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Hong Kong

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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.
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)’.

Hong Kong Referendum

“The oppositions in Hong Kong should understand and accept that Hong Kong is not an independent country. They should not think that they have the ability to turn Hong Kong into Ukraine or Thailand,” warned the Global Times, the most aggressively nationalistic of China’s state-run newspapers. Clearly, some important people in the Communist regime are very unhappy about the “civil referendum” on democracy that has just ended in Hong Kong.

In Ukraine, a democratic revolution was followed by foreign annexation of part of the country (Crimea), a mini-civil war in the east, and the threat of a Russian invasion. In Thailand, the voters’ persistence in voting for the “wrong” party led to a military coup. It’s ridiculous to suggest that Hong Kong’s referendum might lead to anything like that, but they are very frightened of democracy in Beijing.

The referendum, which has no official standing, was organised by pro-democracy activists in response to a “white paper” published by the Chinese government in mid-June that made it clear there could be no full democracy in Hong Kong. News about the referendum was completely censored in China, but almost 800,000 people in Hong Kong voted in it. They all said “yes” to democracy.

The referendum was really a tactical move by Hong Kong’s pro-democracy camp in a long-running tug-of-war with Beijing over how the “Special Administrative Region” should be governed. The voters were asked to choose between three different options for choosing Hong Kong’s Chief Executive – and all of those methods involved popular participation. That is to say, democracy.

That’s not how the Chief Executive is chosen now. He is “elected” by a 1,200-person “Election Committee”, most of whose members are directly or indirectly chosen by the Chinese Communist authorities in Beijing and their local representatives. That’s hardly democratic, but it is written into the “Basic Law” that was negotiated between London and Beijing before Britain handed the colony back in 1997.

The whole negotiation was a series of compromises between the British view that Hong Kong’s inhabitants should enjoy democratic rights, and the Chinese regime’s determination to have ultimate control of the city. One of those compromises was a promise that by 2017, twenty years after the hand-over, the Chief Executive would be chosen by direct elections.

So democracy was raising its ugly head again, and Beijing sought to head off the danger by publishing its recent white paper. There would indeed by direct elections in 2017, it said, but all the candidates would be selected by a “nominating committee” whose members would still be chosen, directly or indirectly, by Beijing – and all the candidates would have to be “patriotic”. In China, as in most dictatorships, “patriotic” means “loyal to the regime.”

The instant response in Hong Kong was the “civil referendum”, in which about 800,000 of Hong Kong’s 3.5 million registered voters have cast a vote in polling stations, online, or on a phone app.

Every one of those voters was voting for full democracy, since the referendum asked them to choose between three proposed methods for nominating candidates for Chief Executive, ALL of which involved direct public participation. And while 800,000 people is only a quarter of the adult population, it is almost half the number of people (1.8 million) who actually voted in the last elections for Hong Kong’s legislature.

The Global Times has denounced the referendum as an “illegal farce” and “a joke”. Hong Kong’s current chief Executive, Leung Chun-Ying, has loyally echoed Beijing’s view that “Nobody should place Hong Kong people in confrontation with mainland Chinese citizens.” After all, “mainland Chinese citizens” have no democratic rights at all, and the Communist regime wants to keep it that way.

But it doesn’t have to be a confrontation. As part of the “one country, two systems” deal that was negotiated with Britain 20 years ago, Beijing has already accepted that Hong Kong would enjoy “a high degree of autonomy, except in foreign and defence affairs” for the next 50 years. That includes the rule of law and civil rights like freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, free media and so on.

Mainland Chinese citizens do not have those rights, and the example of Hong Kong has not so far incited them to demand them. So why should a democratically elected Chief Executive in Hong Kong drive those 1.3 billion mainland Chinese citizens to demand democracy either?

Maybe the Chinese people will demand democracy eventually, but that is far likelier to come about as a result of a severe recession that destroys the Communist regime’s reputation for fostering high-speed economic growth, which is its sole remaining claim on their loyalty. It won’t come from some desire to emulate Hong Kong. So there is room for a deal between Beijing and Hong Kong that gives the latter more freedom, if everybody stays calm.

There are probably even people inside the Communist regime in Beijing who would welcome a demonstration in Hong Kong that a little more democracy for Chinese people does not necessarily lead to chaos, civil war and secession. (Which is, of course, what their hard-line rivals constantly predict would be the inevitable result of diluting the dictatorship.)
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 10. (“In Ukraine…Beijing”; and “The Global…way”)

Hong Kong: A Very Instructive Cock-Up

10 July 2003

Hong Kong: A Very Instructive Cock-Up

By Gwynne Dyer

Historians generally divide into two schools: the paranoids, who believe that there is a secret plot behind everything that happens, and the realists, who think that most large events are the result of a cock-up somewhere. The remarkable events in Hong Kong over the past two weeks are a powerful argument for the Cock-Up Theory of History. They are also very encouraging.

It is not clear why Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, Tung Chee-wha, chose this July to enact a draconian new law on sedition. The Basic Law that has served as a kind of constitution since Hong Kong reverted to Chinese rule in 1997 requires the passage of a security law covering issues like subversion and spying eventually, but under the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ deal that guaranteed civil rights and limited democracy in the former British colony, the Communist authorities in Beijing left both the details and the timing of those laws to local lawmakers.

Maybe some people in Beijing suggested that Tung should get a move on with an anti-subversion law, but there is no evidence that the orders came from the top, or that Beijing wrote the harsh clauses that horrified most people in Hong Kong. It’s more likely to be the old story of the over-zealous subordinate trying too hard to please the master, and making a major mess in the process. Anyway, Tung brought in the law, and the people of Hong Kong basically threw it out.

Hong Kongers have traditionally been seen as people who don’t care about politics so long as they can go on making money, but on the 1st of July, in the stifling heat of midsummer, half a million of them came out on the streets in a good-humoured but massive demonstration against the new law. The sheer number of people astonished everybody, including the organisers. It was the biggest demo anywhere in China since the Communist regime nearly lost power during the pro-democracy demonstrations on Tienanmen Square in Beijing in 1989, and it changed everything.

Tung scrambled to save his law, offering to delete clauses that allowed the police to make searches and seizures without a warrant during “urgent security investigations” and gave the Hong Kong government the right to ban local groups with links to organisations that are banned in mainland China. The new crime of ‘theft of State secrets’ would remain, but Hong Kong journalists could plead the defence of ‘public interest (as their mainland colleagues cannot).

The opposition leaders were not impressed by the token concessions that Tung offered, but he insisted that his anti-subversion bill would still go before the Legislative Council on Wednesday the 9th. So the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong promised more and bigger demonstrations — and meanwhile, up in Beijing, however, surprise and confusion was rapidly turning to worry.

What if the demos get out of hand in Hong Kong, which still earns much of China’s foreign-exchange? What if they spread to China itself, where popular grievances are far bigger and the government has even less legitimacy in the public’s eyes? What has that fool Tung set loose? Soon Hong Kong businessman James Tien, an ally of Tung’s, was flying back from a visit to Beijing with some important news.

Two senior Chinese officials had told him, Tien said, that Hong Kong was free to decide both the timing and the content of the security legislation on its own. In these circumstances his Liberal Party could not support Tung’s law now. Without the votes of the Liberals (not elected politicians, but a group chosen by the business community who normally put ‘stability’ and good relations with Beijing first), Tung had no chance of getting his law through the Legislative Council, so late last Sunday he deferred it indefinitely.

Beijing will probably replace the badly damaged Tung in a few months’ time and no new attack on civil rights in Hong Kong is likely to happen soon. Good. But what does Beijing’s placatory response to this crisis tell us about the state of affairs in China itself?

It tells us that the new ‘fourth generation’ of leaders who took over most of the senior positions last November understand what thin ice they are skating on. This is good news, as it is in nobody’s interest that they fall in. What China and the rest of the world needs is not another Tienanmen Square, but a recognition by the ‘Communist’ leadership that the country must have gradual democratisation if it is not to have a political explosion whenever a serious economic downturn comes along.

China has not been Communist economically for many years: it already has lower taxes, less social welfare, and a bigger proportion of the economy in private hands than many European countries. In terms of the gap between rich and poor, it is less egalitarian than the United States, probably even less than Russia. Yet it has no free press, no independent democratic institutions, nothing that could act as a safety valve and an early warning system for the ‘Communists’ who still rule it with an iron hand.

President Hu Jintao and the men around him, having just attained supreme power, are not going to hand it over any time soon, but their response to the recent events in Hong Kong shows that they understand enough not to pour fuel on the flames. They will back up, compromise, make deals, anything that keeps the show on the road a little longer — and maybe that will win enough time for real political changes to start happening.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 10. (“Tung…cannot”; and “China…hand”)

NOTE: The British phrase ‘cock-up’, used twice in the first paragraph, may not mean anything to some other audiences. Bolder papers may wish to substitute the phrase ‘screw-up’; more cautious ones will have to make do with ‘blunder’.

The Return of the Plagues?

21 February 2003

The Return of the Plagues?

By Gwynne Dyer

On 28 January an eight-year-old girl from Hong Kong visiting relatives in southern China fell ill with influenza and was admitted to hospital. A week later she died, and since then her father has died of the same flu, while her nine-year-old brother lies gravely ill in an isolation ward in Hong Kong. The virus is outwardly similar to the A (H5N1) strain, also known as ‘bird flu’, that killed six of the eighteen people who were infected in the last outbreak in Hong Kong in 1997.

New strains of viral diseases that can kill human beings generally emerge by mutation as they hop back and forth between people and their domesticated animals. This exchange of viruses goes on all the time in farming areas — but it’s only when a lethal new virus crosses the species barrier AND THEN STARTS TO PASS FROM ONE PERSON TO ANOTHER that the alarm bells start to ring. They are ringing now.

“If this virus is transmissible from human to human then it is far more serious,” said a spokesperson for the World Health Organisation in Geneva on 19 February. The 1997 flu virus was stopped by slaughtering the 1.4 million chickens, ducks and geese in Hong Kong, but if the new one is already loose all over southern China that solution will not really work. Even the normal wave of flu that circles the world every year, slightly changed genetically each time, exacts a serious toll in lives, but once in a while something really lethal comes along. This could be one of those times.

The ‘Spanish flu’ pandemic of 1918 infected between 20 and 40 percent of the world’s population and killed 20 million people in four months, twice as many as died in the First World War — and the majority of the victims were young, healthy people who died of complications like bronchitis and pneumonia. If a flu virus like that appeared now, could it do as much damage?

Certainly the two subsequent flu pandemics, occurring after the development of anti-viral medicines, did not cause the same carnage. The impact of the 1957 ‘Asian flu’ pandemic was greatly reduced by mass vaccination: only one human being in six caught it, and it killed an estimated two million people worldwide. The 1968 ‘Hong Kong flu’ pandemic killed only a million people, and as in 1957 most of the victims were elderly. But viruses are not impressed by medical technology.

Despite the far higher standards of sanitation and medical care in the developed world, influenza death rates there have not been significantly lower than in poorer countries. Viral diseases mutate fast, antibiotics are no use against them, and good hygiene is no protection either. Bacterial diseases like cholera, anthrax and malaria have complex life cycles and mutate only slowly, so they are easy to contain — but if the latest version of ‘bird flu’ is transmissible between people, we could be looking at millions of deaths over the next year. Nor is that the worst that could happen.

The true nature of the ‘Black Death’ was long a mystery, but early in the 20th century, after doctors had found and described bubonic plague in India, experts jumped to the conclusion that a more virulent form of that disease, endemic in rats and transmitted to humans by their fleas, was the real culprit. This was a comforting conclusion, because it meant that it was a bacterial disease with a complicated life-cycle, easily contained by hygiene and antibiotics, that would never come back to trouble modern human beings.

But it never actually made sense, because the standard treatment for the Black Death, tried and tested over three hundred years, was to quarantine affected families and villages for forty days. That could not have worked if it were carried by rats, which do not respect quarantines. So two years ago professors Christopher Duncan and Susan Scott of Liverpool University suggested in their book, ‘Biology of Plagues’, that the Black Death was really an Ebola-like virus, a haemorrhagic fever transmitted directly from person to person. It is frighteningly plausible.

There were actually two Great Pandemics, and the first hit Europe and the Middle East in 541 AD. The Roman empire had been relatively unharmed by great plagues, apart from bouts of smallpox in 170 and measles in 250 which killed mostly children and left survivors immune, but the new plague was different. It returned about every ten years for the next two centuries, and reduced the population of the Mediterranean area by between 30 and 50 percent. Large parts of the Middle East and North Africa did not recover their pre-540 populations until about 100 years ago.

The plague called the Black Death appeared in Mongolia in the 1320s, and killed two-thirds of China’s population between 1330-50. It reached Europe in 1347, and killed between 30 and 40 percent of the population in the first onslaught. It returned at intervals of about a decade, with gradually diminishing lethality, until it disappeared at the end of the 17th century. The aching, the bleeding from internal organs, the red blotches on the skin caused by the effusion of blood under the skin, were all typical of Ebola-style fevers. Besides, bubonic plague, unlike the Black Death, did not disappear. There was an outbreak of bubonic plague in Glasgow as recently as the 1890s.

If Duncan and Scott are right, therefore, there is a virus out there somewhere, dormant for the moment while it tries out mutations that might break through the genetic defences that human beings evolved to defeat it last time, which could kill a significant portion of the human race in a year. The Black Death is not dead, it’s only sleeping. And in the meantime, the ‘bird flu’ may be coming.


This is a longer article of about 950 words. To shorten to 775 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 9 (“If…times”; and “There are…ago”). To shorten further to 700 words, omit also paragraph 5 (“Certainly…technology”)