Hong Kong is the future of China

And not the other way around

Hong Kong has had a long history of protests since July 1997: here protesters gather during the Umbrella Revolution in 2014, against Beijing’s interference in Hong Kong’s electoral process
Hong Kong has been ranked #1 in the world in the Human Freedom Index; at Hong Kong University (pictured here), professors and students can speak freely in ways not possible elsewhere in China

How did we get here?

To understand how we got to this point where people in Hong Kong are taking to the streets by the thousands (tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands) to resist the imposition of expanded authority from Beijing, we need to take a few steps back and look briefly at the history of Hong Kong. There are two essential forces at work here, one being imperialism and the other being the Cold War.

Hong Kong Airport on a calm day: this week, protesters took it over for three days

Back to Hong Kong

The initial step to the eventual handover of Hong Kong to China came in the form of the 1984 Joint Declaration between China and the United Kingdom. At the time, China was in the early stages of market reforms under the guidance of Deng Xiaoping, and the British administration in Hong Kong was in the process of reforming the way it ruled Hong Kong. Hong Kong had never been ruled as a democracy under the British, but the earlier structure of governance in which the British took care of administering the territory and let the people of Hong Kong pretty much do their own separate thing, had led to a high level of corruption and the rise of organized crime. Britain’s reformist efforts were designed to reduce the distance between ruler and ruled, and to target specifically the corruption and criminal networks that had emerged in previous decades (John Woo fans take note — one of the slogans used during the reformist campaigns was “A Better Tomorrow”).

The flag of Hong Kong represents “one country, two systems”: red for the mainland, and white for Hong Kong, with the orchid flower representing harmony between the two

Why Hong Kong is the future of China

The current demonstrations in Hong Kong are not about what is “foreign,” but rather about what is human. If you look at the history of Cold War, for instance, think of how many times people risked their lives, and sometimes even lost their lives, trying to escape to freedom. Think of how many people fled from East Berlin trying to get over the wall to West Berlin — even knowing other people had been shot and killed in their attempt to do so, people still took the risk to escape. Now think of how many people fled from West Berlin to get to East Berlin. That number is easy to think of because the number is zero. Anyone who has experienced freedom never wants to lose it; those who live in an unfree world (such as China) long to experience freedom. That’s not a Western idea — it’s simply a human desire. What Hong Kong wants, in other words, is to retain its humanity.


When the time comes for Beijing to act — and Beijing will certainly do so, most likely by getting the Hong Kong police to initiate a crackdown — it may put an end to the protests (most likely a violent end, sad to say), but the message it will send is not one of success, but one of failure. The failure comes at many levels: the failure of Beijing to offer a compelling alternative to the freedom that the protesters in Hong Kong want; the failure of the leadership in Hong Kong, handpicked as it is by Beijing, to represent the aspirations of the people of Hong Kong; the failure of Hong Kong’s electoral system, which heavily weighs all decisions in favor of Beijing’s interests, to fulfill the desire for democracy that prevails in Hong Kong; and the failure of Beijing to find a diplomatic way to engage with the protesters and their demands and negotiate a peaceful and constructive outcome. China’s decision to end the protests with force will in fact be the beginning of the end of China’s ability to contain the spirit of Hong Kong.

Academic, film maker, and musician whose day job is teaching peace, politics, and human rights at the University of California, Berkeley.

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