Hong Kong

Short-lived storm

Print edition : October 31, 2014

Joshua Wong, leader of the student's group Scholarism, addressing protesters outside the government building in Hong Kong. Photo: CARLOS BARRIA/REUTERS

Leung Chun-ying, Hong Kong's embattled Chief Executive. Photo: ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP

Pro-democracy protesters raise their umbrellas as part of the demonstration on October 1. Photo: ANNABEL SYMINGTONAFP

A protest near the government office on October 1. Photo: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg

The Occupy Central Movement in Hong Kong fails to go the full distance. While the Western media laud the protesters for their lily-white idealism, there is evidence to show that external forces are playing their part in the agitation, which is a source of concern for China.

AFTER RECORDING AN INITIAL SURGE, student-led protests for full-fledged democracy in Hong Kong soon began to choke, setting the stage for negotiations with the local authorities, who held most of the cards. As crowds belonging to the Occupy Central Movement and other affiliated groups began to disperse within the space of a week, a number of media-created fantasies also went into free fall. None of the prognoses, aired by most of mainstream Western punditry, came true, chiefly that Hong Kong was about to witness a repeat of the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident when tanks were moved into the political heart of Beijing to crush protesters. That incident triggered an international outcry and caused substantial damage to the image of China, which was still experiencing the early phase of the economic reforms scripted by Deng Xiaoping.

In fact, Global Times, the daily affiliated to the Communist Party of China, warned that the Tiananmen Square linkage with the Hong Kong protests was strictly over the top. The newspaper accused the United States media of indulging in “such a groundless comparison” and attempting to “mislead and stir up Hong Kong society”.

The daily went ahead to warn sternly: “China is no longer the same nation it was 25 years ago. We have accumulated experience and drawn lessons from others, which help strengthen our judgment when faced with social disorder. The country now has more feasible approaches to deal with varied disturbances.”

Others who prophesied when protesters poured into the streets on September 26 that Hong Kong had the trappings of another colour revolution—East European style—only managed to expose their wishful thinking, presumably resulting from a well-ingrained anti-China bias. Not that there was not an attempt to add a colour code to the agitation. Activists from Occupy Central prominently wore yellow ribbons and there was a deliberate attempt to call the protests the “umbrella revolution”, as umbrellas, which became the symbol of the protests, were out in force because of heavy thunderstorms, which lashed Hong Kong during the early days of the protest.

Neither did the agitation, which went viral over social media, stir up street mobilisations in mainland China, another pet theme of the media. In the end, the rumblings in Hong Kong turned out to be a storm in a teacup and was likely to end up as a footnote, but not a marker for fundamental change in the territory.

There are several reasons why Occupy Central did not go the full distance. First and foremost, the protests were resting on a false premise. Leaders of the agitation asserted that China had reneged on its commitment to have universal suffrage in all aspects of the 2017 elections for the post of the Chief Executive of Hong Kong. The accusation was false. The Basic Law adopted by China in 1990, which defined its one country-two systems policy, did state that Hong Kong’s Chief Executive would be elected by universal suffrage in 2017. But it also made it explicit that a committee would be formed to supervise nominations for the post. On August 31, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress did exactly that—announce that the 2017 elections would be held on the basis of nomination by a “broadly representative” committee.

It is ironic that some of the student leaders are of the view that apart from the U.S., Britain, a former colonial power, is the custodian of democracy in the world. While it is fashionable to vilify China as a barrier to the growth of democracy, it is important to remember that throughout its 155 years of colonial rule, Britain failed to advance democracy in the island. It snatched away Hong Kong from China during the First Opium War (1839-42) and ruled the island from London, from a distance of nearly 10,000 kilometres.

Real democratic reforms commenced in Hong Kong only in 1997, when China began exercising its sovereignty over the territory under the one country-two systems formula.

Rebalancing policy

While armchair critics have the luxury of indulging in decontextualised criticism, there are real reasons, geopolitical and otherwise, which govern Beijing’s caution and a gradual approach to political reform. Despite a thriving economic relationship, China, as it develops its economic heft and bolsters its military deterrence, is in the cross hairs of the U.S.-led West. This is the most graphic illustration of Washington’s “Pivot to Asia”, also called the “rebalancing” strategy in the Asia-Pacific. In plain language, China’s military containment by a U.S.-led alliance is now in full swing. In its attempt to hem in China, the U.S. is depending on its regional allies, chiefly Japan, Australia, South Korea and the Philippines. The core of the China-centric “rebalancing” policy would unfold in Japan, where 40,000 U.S. troops would be positioned, and South Korea, where 28,500 troops would be positioned. Earlier reports from the U.S. had stated that Washington would post 2,500 troops in Darwin, Australia, and discussions were under way to allow the U.S. Navy greater access in Perth. A former Major General in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) told the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post that 60 per cent of the U.S.’ military force would be deployed in Asia by 2020.

The “rebalancing” doctrine also possesses a prominent economic dimension in the form of Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The China focus of this 12-nation free trade formation, which is in the process of being formalised, has been revealed by a Congressional Research Service report. The report uses unambiguous language to underscore that, “the TPP could have implications beyond U.S. economic interests in the Asia-Pacific. The region has become increasingly viewed as of vital strategic importance to the United States. Throughout the post-World War II period, the region has served as an anchor of U.S. strategic relationships, first in the containment of communism and more recently as a counterweight to the rise of China.”

In its riposte to the U.S. containment enterprise, China has been rapidly and energetically shoring up its ties with Russia, especially in the energy sector. Chinese President Xi Jinping has met his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, nine times since he took office two years ago—the latest meeting taking place in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, during a summit of the six-nation Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). The two countries have given a solid strategic foundation to their revived relationship by signing a mega-energy deal worth a massive $400 billion, for the delivery of 38 billion cubic metres of natural gas to China from 2018. They also decided to improve physical connectivity by constructing a bridge over their common border and building an ice-free port in eastern Russia.

The SCO, where China and Russia are the two principals, is becoming an important platform for security cooperation—an aspect that is likely to acquire even greater salience as the U.S. retreat, and the threat of Afghanistan’s re-emergence as a hub of terrorism along China’s borders, becomes ever more likely.

In response to the TPP, and the overall shrinkage of Western markets that had so far powered China’s break-neck, export-led growth, President Xi has visualised the formation of a Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road. With China as the fulcrum, Beijing envisages the establishment of commercial linkages along land corridors and sea lanes, roping in countries in Central Asia, the Asia-Pacific and South Asia and boosting their economies through massive financial inflows for infrastructure development, urbanisation, and investment parks. The twin initiatives have powerful civilisational overtones, as they seek to revive the ancient Silk Roads that for centuries played an essential role in establishing an ecosystem that guaranteed the region’s economic prosperity and cultural vibrancy.

Against the backdrop of a larger geopolitical contest that has pitted the West against China and Russia, China fully recognises the larger global impulses to weaken it, which would drive rivals to subvert the country’s “peripheries”, including Hong Kong and Xinjiang. The Xinjiang province has also been experiencing considerable turbulence though of an altogether different nature. It has been rocked by a string of bomb blasts, attributed by China to the secessionist East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM). On September 21, the Chinese state media reported that 50 people, including 40 assailants and six civilians, were killed during multiple blasts in Luntai county in the province. The latest attack followed explosions on July 28 that targeted a police station and a government building near Kashgar, also in Xinjiang, killing 37 people, before the police shot dead 59 of the attackers. Two days later, Jume Tahir, a religious leader apparently close to Beijing, was also killed at Id Kah, Kashgar’s largest mosque.

Clashes with security forces in Xinjiang, home to the ethnic Uighur minority, killed more than 200 people last year. Beijing regards the ETIM as particularly troublesome because a network of pipelines transporting gas to China’s industrial heartland passes through Xinjiang. The province, adjoining Tibet, which shares borders through the Wakhan corridor with Afghanistan, is not far from Pakistan and Tajikistan, all possible conduits of jehadi permeation into China.

During a visit to Dushanbe in early October for a summit of the SCO, President Xi inaugurated the construction of Line D of the China-Central Asia energy pipeline, which would transit gas across Tajikistan into Xinjiang, underscoring the centrality of the province to China’s energy security. Xi warned that attention should be paid to the “three evil forces” of terrorism, separatism and extremism, which were posing a serious threat to regional security and stability.

While the protesters in Hong Kong are being lauded for their lily-white idealism, there is ample reason to consider that external forces may also be playing their part in the agitation—a real source of concern for China. In April, two prominent pro-democracy leaders from Hong Kong, Martin Lee and Anson Chan, visited Washington, where they met U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. They also spoke at the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a highly controversial U.S. government-funded foundation well known for mentoring protest movements in Eastern Europe and Latin America. The NED has pitched in nearly half a million dollars for developing “the capacity of citizens—particularly university students —to more effectively participate in the public debate on political reform… allowing students and citizens to explore possible reforms leading to universal suffrage”.

The Chinese newspaper Wen Wei Po reported that Joshua Wong, the 17-year-old leader of Scholarism, a student group which played a major part in the protests, held frequent meetings with members of the U.S. Consulate in Hong Kong and was a recipient of covert U.S. donations.

While genuine security considerations may be guiding the Chinese to calibrate democratic reforms, there are, nevertheless, other areas which China can address to reduce alienation in Hong Kong. The Chinese may need to pay greater attention to the dislocation of identity caused by prospering mainlanders, who have moved to Hong Kong for business purposes but in the process have dislodged sections of the local economic elite from their elevated position.

The Hong Kong Chinese are, indeed, finding it hard to reconcile to new economic realities, resulting from mainland China’s rapid development. For instance, in the early days of the economic reforms, which commenced in 1978, Hong Kong was the main point of entry for multinationals wanting to tap the Chinese market. But Hong Kong’s premier position as a services hub has been effectively challenged by booming Shanghai, Beijing, Chengdu and a host of other cities on the mainland. The resulting competition has meant a loss of revenue for Hong Kong, where incomes had surged in the early days of Deng Xiaoping’s reforms.

The Chinese also need to do something to check the skyrocketing real estate prices on the island. With housing prices shooting up, a large number of people are spending nearly 70 per cent of their incomes on mortgages. This has dimmed the hopes of young people, especially students who are preparing to enter the job market. Beijing can defuse a lot of the anger by ensuring the formation of a genuinely representative nominating committee, which allows more shades of opinion to enter the electoral fray in 2017, while ensuring that the prospects of long-term stability in Hong Kong are not undermined.

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