The Way Forward in Hong Kong

Photograph Source: Studio Incendo – CC BY 2.0

I am in Hong Kong, never having been there before. But having been to mainland China several times a year in the past decade, the urge to draw comparisons is irresistible.

Of course, unlike the mainland which never was a part of the British empire, the vestiges of Hong Kong’s colonial past are everywhere—from the British street names to the fact that driving is on the left-hand side of the road. Its legal and political systems are also derived from their British counterparts.

This colonial past posed problems when Britain’s 99-year lease on Hong Kong expired in 1997, and its sovereignty was returned to China.

The former colony became the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), administered under the formula “one country, two systems”.

This 1997 administrative formula runs for 50 years, and Hong Kong’s administrative relationship with mainland China will be reassessed and probably reconfigured in 2047.

The slogan “one country, two systems” effectively acknowledges that the wholesale integration of Hong Kong into the PRC was not going to be implemented, at least not until 2047 if at all.

A reflection of this is the fact that the official languages of Hong Kong are Cantonese Chinese (but not Mandarin as in mainland China) and English.

The limited self-government enjoyed by Hong Kong is viewed as a constraint by Hongkongers suspicious of the PRC. Only 50% of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council is directly elected and the Chief Executive (Hong Kong’s de facto political leader) is chosen by a Beijing-approved committee.

This is a system designed to limit mass political power by placing it in the hands of a plutocratic elite.

Equally, the PRC views self-government, limited though it is, as another kind of constraint, since it would clearly like a much firmer grip on Hong Kong’s affairs.

Tension between Hongkongers and the PRC has culminated in major protests on two occasions in recent years.

The Umbrella Movement protests took place between 26 September and 15 December 2014, and involved a number of occupied sites.

The protests began after the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPCSC) proposed reforms to Hong Kong’s electoral system. These reforms were alleged to involve the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) pre-screening of candidates for the election of the Chief Executive.

There was some violence, but the police adopted a strategy of attrition by clearing the occupied sites piecemeal, and the protest petered-out when the last site was vacated in the middle of December 2014. The protesters did not gain any concessions from the government.

The most recent protests began on 9 June this year, and are continuing as I write.

The protests arose over fears that the Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation (Amendment) Bill proposed by the Hong Kong government would weaken the separation between the Hong Kong and mainland China legal systems, by allowing Hong Kong residents to be extradited to the mainland if charged with crimes there.

The protesters are concerned that Hong Kong residents and even those visiting it would be subject to the jurisdiction of courts controlled by the CCP.

While the protesters fear extradition could be used as a weapon against political dissent, the PRC contends that Hong Kong tycoons (the city has the largest concentration of billionaires in the world), many with substantial business links to the mainland, are not accountable for their crimes and corrupt practices in mainland China because they remain beyond the reach of the latter’s legal system.

Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam, entrusted with overseeing the extradition legislation, is widely perceived to be a proxy for the CPP.

The protesters, whose organization is known as the Civil Human Rights Front, occupied Hong Kong’s parliament.

The Civil Human Rights Front is basically that— a front—and not a structured social or political organization.

The protesters, mainly young, avoided forming such formal organizations in order to forestall detection or infiltration by the authorities. They preferred social media as a means of communication and mobilization.

There was a right-wing “Hong Kong First” element in the 2014 Umbrella Movement, and although weakened since then, it still has a presence in today’s protests.

Some of this “Hong Kong First” tendency goes so far as to express nostalgia for British colonial rule, over the alternative represented by the PRC.

The anti-extradition movement has succeeded so far in getting Carrie Lam to announce an indefinite suspension in the extradition law’s implementation after a march of 2 million people (Hong Kong has a population of 7 million).

While the delay announced by Lam is clearly an attempt to stall and buy more time before a fresh attempt is made to reintroduce the extradition legislation, this foot-dragging may not be to the advantage of the protesters—to succeed, the latter need to maintain a constant momentum behind their protests, and Ms Lam’s decision to drag out the implementation-phase of her legislation seems to be an attempt to sap this momentum.

If this is Lam’s strategy, it has failed so far, as the protests continue. In this situation, a miscalculation by either side can escalate the other’s response.

This happened last week, when dozens of men, dressed in white and wearing masks, stormed a metro station in Yuen Long, clubbing passengers with baseball bats and iron bars. Most of those hurt were demonstrators returning from an anti-government rally.

The attackers were widely believed to belong to pro-Beijing triads, a suspicion confirmed for many by the fact that the police took their time in arriving when alerted to the attack, and stood around when another round of assaults took place.

Predictably, this attack precipitated further anti-government protests. The situation remains volatile, and the protests will continue, accompanied in all likelihood by increasingly harsh government responses.

Beyond thwarting what they see as the CCP’s attempt to weaken Hong Kong’s autonomy, the anti-extradition protesters have no settled political position or ideology.

Indeed, curbs on self-government, anywhere, often go hand-in-hand with a depoliticization of the general culture, so that single-issue politics becomes the most likely outlet for the collective expression of political convictions.

Both the 2014 and 2019 protests were/are single-issue based.

As mentioned, the 2014 demonstrations hinged on the CCP’s perceived attempt to increase its control over Hong Kong’s electoral process, and the current unrest pivots on the somewhat similar perception that the CCP wants more control over Hong Kong’s legal system.

This weddedness to a single-issue agenda is of course a weakness, as it usually is elsewhere in the world.

The forces behind the current protests have not shown much interest so far in the wider social and economic challenges facing Hong Kong. It was the same in 2014.

Apart from the young people, there is not much interest in upsetting the bigger cart in which Hong Kong’s “liberal-democratic capitalism” sits alongside the CPP’s “authoritarian capitalism”, even though the two riders may jostle each other with their elbows from time to time.

Of course contradictions exist in the configuration of this metaphorical cart: Hong Kong’s most ardent pro-Beijing supporters include a sizeable portion of its business community, who see close “connectivity” (a buzz word here) with the mainland as crucial to their continued or enhanced prosperity.

Like business communities elsewhere, the Hong Kong business elite is predisposed to valuing stability over democracy, however much lip service is paid to the latter.

A wider issue which should concern all protest movements here has surely to be Hong Kong’s unacceptably high level of economic inequality. Oxfam says Hong Kong’s economic inequality is at its highest in 45 years.

Citing Hong Kong’s Gini coefficient (the index measuring income distribution on a scale from zero to one), the South China Morning Post says:

“In June last year [2017] the figure for Hong Kong was 0.539, with zero indicating equality…. The United States was at 0.411 and Singapore 0.4579. Hong Kong’s number has climbed 0.006 points since 2006, according to the city’s Census and Statistics Department”.

The Post article goes on the say:

“In 2016 the median monthly household income of the top 10 per cent of Hongkongers was 43.9 times the bottom 10 per cent. The poorest would have to work three years and eight months on average to earn what the richest make in a month.

The city’s top 21 tycoons had assets collectively equalling Hong Kong’s HK$1.83 trillion fiscal reserves as of April, according to data published by Forbes. The top five tycoons earned HK$23.6 billion in dividends alone in 2016 and 2017. That amount was also never taxed as Hong Kong does not place a levy on dividends as part of efforts to maintain a ‘free economy’”.

So while Hong Kong’s GDP per capita in 2019 surpassed that of New Zealand, Spain, and Italy, its Gini coefficient ranking placed it among a cluster of African and South American countries.

While Hong Kong, by virtue of being a small island, is able to avoid some of the major pollution problems confronting the mainland, it still faces the immense challenge facing small overcrowded places, that is, the need to balance high population density with sustainable use of land that is in short supply and very highly priced on the property market as a result.

While local politicians find it convenient to blame Hong Kong’s pollution problems on the mainland’s factories, the story is more complex.

Hong Kong has the world’s highest traffic density, and its coal-fired power plants contribute an estimated 50% to its total pollution level.

A University of Hong Kong study showed that pollutants in Hong Kong’s air were three times higher than New York and double those of London.

Waste disposal is also a problem. Hong Kong dumps around two-thirds of its waste into landfills, and little is recycled. It is now running out of space for more landfills. Waste that used to be sent to the mainland can no longer be processed there—the PRC is not accepting such waste, even from Hong Kong.

The government’s approach to waste disposal is “too little too late”, according to critics. More funding is now being made available to local recycling facilities, and appeals have been issued to businesses and consumers to curb waste generation at its source.

A Reuters report says that “an average Hong Kong resident throws away around 1.4 kilograms daily, more than double that of Asian cities such as Tokyo, Seoul and Taipei, which have implemented extensive recycling programs”.

Hong Kong’s recycling industry, nearly all of it in the private sector, can’t even absorb the unprocessed waste now being turned-back from the mainland.

Environmentalists say the government needs to take direct control of the waste-management industry, and boost its resources massively. There is no sign of this being done.

Hong Kong protest movements concerning themselves with single issues (no matter how weighty these may be), can give themselves a more-than-ephemeral existence by seeking to ground themselves in the deeply-rooted difficulties confronting their society– social and economic inequality, air pollution, flawed waste management, and underlying all of these, neoliberal capitalism.

The impression of many is that the authorities allow little space for substantive public and democratic discussion of these large-scale issues, let alone the implementation of measures to address them.

But this is the only way forward— no matter how fraught and complex— for protest and resistance movements all over the world (the US and UK perhaps more than any other).

Hong Kong is no exception.


Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.