flourish on Chinese soil.

The protesters have won what they originally came out for: the withdrawal of the extradition law. Their other demands will never be granted, because they imperil the ultimate authority of the Communist Party. It’s time to collect their winnings and step away from the table.

If they don’t, Beijing will ultimately crush the protests no matter how much economic and reputational damage that does. In August it doubled the number of troops it keeps in Hong Kong under the guise of ‘rotating’ the garrison: the replacements came in, but the others didn’t actually leave. Sooner or later, if things go on like this, they will be used.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 5. (‘It’s only…months’)

Hong Kong: Purely Symbolic

The anti-government demonstrations in Hong Kong are now eight weeks old and still going strong, but the level of violence is rising.

A lot of the violence is down to the police and to triad gangs who were hired to attack the demonstrators, of course, but now the People’s Daily, the official mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, is demanding that the Hong Kong government “punish lawbreakers regardless of whether they hold up the banner of ‘freedom and democracy’.”

Nobody expects a replay of 1989’s Tiananmen Square massacre, but weekend after weekend the confrontation grows more tense. Last week China’s Defense Ministry even warned that it might use troops to quell the unrest, saying the protests were “intolerable” and that the army would mobilize troops to restore public order if requested by the Hong Kong government.

Yang Guang, spokesman for Beijing’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, followed the paranoid official line on Monday, blaming “irresponsible people” in the West for stirring up trouble in a bid to “contain China’s development.” But when asked if Beijing would send troops in to stop the protests, he only repeated that the Hong Kong government could ask for help if it needed it.

This is a major crisis in the only part of mainland China that is not ruled directly by the Communist Party, but Beijing clearly does not want to go nuclear if it can avoid it. Which it probably can, because at this point the whole confrontation has become purely symbolic.

It started out in early June as a real struggle over an important issue. The Hong Kong government introduced a bill that would allow criminal suspects in Hong Kong to be extradited to China and face trial in Communist Party-controlled mainland courts (which have a 99% conviction rate). Everybody assumed that it was acting on orders from Beijing.

The protesters were out in the streets at once. The rule of law still exists in Hong Kong, but nobody would be safe if they could be extradited to the People’s Republic at Beijing’s whim.

Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, backed down very quickly. She “suspended” the draft extradition bill, and various people close to her reminded the media that it would automatically die when the current session of the legislature ends next July. But she did not formally withdraw the bill, presumably because that would involve too grave a loss of face for the regime in Beijing.

Since then, the demos have been purely symbolic. The extradition bill is not going to happen, but the protesters want Lam to kill it officially and publicly. Even if she complied, she could always bring it back in the next session of the legislature (whose members have to be approved by Beijing). So even if they win, they have no guarantees for the future. Why bother?

Hong Kong was not a democracy under British rule before 1997, and it is not one now. But it was and still is a place where the rule of law prevails, the media are free, and individual rights are respected. However, this special status within China, which was supposed to last for fifty years after the hand-over, has been under growing pressure from Beijing since the rise of President Xi Jinping.

Xi, who has abolished term limits on the presidency, is relentlessly centralising power in China, presumably in the belief that this is the only way to preserve Communist rule in the long run.

He has turned the heavily Muslim province of Xinjiang into an enormous open-air prison, and he is building an online system of ‘social credit’ that will score citizens on their degree of compliance with the regime’s goals and norms. People with low scores will have a hard time in life. And he is nibbling away at Hong Kong’s civil rights, because they set a bad example for other Chinese.

The demonstrators in Hong Kong have carried on because they are trying to make a point: that interfering with Hong Kong’s freedoms is more trouble than it’s worth. So long as Hong Kong remains economically important to the People’s Republic, they have a chance of succeeding, but they can never expect a decisive victory.

Seven and a half million people in Hong Kong are never going to force the Beijing regime to do anything. With the right tactics, however, they can probably preserve their own freedoms, and continue to serve as living proof that an ethnic Chinese society does not have to be a tyranny.

It’s a balancing act. They must never challenge the Communist regime’s ultimate control, but from time to time they have to demonstrate to Beijing that tolerating a local aberration like civil rights in Hong Kong is less costly politically than ending it by force.

They have done enough to achieve that for now, and it’s probably time to stop.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 14. (“A lot…democracy”; and “Seven…tyranny”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.