With the United States House of Representatives planning to pass two bills that are intended to back the protesters in Hong Kong and regarded as a warning against the human rights violations there and the prolonged US-China trade talks tending to get bogged down, the nearly six month old face-off in that island might reach breaking point any time now.
A former official of the British consulate in Hong Kong who was released after a six-month incarceration and alleged torture has also added to the tensions with the Chinese ambassador to London accusing Britain of being two-faced in its approach to Hong Kong. While pretending to be even-handed in the face of the violent demonstrations, in reality it was supporting the demands of the protesters.
He has also accused UK politicians, including the foreign affairs select committee, of fanning the flames of unrest by referring to violent demonstrators as pro-democracy protesters.
Mr. Liu Xiaoming, the envoy, said: ‘We have made our position known to the British side when they have made irresponsible remarks on Hong Kong. I think when the British government criticises Hong Kong police, criticises the Hong Kong government in handling the situation, they are interfering in China’s internal affairs. They look like they are balanced but as a matter of fact they are taking sides.’
‘Some Western countries have publicly supported extreme violent offenders, and the US House of Representatives has adopted the so-called Hong Kong human rights and democracy act to blatantly interfere in Hong Kong affairs, which are China’s internal affairs.’ He also alluded to the planned presentation of the Westminster Award for Human Life, Human Rights and Human Dignity to pro-democracy campaigner Joshua Wong.
To back this stand on China, the UK Foreign Office said it was seriously concerned by the events, and added it was vital that demonstrators who were injured were able to receive appropriate medical treatment, and ‘safe passage is made available to those that wish to leave the area.’ It called for ‘an end to the violence and the resumption of meaningful political dialogue ahead of the local elections.’
The Chinese ambassador also warned that if the protesters overstepped the mark with what he described as their ‘black terror’, it would be the end of the ‘one country, two systems’ that marks Hong Kong’s relations with the mainland. ‘If the violence continues the future of Hong Kong could be unimaginably dreadful. The fragrant harbour is sliding into the abyss of chaos.
Speaking after some of the worst scenes of crime in the past five months, he said, ‘The Hong Kong government is trying very hard to put the situation under control. But if the situation becomes uncontrollable, the central government would certainly not sit on our hands and watch. We have enough resolution and power to end the unrest.’ He said the army was already in Hong Kong and the solution, he repeated, was to punish those responsible for the violence.
Mr. Liu accused protesters of creating trouble in front of the Chinese embassy in London, and painting Hong Kong independence slogans on both sides of the gate, as well as pushing the territory’s justice minister, Teresa Cheng, to the ground.
The protests started in June against plans to allow extradition to mainland China and critics feared this could undermine judicial independence and endanger dissidents.
Until 1997, the island was ruled by Britain as a colony but returned it to China and under the ‘one country, two systems’ arrangement, it has more autonomy than the mainland, and its people more rights.
Though the bill was withdrawn in September the demonstrations continue and now demand full democracy and an inquiry into police action. Clashes between police and activists have become increasingly violent, with police firing live bullets and protesters attacking officers and throwing petrol bombs.
The root cause of it all extradition bill which triggered the first protest was introduced in April. It would have allowed for criminal suspects to be extradited to mainland China under certain circumstances. Critics alleged this risked exposing Hong Kongers to unfair trials and violent treatment and they also argued the bill would give China greater influence over Hong Kong and could be used to target activists and journalists.
While hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets, the leader Carrie Lam said the bill would eventually be suspended indefinitely.
Protesters, however, feared the bill could be revived any time and continued the demonstrations, demanding that it be withdrawn completely.
Carrie Lam’s bill seems just the trigger. The protesters grievances are social as much as political and all this is coming at a time when China and the US are jockeying for global dominance and are engaged in a trade and tariff war of sorts and the control of sea lanes and mountain fastnesses.
The French had been ambivalent and had described the incidents as ‘violent, pig-headed and even fascist’ as well as besieging of the Hong Kong Parliament as ‘the boldest of operations,’ and the attack of a Globe Times reporter at the airport as ‘lynching.’ Neither demons nor angels, these protesters include many shades and their demands could not be reduced to a single slogan. And that is why the extradition bill seems to have viewed as a threat to anyone Beijing chose to charge with a crime.
Four years ago when Hong Kong publishers planned to publish a book on Xi Jingping the Chinese detained five of the publishers there was no outrage but when two years later a wealthy businessman was abducted, lawyers and human rights activists saw the ominous possibilities of the extradition bill. The demonstrations then gladden the hearts of the island’s tycoons and major players in the finance and property segment who channel their mainland capital, acquired through Hong Kong and who dislike the prospect of Beijing taking an interest in their affairs.
The genesis of the ‘one country, two systems’ decision was the negotiations between Deng Xiaoping and Margaret Thatcher in 1984 that resulted in the handover of the former British colony island. While the island enjoyed a lot of freedoms it did not have the right to vote or the power of self-determination. This satisfied the elite who could keep control of the economy and retain the legal system and the freedom of movement. Many had fled the mainland after Mao’s victory in 1949 and sought refuge here as well as the People’s Liberation Army veterans who had also retired here and set up the 'triad'. For the outside world this was the dream listening post for things that were going on the mysterious mainland.
The Cultural Revolution of 1966 and the Tiananmen Square of 1987 did not have any impact and they were spared of the turbulence that had been happening in the mainland. Hong Kong became a Special Administrative Region of China.
Hong Kong is also experiencing an identity crisis as well as a social crisis. Though one of the world’s richest cities with the highest concentration of millionaires, the inequalities here are glaring with 20 per cent living below the poverty line and there are images of ‘cage homes’ for the elders who have no pension and none to take care of. There is also the housing crisis and the arrival of the millionaires has not helped matters either. Hedge fund managers, IT professionals and elite universities have taken away all the wealth. The proximity of Shenzhen province with it wealth creation and presence of electronic behemoths like Huawei and Tencent Holdings seems to be causing nervousness about the future of Hong Kong itself.
At the end of the Ming dynasty 500 years ago, when Chinese sway was the maximum with their contribution of paper and dynamite and, the most important of all, the compass Chinese and dynamism seem to dominate the globe. But then it went into a shell and the wall came up and it was then that the colonial powers started nibbling at its peripheries. Formosa, Taiwan and Hong Kong and Canton were all the manifestations. When the colonial powers attained supremacy, China lay at their mercy. The Nanking massacre, the opium dens of Shanghai and the Canton opium trade all contributed to the total decimation of this once dynamic race.
Would the race emerge from this second encirclement or would it again become a sleeping giant or have to wait for another five centuries. For races that have another concept of time the digital era and nano seconds must be just a blimp.
(The facts and views expressed in the article are those of the writer.)