When Hong Kong’s Security Bureau submitted a formal proposal to the city’s legislature in February 2019 requesting changes to Hong Kong’s existing extradition laws, no one in the Security Bureau or in the legislature probably thought anything was amiss. The request, after all, came as a response to a specific situation involving a murder suspect in Taiwan who had fled to Hong Kong — since Hong Kong had no extant extradition arrangements with either Taiwan or mainland China, the courts were unable to submit extradition requests to Hong Kong to have the murder suspect returned to stand trial. Surely no one could find anything wrong with that, and surely no one would care enough about a murder suspect to hinder efforts to bring him to trial, or so the Security Bureau assumed. What could possibly go wrong?
Depending on your perspective on what happened next, either everything went wrong, or, as I would argue it, nothing went wrong. The citizens of Hong Kong, seeing the Security Bureau’s request as an opportunistic Trojan Horse that would subject the people of Hong Kong to the judgment of mainland courts, not just for murder but for any serious offense, which would of course include political dissidence, decided to take action. Beijing has long bristled at the freedoms that the people of Hong Kong enjoy, and even more so at the way the people of Hong Kong embrace, celebrate, and protect those freedoms. The “one country, two systems” arrangement that was set in place with the formal handover of Hong Kong from Great Britain to China on July 1, 1997, guarantees that residents of Hong Kong will enjoy their special rights and freedoms for an additional fifty years after the handover, or until July 1, 2047.
Beijing has consistently taken action since 1997 to undermine those rights and freedoms in order to dismantle, piece by piece, the “one country, two systems” arrangement and to hasten the full incorporation of Hong Kong into mainland China. What has been genuinely remarkable is the extent to which Beijing has woefully underestimated both the tenacious attachment of the people of Hong Kong to their special rights and freedoms as well as the intrepid resolve they have in resisting and rebuffing efforts from Beijing to undermine them. It would be one thing — and it would be quite a considerable thing — if this were a story that were confined only to the relations between Hong Kong and the mainland. But there is a much larger narrative at work here, a narrative centered on an evolving conflict between freedom and unfreedom. China is betting on unfreedom as the optimal form of governance — rulers rule and citizens obey, creating stability and prosperity, at least for those who obey. Hong Kong, on the other hand, is offering a different way forward, one based on the most human of needs, namely freedom, without which humanity withers. If there is to be a future of humanity, then Hong Kong must be the future of China, and not the other way around.
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 was ceded to Great Britain in 1898 as the end result of events set in motion by two conflicts, known as the Opium Wars, fought between the Qing Dynasty and Great Britain in the nineteenth century. What the Opium Wars were about is not important for our discussion here (yes, they were about opium) — the main thing to understand is that the control and administration of Hong Kong was ceded to British rule for a period of 99 years, and that from the perspective of Chinese history as viewed from China, this was yet another humiliating act in the imperialist drama known as the “century of shame.”
Jump cut to the start of the Cold War, particularly the moment when China became the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on October 1, 1949, after the communists defeated the nationalists, the latter fleeing China at that point, mostly to Taiwan. Almost immediately after the communists came to power, the first major crisis that hit the PRC, and hit the newly-created United Nations as well, was the question of Tibet’s independence. Tibet had clearly been taking actions to assert its independence from China, which Tibetans viewed as an imperialist, occupying power, but China pushed back against these actions and in 1950 invaded and occupied Tibet, which China then described (and still does) as a “liberation” of Tibet.
It might seem contradictory that China would describe what most would see as an invasion as a “liberation,” but from the Chinese perspective, the people of Tibet were “confused,” in so far as they had imbibed the putatively “foreign” ideas of independence and freedom. This is the origins of what China often refers to as “splittist” thinking — the idea that former imperial powers are still trying to colonize China or to split it apart to weaken its growing power. Tibetans only wanted independence because foreigners, in this case the British, had led them astray and given them foreign, “splittist” ideas. China’s invasion was thus seen from Beijing’s perspective as a “liberation” of Tibetans from harmful and destructive foreign ideas, which was of course followed by the “re-education” of Tibetans into proper, non-splittist Chinese ideas.
In short, because the century of shame was seen from China’s perspective as a time when foreign imperialist powers broke China apart, anyone who questions or challenges the contemporary unity of China must surely be thinking foreign imperialist thoughts. The corollary to this is that Beijing expects Chinese citizens to prove their loyalty through an unquestioning commitment to Chinese unity. The Chinese Communist Part has always claimed to be anti-imperialist, so resisting imperialism means resisting any attempt by anyone, within China or without, to question or undermine the unity of China.
What this has to do with the present situation in Hong Kong will be discussed shortly, but for the moment, let me point out a glaring contradiction in this whole way of thinking. If foreign ideas are harmful to China — Beijing often denounces “Western-style democracy” as culturally inappropriate for China — then how is it that communism, buttressed as it is on the foundations of Marxist-Leninist thought and hence forged from the same Western and very foreign (non-Chinese) ideological wellspring as democracy, is perfectly acceptable? If communism works just fine in China, then Western-style democracy should work just fine as well. Put differently, if foreign ideas are culturally inappropriate and “splittist” for China, then the Chinese Communist Party should resign effective immediately and instate a more appropriately Chinese form of governance, one based, for instance, on Confucianism. Once they do that, perhaps we could then turn to the work of political philosopher Tu Weiming, who has argued quite forcefully and convincingly that Confucianism can be viewed as a rock solid ideologically foundation for liberal democracy, and so either path we take, we still end up with democracy in China. In other words, Hong Kong is the future of China and not the other way around.
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”).
When the Joint Agreement was signed in 1984, it set up the “one country, two systems” policy that would effectively mean that after the handover in July 1997, Hong Kong would remain as it is for another 50 years, mostly to prepare itself for the complete integration with the PRC in 2047. The problem with this approach is that Britain’s understanding of what this meant was that whatever was in place as of July 1, 1997 (the date of handover) would remain in place for another 50 years, whereas China felt it meant only that whatever was in place as of 1984, the date of the Joint Agreement. From China’s perspective, Britain’s comprehensive program for reform, which eventually created a more democratic framework for Hong Kong’s governance, was simply another layer of imperialist and splittist politics designed to sabotage Hong Kong’s eventual incorporation into China.
For the people of Hong Kong, however, it was the British interpretation that prevailed, and the people of Hong Kong came to embrace the reforms and the democratic initiatives that were set in place. The democratic arrangement, along with its rights and freedoms, was what made Hong Kong what it was, and what made Hong Kong so different from the PRC. The people of Hong Kong were and still are proud of that. China bristled at the idea that “foreign” or “Western” ideas had taken deep root in Hong Kong, and as with the earlier case of Tibet, clearly thought Hong Kong needed “liberated” from such pernicious influence. This explains why China has been trying to find ways right from the moment of the 1997 handover, to dismantle the structures and institutions put in place during British rule, and dismissing each successive wave of protest in Hong Kong as the work of “foreign” and “splittist” ideas. From Hong Kong’s perspective, however, what they saw was an imperialist China trying to force its authoritarian ways onto a people who had come to enjoy their freedoms as a way of life. That, in essence, has been the clash all along since 1997 — the very clash we see in the present moment playing out in the streets of Hong Kong.
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.
If the Cold War parallel doesn’t convince, then consider a more contemporary example. Every year, hundreds of Chinese women travel to the island of Saipan in the Northern Marianas, the only US territory where Chinese citizens do not a need a visa to visit, to give birth . Why do they do this? They do this so that their children can obtain birthright US citizenship, thereby giving them a potential opening to freedom and democracy and all the advantages that both entail. Now ask yourself how many American women travel to China to give birth (with the assumption that China had birthright citizenship, which it doesn’t). The answer, of course, is zero. No mother living in freedom would want to give their child a chance to experience authoritarianism. People escape from authoritarian regimes — they don’t pine to get to them.
China’s paternalistic approach to governance can be found anywhere and everywhere in China. The highways, for example, have cameras with facial recognition technology every few kilometers or so, simply to take pictures to make sure that drivers aren’t doing anything the government doesn’t want them to do. The family-state metaphor is often used to describe this form of governance, a metaphor that posits the government as parents and the citizens as children. The protesters in Hong Kong, by this perspective, are simply a bunch of ungrateful, petulant children who need a stern lesson in “proper” behavior by their parents. The problem with the family-state metaphor, however, is it assumes that children never grow up. Authoritarian rule infantilizes its citizens, whereas freedom allows them to grow into adulthood. The people of Hong Kong have become adults, and yet Beijing in essence wants the free adults of Hong Kong to suffer the indignity of being forced back into authoritarian diapers.
China may see this as a necessary measure to restore order and maintain security, but in spite of the face that China aspires to be a global superpower, underneath the façade is a thick residue of insecurity. To give but one example, last year China banned the film Christopher Robin, a film geared towards children that features a harmless boy in shorts who walks around with a “bear of very little brain” in the Hundred Acre Woods. Why ban a completely innocuous movie geared toward children? Well, because the “bear of very little brain” happens to be Winnie-the-Pooh, and the people of China have used Winnie-the-Pooh as a stand-in for Chinese leader Xi Jinping in order to criticize his actions and at the same time evade the quick retaliatory eye of China’s massive array of intrusive surveillance. The Chinese censors eventually became wise to the ruse, and so anything related to Winnie-the-Pooh is now censored in China. Note that what this really reveals is that even the citizens of China want freedom, as shown in their desire to find a way to say what they are thinking, which is a very human habit. In any case, think of just how insecure a regime has to be to ban a children’s movie for fear that it might allow its citizens to think for themselves. That’s not a move from power — that’s a move from insecurity.
This is precisely the reason why Hong Kong is the future of China. The decision to take to the streets, starting last March and continuing into the present, is in fact a decision made from power. It’s a different kind of power, to be sure, but it stands on a foundation of doing what is right, and not — as would be the case in an authoritarian regime — of doing what is selfishly expedient.
China’s success in expanding its economy has allowed it essentially to buy the loyalty of its citizens — obey and follow and you will be rewarded with money. Question and think, however, and you will punished with the full wrath of the punitive, paternalistic state. That method of governance comes with a limited life-span because eventually it becomes impossible to suppress the innate human desire to act and think for oneself. People can only be bought off for so long. Democracy may not be perfect, but it does carry the decisive advantage that it doesn’t just allow for but indeed depends upon the human desire to speak one’s mind and to think for oneself. Democracies are capable of infinite reform; authoritarian regimes usually decay into brittleness and eventual collapse. And so once again, Hong Kong is the future of China.
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.
For its part, China loves to tell other countries and commentators to keep quiet and not to interfere in the domestic affairs of China. But think closely about what China is really doing in making such statements. What China is saying is that it wants the ability to think and do what they like without outside powers interfering or telling them otherwise. Put differently, what China wants is the freedom to think and act on its own, which is precisely and ironically what the protesters in Hong Kong want for themselves. The do-as-we-say-and-not-as-we-do approach to governance has never been an effective way to cultivate legitimacy, and regimes that lack legitimacy tend to rely upon force to maintain their hold on power and to suppress any threats to that hold on power.
So when it comes to global politics, China wants its freedom. So, too, do the citizens of Hong Kong. China thus wants what Hong Kong currently has, but the contrary is not true. In other words, Hong Kong is the future of China, and not the other way around.