The Continuing Hong Kong Impasse

I was in Hong Kong 10 days ago, which is now in its tenth week of demonstrations that began as a response to a proposed extradition law, but have since expanded to include other grievances and demands for democratic reforms. These include the following:

+ the resignation of the territory’s leader, Chief Executive Carrie Lam (widely viewed as a compromised proxy for mainland China);

+ that the extradition bill be completely withdrawn, rather than merely taken off the table for an unspecified period;

+ that all detained protesters be unconditionally released;

+ that the Hong Kong government withdraw all references to protests on June 12 as a “riot” (“rioting” being a serious crime with the accompanying legal charges); and

+ that an independent investigation be held into alleged police brutality.

My sense is that the scale of the protests has been exaggerated by western media and governments.

I was in Berkeley-Oakland during the Rodney King riots in 1992; and in Kingston, Jamaica, in May 2010, when security forces were trying to capture the drug kingpin Christopher “Dudus” Coke after the US requested his extradition. At least 73 civilians and 4 soldiers were killed, as the security forces engaged in gun battles in Kingston’s suburbs with Dudus’s posse and its allies, before Dudus was eventually captured.

There were curfews and extensive roadblocks in both Berkeley-Oakland and Kingston, but in nearly a week in Hong Kong I encountered neither, despite going into Kowloon and the New Territories.

Several western journalists were staying in our hotel, and they used its club lounge in the evening to debrief each other and to plan their assignments for the next day with local gofers. Their conversations were easy to overhear.

Basically they wanted to know where they had to go to see the next day’s demonstrations (if any). No such help was needed in Berkeley-Oakland or Kingston– pillars of black smoke rising high into the sky told everyone for miles around where the action was taking place.

Hong Kong has (so far) lacked the insurrectionary character of those events in Berkeley-Oakland and Kingston.

Of course, if it believes things have gone too far in Hong Kong, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) will probably justify its subsequent escalations or interventions by overstating the scale of the protests in Hong Kong.

It is easy to overlook the fact that both western governments and the PRC have a vested interest in this kind of overstatement.

At the same time, western governments are not going to do anything to antagonize China, despite repeated calls from the protesters for supportive interventions from the US and UK.

Trump is losing his tariff war with China, but is still having his 2020 campaign paraphernalia made there, and Ivanka has always had her fashion products made in China as well.

The desperate Brexiter Brits, on their knees for whatever bilateral trade deals they can snag after their looming EU exit, will probably crawl naked on broken glass for a trade deal with the world’s second biggest economy.

The UK has confined itself so far to having its Foreign Secretary call Carrie Lam to express his support for the right to peaceful protest. This is a platitude, but sufficient for the PRC to condemn the UK for “interference” in China’s affairs.

None of the above will be beyond the ken of Xi Jinping and his Central Committee colleagues. Xi, like Vladimir Putin, appears to have the full measure of his lightweight western counterparts.

The PRC, its obvious displeasure at events in Hong Kong notwithstanding, has not overreacted to the protests so far, and the west is likely to be kept on the sidelines by ensuring that there will be no Hong Kong equivalent of Tiananmen Square.

Beijing wants clearly to avoid a military occupation of Hong Kong while making no concessions to the protesters.

The Hong Kong protesters will therefore be on their own for the foreseeable future, having to rely on sources of support internal to their city.

This scenario is going to suit the beleaguered Carrie Lam, whose apparent strategy is a repetition of the one used to undermine and-down the 2014 anti-government Umbrella Movement.

In 2014 the protesters faced a government stonewall, and became more frustrated. This led early-on to more intense clashes with the police, but the protests petered-out as the government gained the upper-hand by allowing divisions in Hongkonger public opinion to be magnified.

There are similar divisions today.

The business community, looking after its own interests, is solidly pro-Beijing.

The protest movement is dominated by young people whose courage and idealism have been exemplary in the face of police overreaction (there has after all never been a police force anywhere whose mission is to spread peace, love, and understanding).

In the middle, as is so often case, is the so-called silent majority (mainly conservative, working class, and middle-aged), who don’t support Carrie Lam and the extradition bill, but who at the same time recoil from disruption and disorder.

Lam’s ploy, supported by Beijing, is to cast the protesters– a number of whom carried the British and American flags and who have thrown Chinese flags into the sea– as acting under “foreign influence”, and therefore not to be trusted by the silent majority.

Another Lam ploy, again supported by Beijing, is to say the protests are harming local businesses and affecting the future livelihoods of Hongkongers.

Whether this is true or not, last week Hong Kong’s stock market (the third largest in Asia behind Tokyo and Shanghai, and the fifth largest in the world) fell to its lowest point in eight months, dipping almost 10% in a month.

100% of Hong Kong’s employers and relevant employees, as well as 70% of those self-employed, belong to the Mandatory Provident Fund (MPF), a privately managed, mandatory provident fund scheme, with opting-out only allowed for those covered by certain employment-based retirement schemes.

The MPF’s funds are invested on the stock market, so a prolonged slide, which the authorities will probably blame on the unrest, could drain support for the protest movement.

But with both sides prepared to grind it out, it is hard to predict likely outcomes.

Indeed, as the French philosopher Louis Althusser used to say: “the future lasts a long time”.

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