• Hong Kong’s Exercise in futility

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    Ben D. Kritz

    Ben D. Kritz

    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.

    ben.kritz@manilatimes.net.

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    3 Comments

    1. Ex-Ambivalent on

      Hong Kong, like Davao City, is a metropolis surrounded by a hinterland, and its inhabitants deserve to nominate and elect their mayor. Beliefs aside, universal suffrage was a commitment that the PRC made to its newly-returned countrymen.

      Granting for a moment that right and wrong are irrelevant, what is left is desire and means. These protests have demonstrated a means for HK people to get a bit of what they desire. Risking the city’s special status and a violent government response, the protest tactics have brought to world attention the PRC attempt to water down its promise of 17 years ago. It has made an entire generation politically aware. That is no small feat, and that is why many have urged the students and others to go home, and consolidate their gains.

      This episode has seen the local HK elite sidelined. One vestige of colonial times (since you bring up colonial history) is that the elite expect to call the shots, and the masses follow. The elite are the biggest losers, because they have dismally failed to “control” their underlings. These were the 70 called to Beijing on September 21-23. The PRC will henceforth change tack in their HK policy, from offering incentives to local business interests, to paying more attention to popular interests. This is perhaps the biggest accomplishment of the protests, and involves no public loss of face for Beijing.

      It has indeed been an exercise, but not in futility.

    2. Eddie de Leon on

      Yes, Mr. Kritz, pity the Hong Kong democrats.

      But there is something that no Filipino commentator except your paper’s Rene Q. Bas has written about, and this was some years ago in his regular column.

      The HK democrats’ quest for electoral democracy–which the great Deng Xiaoping was made to sound by Beijing’s propagandists to have promised the people of HK–is only part of the reason they want to elect their own officials. The greater reason is economic.

      Hong Kong people resent the hordes of China mainlanders who have taken over the real estate industry in the former British enclave. The activities of mainlanders, who started to operate in HK a few years before the handover and entered in a torrent after Beijing took control, created a gigantic real estate boom. This has driven the cost of owning a flat prohibitive for young HK professionals and their siblings. They, no one has noticed are living with their parents in very very very small flats. The HK legislature and its Chief Exec (he was called “governor” under the Brits) could make life a bit easier for HK locals. But Beijing-chosen officials don’t want to do that. They don’t want to go against the Beijing families and other very very rich northerners who come to Guangdong and Hong Kong, who buy up the New York–quality condos and invest in the housing market.
      Very few lowcost housing is npw availablet for young Hong Kong people to buy, In fact, there is now no more lowcost housing which the British governors made sure would be annually available.

      Another matter. Mr. Kritz, you may legally get into trouible if you do this if your are a non-Filipino citizen.

      Please use one of your columns to help awaken my countrymen to the reality that the monster called the SMARTMATIC AES WITH PCOS MACHINES has annihilated our imperfect but REAL electoral democracy and made the Philippines a BANANA REPUBLIC ruled by machine-made pseudo-elected “officials” and legislators.

      • The day I avoid a topic out of fear of legal trouble will be the day I hang this up and go back to selling car parts.

        Let me explain why I am not going to write (any more than this comment, at least) about the automated election scandal. While I do have the opinion that there is a disturbing amount of evidence that warrants an immediate, detailed, objective, and credible investigation and appropriate punishments if found to be warranted, there is an inconvenient problem that has to be addressed: A lot of these clowns were legitimately elected — there is a large body of evidence that suggests electoral cheating was not universal. For example, the LP’s hand-picked candidate for Cavite Gov. (Ayong Maliksi) was beaten handily by Johnvic Remulla, and worse still for the LP, Ping Lacson’s son was beaten like a gong for the Vice Gov.’s spot by one of the 743 unmemorable Revilla offspring, despite the intense personal efforts of Dad, who is a local boy and generally liked around here.

        My fellow columnist Marlen Ronquillo has written in the past how institutional train wreck and suspected swindler Zenaida Cruz-Ducut is loved in her home province, as well. The sad bottom line is, whatever cheating did occur (and I do believe a serious amount did occur), a lot of the country’s problems are STILL self-inflicted. And that’s a much bigger problem.

        The reason why is, suppose, against all odds, the elections of 2010 and 2013 are actually declared invalid in such a way that the current office-holders can’t just ignore the results. What then? No one has thought this through. If they do, and come up with a viable plan (and before you mention it, I don’t think the NTC is it, at this point), then maybe the whole thing will be a relevant and productive topic. I don’t think it is now.