Those who know me, personally, will also know that the ongoing political crisis in Hong Kong is at the top of my mind, but I have refrained from discussing it because I’m not sure I understand enough of the nuances. Maybe I still don’t, but here goes …
I think I might understand why the extradition bill came up: there is a too easy “escape route” for East Asian criminals that involves China <=> Macau <=> Hong Kong <=> Taiwan. A lack of extradition treaties really hampers police and prosecutors; but, as Singapore shows, there are many available workarounds. Both Taiwan and Beijing wanted a separate extradition agreement with Hong Kong, for some of the same reasons (fighting organized crime) and for some quite different reasons, too, I suspect.
There is, I believe, deep underlying mistrust and fear of Beijing’s intentions amongst many, many ordinary Hong Kong people. Hong Kong (like Taiwan) sees itself as being what a successful China should try to emulate. Beijing, on the other hand, seems, to many, to want to make Hong Kong less open and law-abiding, to weaken its strong institutions, which many people understand are at the root of Hong Kong’s economic success, and to make Hong Kong more ‘Chinese’ ~ which many Hong Kong people think means poorer and less secure.
I think that a faulty social assumption was made by both Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, and by the powers in Beijing. I suspect they thought that this was just a repeat of the “umbrella movement (雨傘運動),” the 2014 democracy demonstrations that were, indeed, largely organized and conducted by students, but they were wrong. From the very start, the anti-extradition treaty protests involved a cross-section of Hong Kong people, including small business owners, and other “grownups.” They, not just young people, were amongst the millions of people who came out to oppose the government’s proposed extradition law. Then things got even worse as a new demonstration, by “aunties and uncles” just occurred, involving some well known Hong Kong celebrities ~ that’s Deanie Ip (circled), a much loved 71-year-old Hong Kong singer and entertainer, wearing the face mask ~ and parents and grandparents who support the anti-extradition law protests and who want Carrie Lam to step aside. The movement has grown from opposing one law to opposing Ms Lam who is seen to be too close to Beijing in too many ways.
Carrie Lam “managed” the demonstrations following the model that her predecessor, Leung Chun-ying (known as CY Leung in Hong Kong) used in 2014: she allowed the highly professional Hong Kong Police to contain the demonstration and keep order. That they did.
The Hong Kong police force is a well-trained, well-disciplined organization. With a strength of 30,000+ uniformed members, for a population of 7.5 million, it is larger, per capita, than, say, the Toronto Police Force (7,500± sworn members for a population of 2.75± million) and about as large as the Chicago Police Department (12,000± officers for a population also of 2.75± million) but it is much more like the Metropolitan Police in Greater London where 30,000+ police officers serve a population of 8 million. Like “The Met,” the Hong Kong Police service has both city and ‘national’ responsibilities that few other forces share. I think the Hong Kong Police did an excellent job, overall. There were some incidents where a few officers went too far … but that happens in every demonstration, everywhere. As always happens, everywhere, a few dozen, perhaps, when there are a million involved a few hundred people join demonstrations with the specific aim of provoking police over-reaction; we should never be surprised when even the best-disciplined police officers do react improperly. There is a faction in every society that wants to promote and provoke disorder. I would not be shocked if the Beijing government actually used “agents provocateur” to try to goad the Hong Kong Police into going too far. I don’t think that happened, but it is not beyond the realm of possibility.
I believe that both Beijing and Carrie Lam have misjudged Hong Kong.
Now I see a story in the South China Morning Post headlined: “China scrambles to deliver new Hong Kong strategy – but military response not an option.” Well, a) it’s about time for a new strategy, and b) good, the Chinese military is never the answer to civil strife in Hong Kong.
The story says that “Mainland Chinese officials in charge of Hong Kong affairs are working on a comprehensive strategy to solve the city’s political crisis that will be presented to the top leadership for deliberation soon, according to people familiar with the discussion, but resorting to military force is not on the table … [and] … Officials are developing both an immediate strategy to handle the increasingly violent weeks-long protests in the city, as well as a long-term plan that may lead to an overhaul of Beijing’s approach to managing the restless former British colony.” That all makes eminent good sense.
The SCMP article says that “Sources say at this stage Beijing still believes the crisis is best left for the Hong Kong government to handle and it should not get directly involved. The principles of avoiding bloodshed and keeping the city “largely stable” remain unchanged … [and] … Despite speculation to the contrary, they are firm about not considering the use of the People’s Liberation Army as an option. Sources say Beijing regards Hong Kong’s embattled police force as a critical factor in maintaining stability.” Once again: good common sense seems to be prevailing.
“Since the unprecedented protests broke out early last month in Hong Kong against the ill-fated extradition bill,” the authors say, “Beijing has been dispatching a “record number of people” to the city to collect information and opinions from different sectors.” I would have thought that the evidence of their own eyes ~ two million people demonstrating, 99.9% peacefully, against perceived intrusions by Bejing into Hong Kong’s affairs was sufficient … but I suspect that ‘official Bejing‘ needs to hear that from 100 different sources.
To illustrate the scope of Beijing’s perception problem, the article says that “The Chinese leadership has been taken aback by the scale and intensity of the protests, and is upset that its traditional intelligence channels in Hong Kong failed to accurately gauge the public mood … [and the SCMP‘s sources said that]… “Obviously the system has not been working well. Voices that really reflect the mood of the public were not getting heard,” said a government-affiliated adviser who asked to remain anonymous. “The central leadership wasn’t alerted until the situation went out of control … There will surely be a revamp and overhaul of the system afterwards.”” Obviously, indeed! It appears that too many people in too many closed offices in Beijing thought that Hong Kong was just another Chinese city, richer than most, but, at heart, ready to exchange legal rights and freedoms for a bit more wealth … that’s not the case, obviously.
“The Communist Party’s top unit on Hong Kong affairs – the Central Coordination Group for Hong Kong and Macau Affairs, led by Vice-Premier Han Zheng – has been collecting and consolidating reports and proposals from its frontline officers and now must formulate some options for discussion by the leadership,” the article continues.
The story says that some Chinese officials believe that at least part of the current unrest is being stimulated by outside, foreign agencies. My guess is they mean Taiwan, in particular, but also, Australia, Britain and Canada, all of which have deep ties to Hong Kong, and, of course, the USA. I would not be surprised if there is some foreign influence, there is certainly public support for the Hong Kong people who oppose increasing Beijing influence ahead of 2047, but I really doubt that the people of Hong Kong needed any instigation to take to the streets, in their millions, to oppose this extradition law.
“In the long run,” sources told the SCMP journalists, “the Hong Kong government needed to reflect on its problems and shortcomings and make improvements. In Beijing’s view, more frequent exchanges and communication between Hong Kong’s leader and the central government were needed and the once-a-year “duty visit” by the chief executive was no longer adequate, they said … [and] … the Hong Kong police force was seen as critical to the mission to restore peace and stability to the city. They were “the last line of defence” that must be supported “at all costs”.” I would suggest that those “sources” are wearing blinders … they can only “see” one direction. In fact, of course, Beijing needs “to reflect on its problems and shortcomings and make improvements,” too. Xi Jinping will not even read, much less heed my advice, but he really needs to take off the blinders and talk with Carrie Lam, more than once a year, but he needs to talk with, not just to Ms Lam. He needs to reach out to former Hong Kong Chief Secretary (Head of the Bureaucracy) and pro-democracy advocate Anson Chan (left) and to Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (right) to listen to sensible ideas about why and how liberal and even liberal-democratic institutions can be grafted on to and then strengthen very conservative, even Confucian governments. Singapore, like Hong Kong and Taiwan, works better, in every way, than China does. It is possible to have a de facto single-party system and to still have strong, independent, honest and trusted (by the people) institutions. China is a huge country with a unique social and political history, but people are people and they want a say in how they are governed. There is a reason why so many rich Chinese have almost all their money in banks in Hong Kong and Singapore; Xi Jinping knows that; that’s one of the reasons he is fighting corruption. He knows that China needs to be more like Hong Kong ~ a country where people trust the government, even when it’s making mistakes because they trust the institutions that underpin the government.
Hong Kong and China are different.
China has 2,500+ years of a coherent social system that says that society can and should be ‘managed’ like a good, old fashioned family: everyone obeys the (kind and just) father; the father teaches and guides his family; younger sibling obey the older brother, husbands obey wives, too, within the home and generations succeed generations in the same system and the universe continues to unfold as it should. But for 150 years, for six consecutive generations, Hong Kong people have lived with a different tradition. Governments, they learned, were of laws, not of men. They understand that everyone, the chief executive and the shop clerk, the commissioner of police and a bus driver are equal at and under the law. They all expect, bank president and postal worker, that they will be treated fairly and honestly when they pay a parking ticket or apply for a passport or anything else. In this, they differ, immensely, from their Chinese neighbours who, for good reason, see the government as distant, capricious, corrupt and uncaring. Hong Kong people share many Buddhist, Confucian and Daoist beliefs and values with all other Chinese, but they are living (somewhat embarrassing or even frightening?) proof that liberal institutions are not incompatible with Chinese culture.
No one is suggesting that China needs to remake itself, or Hong Kong, into a representative democracy like Taiwan, not even into a conservative and de-facto one-party democracy like Singapore. Hong Kong is not and never was a democracy. But Hong Kong has strong institutions that are the envy of most nations, including liberal-democracies like Canada and the USA ~ Singapore (tied for the third least corrupt country in the world) and Hong Kong (tied for 14th) both “beat” the USA (22nd) in Transparency International‘s authoritative and highly regarded corruption index, China is a relatively respectable, middle of field, 87th out of 180. There is a strong correlation between the “least corrupt” countries (Denmark, New Zealand, Switzerland, Singapore and Finland) and the “best” countries in which to live or in which to do business. China should want to climb up in those lists, it should not want to drag Hong Kong and, eventually, Taiwan down to its level.
It is time for a new strategy … I’m just not sure Beijing has the AIM quite right, yet. China needs to become a lot more like Hong Kong and Singapore and Taiwan, not the other way around.