Hong Kong is probably going to go down as the modern martyr of democracy, or its saviour. Either way it's important. Its fate will dictate the fate of 1.4 billion people and the ripples beyond.
Anyone with an even remote knowledge of the archipelago/main island with minor outliers that sits next to Shenzhen knows at least two things: 'one country, two systems', and 'revolution of our time!'. I'm going to go over what Hong Kong's future actually might be and how it will impact the rest of the region.
The Last Jewel
As late as 1990 the British Empire was kind of still a thing. Hong Kong, sitting right off the border from a massive, burgeoning Chinese state, was watching its fortunes change before it. As the Brits waned and waned they eventually lost so much leverage they actually had to abide by the hundred years part of their 'we-said-it's-100-but-really-it's-forever' pact regarding Hong Kong. But as Margaret Thatcher handed the last Jewel of the British Empire over, she decided to throw a monkey wrench in.
'One Country, Two Systems' is the principle by which Hong Kong gets to maintain its autonomy until 2047, until which time it can be completely solidified into China, or it gets to extend it (not likely at all). The Chinese didn't want it. The CCP has ruled China with an iron fist with minor breaks in between making dissidents disappear and ethnic destruction; all in the name of Chinese 'unity'. But they decided to accept it anyways, because Hong Kong was special. The Brits managed to convince the Chinese that the island's autonomy was worth it economically as a port, and as a route for foreign business into mainland China that could help spur the country's economy. That was a win for the CCP, whose strategy of using an economy they were(n't) responsible for to legitimise its supposed 'unified China' (which really hasn't existed for more than 4 centuries at most) was going smoothly.
But let's go even further back.
The British ruled Hong Kong, but they kinda left it to its own devices in many places. Rarely was British subjugation made a focal point of Hong Kong's world - the British would ask for one or two things, do the usual government controls, but they never imposed on Hong Kong too strongly a sense of British nationalism. The reason was simple. The Americans came into the region with Bretton Woods and told colonial nationalism to go shove it. There was no reason to forcibly keep Hong Kong like a pet. In essence, Hong Kong was left to be... free. Culturally speaking. Between that and a decent economy (with all the problems modern Hong Kong would eventually inherit, of course,) Hong Kong was satisfied under British Rule.
The real monkey wrench that Britain threw into China's re-admission of Hong Kong was that throughout British Rule, the Brits let Hong Kong have a taste of democracy. The Brits set up commissions and investigations that Hong Kongers liked. The last Governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, stopped wearing the Winsdor Uniform on formal occasions. Hong Kong was not the economically impoverished shithole 25 years of CCP rule had left the rest of China. It was a vibrant, intelligent, service-based economy that was known the world over.
How exactly are you supposed to tell it, 'submit to rules that don't benefit you, economically charge you to be fucked with the rest of us, and suck my dick'? You're not supposed to. That was the first mistake.
China continued on its economic growth streak throughout the 00's and the early 10's. This amount of growth kind of made the CCP a bit cocky. Simply put, the CCP's top ranks began to believe power parity had been achieved with the United States and therefore, China could now do whatever they wanted and no repercussions at all. Of course, that's not exactly how geopolitics works, but it's a bit too late to tell them that now.
In 2013, Xi Jinping came to power and started a massive campaign to turn everything about China 'Chinese'. He and his cabal were paranoid. They knew the real numbers. Shadow Lending was going through the roof, China's internal debt was exploding, and the economic growth that China so prided itself on was actually slowing down significantly. Thus, a campaign to institute 'unity' in China was started.
The campaign has thus far consisted of persecuting Uyghurs, shutting down Tibetans, blowing up every religious site in China. It was, and has always been, a paranoid shitfest to take out everything that could make the Chinese public suspicious. Part of it was that pesky old Hong Kong.
Of course, the CCP didn't understand a single thing about Hong Kong - as expected of the generation that helped to start or was part of the Cultural Revolution - and decided to 'woo' it by subjecting Hong Kong to the same subjugation that the rest of China had already undergone. They dropped a bill onto Hong Kong, basically saying, 'we shalt choose your leaders, and thy shalt go fuck thyself about choice'. Hong Kong responded with the 2014 Umbrella Protests, a long protest movement that wanted the bill to go away. The Chinese responded, characteristically, by refusing to believe reality and deluded themselves into believing it was a CIA plot assisted by Taiwan and by god knows what enemy of the state they could come up with. That was the official line. That kind of pissed off Hong Kong. But the good news was, the movement was small, and the reaction was also pretty small. It died out over time.
Oh, how some people just don't learn.
Economic Degradation & Political Decline
Between 1997 and 2019 something curious happened. Namely, housing prices increased astronomically, wages did not increase astronomically, the cost of living correspondingly became untenable, and everybody started to get angry.
This got worse and worse by the day. Hong Kongers knew - still know - the main cause was complete and utter mismanagement by the government. Land auctions are still a thing. Affordable housing is nowhere near sufficient. A couple of rich families own so much land in the island that any high-density housing is astronomically expensive, and there's been no action so far. Gestures, yes, but no action. I said it already. Hong Kongers are smart. They can tell who is fucking with them.
Don't even mention the fact that the Hong Kong government descended from somewhat incompetent to entirely incompetent. Beijing cronies run the show, with people supposed to enforce the rule of law entirely flouting it, and even before the current protests of 2019 the Hong Kong Police Force was infamous throughout the city for being an ineffective, terrible force. This isn't something you're supposed to be able to come back from.
Between all of these factors, wide-ranging anger began to appear. But it didn't yet have a focal point.
Beijing forcibly made one.
The facts of the Protests
I said it before: Hong Kongers are normally pretty smart, and know who's fucking with them. Just like the occupy movement before it, the protestors are predominantly nonviolent with minor cases of retaliatory violence against police and gangs.
While the protests were mostly about the extradition bill in its first month, that all changed after what Hong Kongers call 7.21 - what was quite essentially a massive mob attack on protestors that went completely unnoticed. Well, not unnoticed. HKPF officers moved out of the way and refused to intervene when Hong Kong triads began to beat and brutalise protestors. It was the first in a series of escalations where the HKPF would continuously be inexcusably brutal, then blame it on other factors.
Since then, Hong Kong's protestors have added numerous other attacks to their list. Police Brutality in Prince Edward Station potentially killed 3 people. Random beatings of non-protestors throughout Hong Kong by the HKPF have taken their toll. At this point in September the school term has started and no one will stand down, not even the students taking part in the protests - and the Hong Kong government and Chinese state media keep adding fuel to the fire. Between undercover HKPF cops mixing in with protestors to throw molotovs (which protestors discovered quite quickly), to cops planting evidence on victims of police brutality, the HKPF has pissed off at least three quarters of Hong Kong's 7 million residents. Chinese state media has recently escalated it further by accusing the protestors of attempting terror attacks on September 11. Hong Kong's protestors haven't abated at all - instead, Beijing's elements and arms have repeatedly added fuel to the fire in a slipshod attempt to threaten the protestors.
Despite all of this, Hong Kong's protestors have remained remarkably calm. No rioting. Just human chains and protests. They've even moved out of the way of emergency vehicles with remarkable haste. This has given them an impossible moral high ground to take away. Beijing also sent Hong Kong one final gift.
Sister marches throughout the world in support of Hong Kong could have faded away pretty fast after a few protests. Instead, CCP-agitated counterprotestors, with fancy cars and fascist language, showed up to attack the demonstrators, bringing international attention first to those sister marches and then to Hong Kong. Every single thing the CCP has done has helped to stir the pot and now Hong Kong is thoroughly pissed. Still the Hong Kong government has marching orders not to give in at all - and Carrie Lam's closest thing to an olive branch was to suggest proposing a withdrawal of the extradition bill that kicked the entire matter off in the first place.
Between all of that, CCP trolls have showed up all over the internet, further bringing attention to China's violent actions everywhere. The BBC has quite literally been running a show simply showcasing Chinese brutality in Xinjiang and elsewhere. China has failed to pacify Hong Kong because quite simply CCP leaders refused to give in at any point and understand the protestors. And now, it's too late for any sort of olive branch to work unless Beijing gives marching orders to give in to the 'five demands'.
The Hong Kong protestors have been holding up five demands as their main goals since the beginning of the protests:
- Full withdrawal of the extradition bill
- A commission of inquiry into alleged police brutality
- Retracting the classification of protestors as 'rioters'
- Amnesty for arrested protestors
- Dual Universal Suffrage, for both the Legislative Council and Chief Executive
The last part of the demands has usually been used to demand Lam's resignation as well. These demands have also come with the back part 'not one less!'. That's the sticker. If it had been before incidents of triad & police brutality the Hong Kong government could have written it all off with several gestures all at once, then watch the protestors abate. Instead, China's state apparatus and Hong Kong's government is now faced with the dilemma that the only way to appease Hong Kong's protestors is to resign en masse and let Hong Kong be essentially independent from China. These demands would make Hong Kong an accountable bastion of democracy in a country where all of those four words have rarely, if ever, come to pass. And the CCP refuses to let it.
Now there are three ways this can go.
- Give in entirely to protestors. Give the protestors the five demands without any distortion, and allow Hong Kong to get what it wants. This is the most likely to genuinely end the protests, and would preserve Hong Kong's status as an autonomous entry into China. This is also the option the CCP freaks out about, believing it will lead to more protests and more demands from the rest of China in an incoming economic slowdown.
- Wait for the protestors to abate. The problem with this approach is that there is no sign the protestors are going to ever abate, because the incessant escalations of violence by triads, police and now insane old uncles with knives means that it's practically impossible for the protestors to feel safe stopping. It's also the option the CCP seems to be leaning into, as is the Hong Kong government.
- Tiannanmen. Drive tanks across the border and shoot down every single protestor. The problem is that in Tiananmen there was at maximum 300,000 people in the Square - Hong Kong's protests have peaked at over 1.7 million participants. Despite disorganisation, protestors have also discovered handmade remedies to tear gas, shotguns and police violence, so it wouldn't even be easy to start gunning down thousands to millions of angered Hong Kongers.
1) and 2) are unlikely, and 3) is unfortunately always on the table. Except that 3) would also dictate the end of foreign involvement in China. Foreign business always saw Hong Kong as an gateway to and from mainland China, that helped to mediate the relationship. Now, shooting down protestors will expedite the process of companies escaping China en masse due to rising labour costs and politically-motivated forced tech transfers, party oaths and more; as foreign business is far less likely to see Hong Kong as any different from the rest of China if PLA forces roll in. That's troublesome; and at least that part the CCP knows, which is why the tanks haven't arrived yet.
Even then, no matter what, the protests have irrevokably destroyed China's reputation internationally. The Chinese reaction has shown the world what actually lies beneath the face of 'economic progress' (advanced by untenable lending and sure to collapse). Nobody with a clear, right mind will ever take China at its word again - if anyone ever thought it was a good idea in the first place. And even through all of this:
Whatever solution they decide on will dictate the fate of not just Hong Kong, but China.
9.11.2019, Jakarta, Indonesia