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Why Hong Kong Should Have Self-Rule

Hong Kongers have earned the right to genuine self-rule. This could still happen even within the framework of “one country, two systems.” Hong Kong police have now shot real as well as rubber bullets and used water cannon against demonstrators. People’s Liberation Army forces have been reinforced in Hong Kong.

Even as threats from Beijing and Hong Kong authorities mount, pro-democracy demonstrations continue. Why? The Hong Kong journalist Thomas Hon Wing Polin writes (CounterPunch, September 2, 2019) that the root problem is the “enemy within”—large swathes of the Hong Kong civil service “attached to Western values” and not to the rightful “sovereign,” i.e., Chjna. Indeed, some 80 percent of Hong Kong judges, Polin laments, are “pro-democracy.” How horrific!

In the same vein as Mr. Polin, former Hong Kong leader Tung Chee-hwa asserted last July that the civics class mandatory in high school since 2009 is “one of the reasons behind the youths’ problems today.” The “liberal studies curriculum is a failure,” he said. According to Tiffany May and Amy Qin (New York Times, September 2, 2019), liberal studies was introduced by British colonial authorities as an elective in 1992 Its advocates now say the course teaches students to be analytical and objective, even when it comes to examining the Communist Party’s flaws. In mainland schools, by contrast, children as young as age seven are taught to love the party and embrace “Xi Jinping Thought.” Ideological purity—not truth—is the priority. Authorities in Beijing and in Hong Kong are discussing how to reshape Hong Kong education. The city’s education bureau has told teachers that if asked “difficult questions” about current events, they should reply, “I don’t know” or “I don’t understand it either.’ But the Hong Kong Professional Teachers Union declared its support this summer for students participating in peaceful protests.

Jonathan Power offers a very different explanation of Hong Kong unrest. The British gave China too good a deal “in accepting limits on Hong Kong’s democracy.” Indeed, they should have given Hong Kongers more self-role before departing as they did in India and Nigeria. Still, Power concedes, British governor-negotiator Chris Patten probably did all that he could to protect Hong Kong’s fledgling democracy (CounterPunch, August 30, 2019).

Like many Western leaders and observers, Patten had some grounds to hope that mainland China would gradually become more liberal or, even if this did not happen, Beijing would not smash the golden egg of a rather independent Hong Kong. Since 2012, however, Xi Jinping has tightened the screws within Han China, in Tibet and Xinjiang, and also in Hong Kong. All this adds to the reasons why Hong Kongers want guarantees against Being’s interventions.

While pro-Chinese and critics of China take sides, the reality is that Hong Kongers—the general public, civil service, educators, and business tycoons have produced an astonishing societal and commercial success. They have distinguished themselves from the “sovereign” in many profound dimensions. Hong Kong has skyrocketed to 7th in the world in “human development,” according to the UN Human Development Programme–far ahead of the United States at 13th and China at 84th. Hong Kong has the world’s highest expected life expectancy, 84.1–much higher than the USA, 79.5, and China, 76.4. Per capita income in Hong Kong is $58,420, again much better than the USA at $54,941 or China with $15,270.

Wealth gaps and high housing costs are serious problems, but Hong Kong has the means and brains to ameliorate them. The World Economic Forum says Hong Kong is the 7th most competitive economy in a world where the USA is still number one; where the United Kingdom ranks 8th and China is 28th. Hong Kong’s skill base is strong. Expected years of schooling in Hong Kong is 16.3 years, nearly equal to the USA at 16.5, and far ahead of China at 13.8. For its 7.4 million people Hong Kong has seven universities, available at low cost.

Unlike most Chinese, Hong Kongers have full access to the world. Some 88% of Hong Kongers use the Internet, far above the 76% in the USA or the 53% in China, where a great wall blocks access to many sites. There are 240 cell phone subscriptions for every 100 persons in Hong Kong versus 123 in the United States and 97 in China.

Freedom House ranks Hong Kong as partly free—strong in civil liberties but weak in political rights, while China is quite unfree in both domains. Transparency International says Hong Kong is the world’s 14th least corrupt country; China, the 87th.

Just over half of Hong Kongers (and mainland Chinese) in 2017 said they were overall satisfied with life compared to 70% of Americans. In 2019, however, as central authorities tighten their grip across all of China, large numbers of Hong Kongers have for months defied official admonitions, police tear gas and bullets, white shirted mercenary thugs, and military threats from Beijing. Hong Kong civil servants and other professionals have joined students to demand withdrawal of the notorious extradition bill. Whereas protests of just 2.5 percent of the population achieved major political change in Algeria and Sudan more than one in five or six Hong Kongers have taken part in pro-democracy demonstrations. They have done so with minimal support from Western governments, not even from Great Britain, whose 1984 joint declaration with China, according to Beijing, is now a non-binding historical document “lacking any practical significance.“

Hong Kong protests go far beyond the extradition bill. They challenge the premise that Hong Kong’s way of life can continue when subject to an increasingly repressive totalitarian dictatorship in Beijing. Like the American colonials who defied King George in the 1770s, Hong Kongers demand self-government. Like Americans then, Hong Kongers share much of the oppressor’s culture. Unlike the Americans, Hong Kongers speak a language, Cantonese, incomprehensible to most authorities in Beijing, and dislike being forced to learn and communicate in Mandarin. Unlike the Americans, Hong Kongers are too small in number and too close to the “sovereign” oppressor to fight for their freedom. But they are demonstrating their solidarity in ways that trouble Chinese authorities concerned for their reputation and image.

Americans won their freedom not just by arms but also by the moral appeal of their demand for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. They claimed that if government undermines these goals, people have a right to alter/abolish it and institute a new government. It is nearly unthinkable that Beijing would countenance independent statehood for Hong Kong. But authorities in Beijing could compromise with guarantees of real self-rule in Hong Kong. The “one country, two systems” principle would be modified to reserve all powers to Hong Kong except those specifically allotted to the central government in Beijing. It would ban all dictates and controls from the mainland on Hong Kong’s government, educational system, business practices, or way of life.

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Walter Clemens is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Boston University and Associate, Harvard University Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies. He wrote Complexity Science and World Affairs (SUNY Press, 2013).

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