Protesters in Hong Kong: Running out of causes

Protesters make new demands and vent their ire on the city government, causing substantial damage to Hong Kong’s economy and its global standing.

Published : Oct 04, 2019 07:00 IST

Protesters face police water cannons outside the government headquarters in Hong Kong on September 15.

Protesters face police water cannons outside the government headquarters in Hong Kong on September 15.

The youths in the forefront of theongoing protests in Hong Kong seem intent on keeping the fires burning. What started as a peaceful protest in June is now in danger of degenerating into mindless violence. In the past two months, the protesters specifically targeted government property and bystanders. After ransacking the Hong Kong Assembly in the last week of June, they systematically turned their ire on other government buildings, the international airport and public transport systems. China’s national emblem was defaced with black paint at its liaison office in the city and the Chinese national flag was symbolically thrown into the Victoria Harbour.

Helmeted and masked protesters have used Molotov cocktails, flaming bricks and steel bars to enforce mass transit shutdowns. Their rallying slogan is “Liberate Hong Kong: Revolution of our Times”. They have been seen carrying United States, British and Hong Kong’s old colonial flags during protest rallies. In recent weeks, as public opinion started to gradually shift away from the protesters, clashes erupted between rival groups. Pro-Beijing residents of Hong Kong started staging counter rallies in support of the semi-autonomous government of Hong Kong.

In the weekend protest rally staged on September 15, black-clad protesters hurled petrol bombs at government offices in central Hong Kong. The mob ransacked a metro station and left one bystander seriously injured. It was the 15th consecutive week of violent protests but the crowd participation had thinned noticeably and the number of clashes between rival groups increased markedly. Hong Kong airport, the busiest in Asia and the world’s largest handler of air cargo traffic, was repeatedly targeted by demonstrators. Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific airlines, one of the biggest in the continent, suffered flight disruptions following forced airport closures and staff insubordination. Many Cathay Pacific employees started openly empathising with those demanding a radical re-evaluation of ties with China. Visitors from the mainland were singled out for abuse, on occasion verging on the physical.

With the protests continuing, the damage to Hong Kong’s economy and global standing was substantial. The city is a key financial and commercial hub and one of the main gateways of investment and trade between China and the rest of the world. The territory is now on the verge of a recession. A recent survey reported “the steepest decline in the health of the private sector in Hong Kong since February 2009”. The China-U.S. trade war also adversely affected Hong Kong’s current economic scene.

The protests logically should have come to an end after Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, announced in late June that the contentious Extradition Bill, which sparked the political turmoil in the first place, would be suspended. She later pronounced the Bill “dead”. But the protest leaders responded by demanding the formal withdrawal of the Bill and proceeded to escalate their fight against the city government. In the first week of September, Carrie Lam once again extended another olive branch to the protesters. She acceded to the demand for the formal withdrawal of the Extradition Bill. The Bill would have allowed the extradition of Hong Kong citizens accused of committing crimes in the mainland to face trial there. Carrie Lam said the withdrawal of the Bill was a step to encourage dialogue with the protesters.

Protest leaders described the offer as “too little, too late”. They upped the ante and raised more demands that make a mockery of the “one country, two systems model” under which Hong Kong acceded to China in July 1997. Their new demands include the holding of elections on the basis of universal suffrage, the resignation of Carrie Lam, an independent inquiry into alleged acts of police violence and the dropping of all charges against the arrested protesters. The authorities in Hong Kong and Beijing indicated that they would order an inquiry into alleged police high-handedness after the protests came to an end. All other demands were dismissed out of hand.

The protest movement was bolstered somewhat by the participation of white-collar workers in their fight against the Hong Kong authorities. In the first week of August, a section of the workers went on a two-day strike in support of the demands of the protesters. Their strike was also aimed at highlighting the dismal working conditions, lack of welfare services and unaffordable housing in Hong Kong.

Under the “one country, two systems” agreement, Hong Kong’s capitalist system continues to function like it did when it was a British colony until 1997. Hong Kong was recently ranked number one in the right-wing American think tank Heritage Foundation’s list of countries “with the greatest economic freedoms” for the last 25 years. The ranking was given on the basis of Hong Kong’s “openness to global commerce and vibrant entrepreneurial climate”. There were no restrictions on foreign banks. Untrammelled free enterprise also meant that the Hong Kong region had the highest disparity in pay between the rich and the poor, and an acute housing shortage.

The protesters are seeking to shift the blame for all their problems on Beijing although most of the laws in Hong Kong are a legacy of the century and half of British colonial rule, which had denied basic rights to workers. There was no minimum wage, no right to strike and no freedom of speech under British rule. But just before the handover of Hong Kong to China, Britain established a partially elected government in the territory. Parties opposed to the Chinese Communist Party were propped up. They are playing a prominent role in the current unrest, the most serious to have occurred since the administrative control of Hong Kong was returned to China.

Financial support

Labour unions funded by the West were put in place before Hong Kong reverted to the motherland under the “one country, two systems” model. The Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions established in 1990 gets funding from the U.S. government-supported National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and the British government. The Union is playing a role in the current agitation trying to mobilise workers against the Hong Kong government and China. However, most of the workers in the metropolis continue to support the pro-Beijing Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions (HKFTU) established in 1948. The HKFTU played an important role in the anti-colonial uprising that shook Hong Kong in 1967. The protesters of today, who are nostalgic for colonial times, violently targeted the HKFTU headquarters in August.

The NED is financially supporting other groups such as the Hong Kong Human Rights Movement and the Hong Kong Journalists Association, besides political parties such as the Civic Party, the Labour Party and the Democratic Party. The Hong Kong Human Rights Movement has received more than $2 million from the NED since 1995. All these groups and parties are members of the Civil Human Rights Front, which is coordinating the anti-China demonstrations that have rocked Hong Kong for more than three months. “Pro-democracy” demonstrators had staged a sit-in near the U.S. and U.K. consulates demanding American and British intervention in the affairs of Hong Kong. They held banners that read “President Trump, please liberate Hong Kong”.

Members of a banned party, the Hong Kong National Party, which has issued a call for the independence of the territory, have been in the forefront of the agitation. Carrie Lam recently said that the protests were an attack on national sovereignty and the “one country, two systems” principle under which Hong Kong was allowed the kind of freedom that was not seen in the rest of China.

The U.S. Congress is already in the process of passing a Bill to penalise officials in Hong Kong and China “who suppress freedom”. The Bill entitled “The Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019” was introduced by a Republican Senator in June to coincide with the beginning of the protests. It has bipartisan support. The Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, is one of its main backers. She said that the passage of the Bill “would reaffirm U.S. commitment to democracy, human rights and the rule of law in the face of Beijing’s crackdown”.

Jimmy Lai, a media mogul known as the Rupert Murdoch of Hong Kong, is one of the main backers of the protest movement. He has strong connections in Washington. He openly interacted with senior U.S. officials in August. He told The Wall Street Journal that President Donald Trump “understands the Chinese like no President understood” and that “he was very good at dealing with gangsters”. Beijing has showed the utmost restraint so far. At the same time, it has signalled that under no circumstances will it concede any of the new demands of the protesters. In a speech to the Party School of the Communist Party Central Committee in September, President Xi Jinping called on the party cadre to show resolve for a strong struggle. “On matters of principles, not an inch will be yielded,” Xi said, “but on matters of tactics there can be flexibility.”

A commentary by the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission in mid September advised the residents of Hong Kong to look to the mainland rather than the West to find solutions to their economic problems. “If Hong Kong’s young people want to find a way out, they should widen their horizons and not lock themselves in the local environment of ‘the Hong Kong people’ and the ‘Cantonese’-speaking local circle, they should look north,” the article said. “Those who call on the people to take to the streets, can they solve the problems of Hong Kong employment, salaries and housing? Have they shown their willingness to solve these problems? What these people have are the empty words of democracy and freedom, and they are making the angry angrier and the problems more difficult to solve.” The article pointed out that the places where the West “helped” to usher in “democracy and freedom” were all in trouble.

Mainland Chinese cities such as Shanghai, and even neighbouring Shenzhen, have been outperforming Hong Kong for quite some time now. In 1997, Hong Kong’s gross domestic product was 27 per cent of China’s. Today, it is a mere 3 per cent and decreasing fast. The world’s largest banks are now state-owned Chinese ones based on the mainland. The top 12 Chinese companies on the U.S. Fortune 500 list are also state-owned or state-subsidised. Hong Kong has a poverty rate of 20 per cent compared with less than 1 per cent in mainland China. The cities in the Pearl river delta such as Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Zhuhai, Foshan and Dongguan have transformed themselves into industrial powerhouses.

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