It’s that time of year again. Thirty-one years ago, anti-government protests in China were brutally crushed in a confrontation in Tiananmen Square. You can read Hamish McDonald’s report from a year ago on the 30th anniversary here, or my own assessment from ten years earlier. Last year I covered some of the same ground in marking the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic.
But what a difference a few months makes. Now, it’s the United States convulsed by protests that have some talking wildly of civil war or revolution. Meanwhile in Hong Kong the annual commemoration of the massacre, a highlight of the city’s calendar and the only such event ever allowed on Chinese territory, has been banned by the police, ostensibly on the basis of the danger to public health.
There’s nothing silly in the idea that protests and even a candlelight vigil might, in the time of Covid-19, pose a health risk. Certainly the American protests are playing havoc with the idea of spatial distancing. But Hong Kong’s democrats can be forgiven a large measure of scepticism.
Coincidentally or not, the anniversary coincides with a renewed push by the Chinese government to bring Hong Kong more firmly under control. The local legislature (controlled by pro-Beijing elements) is pushing ahead with a law to criminalise disrespect for the Chinese national anthem, and, more seriously, Beijing itself is legislating directly to impose a new national security law on the territory.
Last year, the pro-democracy forces in Hong Kong won a major victory in forcing the withdrawal of a government proposal for a new extradition law. But despite the fact that local elections subsequently showed them to enjoy overwhelming popular support, it was never likely that their win would be more than temporary.
Ever since its return to China in 1997, Hong Kong’s autonomy has fundamentally rested on Chinese forbearence. Its promises to respect that autonomy for fifty years have never been enforceable, and no-one ever really pretended that they were. The fact that Beijing is now walking away from them is less surprising than the fact that they have lasted so long.
That’s not to suggest that China’s previous restraint was a sign or goodwill or of sympathy for democracy or the rule of law. On the contrary, it was always based on the regime’s perception of its own self-interest: both its desire to win acceptance from the international community and its fear that repression would devastate Hong Kong’s economy.
Under Xi Jinping, however, China has chosen to prioritise power rather than being a good global citizen − helped by the fact that its geopolitical rival, the US, has also abandoned so much of the moral high ground. The Chinese government feels it is strong enough to not care what others think about how it treats its own citizens.
And while it cannot shrug off economic consequences quite so easily, two decades of growth have made a difference there as well. Beijing may well decide that its trade and financial partners need it more than it needs them, and so they will learn to live with a new order in Hong Kong.
And perhaps, having now seen at close quarters how the world trading system actually operates, the Chinese will be less likely than they once would have been to believe any professions of concern about democracy and human rights.
Nonetheless, Beijing is taking a risk. Yesterday in Crikey, Jason Murphy argued that the government wasn’t interested in preserving Hong Kong’s culture and that, just as in Tibet and Xinjiang, it “wants the territory, it doesn’t want the culture”:
If China wanted to keep the Hong Kong it has now, it would not be introducing new oppressive national security laws. China wants a compliant HK. The downside risk of losing a few HSBC middle managers and the human capital they represent is hardly enough for the Communist Party to check its vast and ancient territorial ambitions.
But I’m not sure this is true. From Beijing’s point of view, Tibet and Xinjiang are pretty much just territory − it would be happy for the native population to just disappear. But Hong Kong is valuable for its wealth, and that in turn depends not (just) on geography but on some combination of people and institutions. Trashing the institutions and driving away the people is unlikely to end well.
To return to where we started: when Hong Kong’s future was being debated and decided in the 1990s, Tiananmen Square was still vivid in memory. No-one had many illusions about the nature of the Chinese regime. The British government did as much as it felt it could, and hoped for the best.
Realistically, neither it nor any other observer expected that a Communist China would coexist with a free Hong Kong for fifty years or anything like it. The long term hopes for Hong Kong always depended on democratisation in China. They still do.
Notice again the difference from China’s colonies. The Tibetans and Uighurs just want the Chinese to go away; they have no other interest in how China is governed. But in Hong Kong the advocates of independence are a tiny minority (one that Beijing, for its own purposes, greatly exaggerates). Most of it citizens are loyal Chinese, but the China they want is a democratic one.
Beijing’s interest is the opposite, of somehow balancing the affront and possible danger that a free Hong Kong represents against the risk of destroying its prosperity. Its recent actions suggest it is now more willing to tolerate the latter risk. But by making it clear that the price will be a high one, it is still possible for the rest of the world to make a difference.
If instead we stand idly by, as we have so many times and through so many crimes, it will confirm Xi and his colleagues in their view that force is everything. And in troubled times, that’s exactly the wrong message to send, for everyone.