By the time this column hits the street, circumstances in Hong Kong may have significantly changed, but for now it appears that tensions have eased, if only ever so slightly, and as a result, so have fears of a violent crackdown.
Following a not-so-subtle warning from the Hong Kong police on Sunday evening that whatever measures necessary would be taken to allow the city to open for business on Monday morning, a large number of the protesters who have been occupying the heart of the city for the past week took the hint and went home, while the smaller remainder regrouped in areas a little farther away from the government buildings they have been blockading.
The defiant crowd that stayed, gamely declaring that “they’re not going anywhere” until their key demands—universal suffrage in Hong Kong, and the removal of despised Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying—are met, simply haven’t gotten the message yet that their cause is lost, and was an exercise in futility from the start. The support of a biased Western mainstream and social media, which is largely based on the belief that “democracy” is the answer to any political question and which displays a complete ignorance of history and the way Chinese approach disputes, is only prolonging the strife.
The inconvenient history of Hong Kong is an example of the worst of Western imperialism. Hong Kong Island became a British colony as a result of China’s losing the First Opium War in 1839-1842; a war that the British East India Company started because the Chinese Daoguang emperor had the temerity to try to halt the opium import trade. Not being satisfied with the concessions won in the first war, the British used the pretense of China’s seizure of a British-flagged Chinese pirate ship to start the Second Opium War (1856-1860), which saw Great Britain expand its control into Kowloon. In 1861, after the signing of the Convention of Peking between China and Britain, France, and Russia – one of the “unequal treaties” signed during the “Century of Humiliation,” when China’s sovereignty was progressively eroded by the Western powers and Japan—Great Britain formally took over all of Kowloon Peninsula.
The Second Convention of Peking in 1898, in which Britain signed the 99-year lease for Hong Kong, Kowloon, and the New Territories, came about as a result of China’s losing the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895; the British simply took advantage of China’s weakened position to expand their foothold.
In effect, Hong Kong is what it is because the British Empire was unhappy with Chinese rejection of its demands for favorable trade arrangements—which included being allowed to import large amounts of a highly addictive drug that was wrecking the Chinese economy and population—and bullied China into submission. From the Chinese point of view, Western insistence that Hong Kong be allowed to remain “different” from the rest of China is a grave insult, a continuation of a 150-year-old imposition on its sovereignty.
Given that, the idea that the Chinese would even consider acceding to the demands of the protesters is laughable. And if we can set aside the bias that democracy is always the best moral option (an argument that is certainly difficult to make from the perspective of a country like the Philippines), it is impossible to argue that the Chinese point of view is wrong. The Chinese perspective toward Hong Kong is the same as it is toward Taiwan: The metropolis is part of China and always has been, and sooner or later, the opportunity to take it back in proper fashion will present itself.
Hong Kong’s importance as a global economic center might not protect the democracy protesters from China using the opportunity that the unrest has presented to tighten its grip on the city. Because China is much stronger economically and much more integrated into the global economy than it was 17 years ago, when Great Britain finally handed the colony back to China, the consequences of taking tough action would be minor; Western governments and multinationals would be able to offer little more than rhetorical condemnation, because not doing business with China would be economic suicide. The choice between supporting the aspirations of idealistic college students or supporting the stability of global financial and trade markets is really no choice at all. Sorry, kids.
What is likely to happen next is that once the protest fizzles out, CY Leung will find himself out of job. He has handled the unrest very poorly, which is enough of a face-saving justification for Beijing to get rid of him, and because they will be doing so in mid-term, they can appoint someone who will follow instructions a little more competently. That will also deflect any claims of victory on the protesters’ part, and reduce the risk of similar unrest breaking out elsewhere in mainland China.
The people of Hong Kong, who briefly dreamed of turning their city into another Singapore, will wake up one morning in the not-too-distant future and find they are living in another Shanghai instead. Whether that’s right or wrong is irrelevant; it’s the way things are.