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16 October 2019updated 09 Sep 2021 3:32pm

Hong Kong: not so special any more

A letter from Beijing on China's response to the Hong Kong riots.

By Benjamin Haas

If you ask Li Peishan, an accountant from the north-east Chinese city of Shenyang, about the ongoing pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, her stance is unequivocal.

“They promote Hong Kong independence with the goal of splitting China and destroying the country,” she said, echoing Beijing’s line almost to the word. Li is unclear why so many people have been demonstrating on a weekly basis – Chinese state media does not broach such matters – but she sees the protesters simply as a “violent mob”.

Li’s opinion is widespread in China and is reinforced by a strict censorship regime. Over tea I try to explain the desire for democracy and accountability behind the movement. But she mostly seemed annoyed that I had interrupted her shopping: “Democracy isn’t right for China, and they shouldn’t cause so much trouble and harm the entire society just for an idea.”

Since the founding of the People’s Rep has been viewed in China as a means of escape during times of famine and political upheaval, and as a gateway to the outside world with its infinite cultural and commercial possibilities. It offered an aspiration for a better life, an existence not dictated by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Now that China’s economy has developed unprecedented wealth for its citizens, people there think it is being magnanimous in granting special privileges to its colonial appendage. But this is a myth, promoted by the CCP, that will only widen the chasm that separates the “two systems” of Hong Kong and the mainland. Rather, a free, open and prosperous Hong Kong would give China something it could never buy: cultural capital.

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The years leading up to the handover between Great Britain and China in 1997 were hotly anticipated on the mainland. The pop star Ai Jing was catapulted to national fame in 1992 after she sang of the impending sovereignty swap in “My 1997”, a song in which she longs finally to travel to Hong Kong and reunite with her lover after failing to realise her dreams. Most middle-class Chinese people in their forties and fifties were raised on Hong Kong films and music, many gaining a cursory understanding of Cantonese from belting out Leslie Cheung tunes in karaoke parlours.

While Hong Kong remains vitally important for China in financial terms, Beijing’s plan was always to chip away at its autonomy, hoping its citizens would be content to get by in an increasingly unaffordable place or try to make their fortunes on the mainland. The territory’s role for the CCP, then, was never more than as a tool for financial gain, providing access to foreign capital and attracting international firms that could rely on Hong Kong’s robust legal system.

But many in China, hopped up on nationalism fed to them in school and in daily doses of state propaganda, have come to despise the idea of Hong Kong’s exceptionalism, and a city that has more in common with London or New York than its neighbours in China. They resent the air of superiority Hong Kongers have developed towards those on the mainland, and want to assert the mainland’s historic dominance over the diminutive territory.

“Hong Kong people seem to have difficulty accepting the reality that Hong Kong is now part of a strong and powerful China,” a senior executive at a tech company in Beijing told me. “Instead of embracing that and all the benefits it could bring, they still look down on mainland Chinese as backwards.”

All of this was summed up succinctly, if crudely, at a recent pro-Beijing protest in London, where a man held a sign that read: “Kneel down and lick your master’s ass.”

Chinese leader Xi Jinping is eager to show the world that it is no longer the weak and vulnerable country carved up by imperial powers in the 19th century, when Hong Kong was ceded to the United Kingdom. In his speech marking the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic on 1 October, Xi declared that “no force can shake the status of this great nation.”

But Xi does not want to deploy tanks to quell the increasing unrest in Hong Kong. Such action would be an admission that the British empire had done a better job of running the city, and that the “one country, two systems” model had failed. This is a form of rule that China still hopes one day to apply to Taiwan, but that now seems impossible after months of discontent in Hong Kong.

There is, however, also little hope of further concessions from Beijing. China’s leaders cannot accept the liberal democracy sought by the protest movement because it would go against their own system – a corrupt dictatorship that is disguised as a meritocracy. Granting Hong Kong the freedoms it was promised under the Basic Law – the territory’s constitution – would show that China’s political model had failed to take root on Chinese soil.

Since China’s communist revolution 70 years ago, Hong Kong’s people have always known they would be absorbed by their hostile neighbour – a countdown to 2047, when the territory’s autonomy expires, began on the night of the handover in 1997. Yet they continued to display a kind of purposeful fatalism, and while the CCP may ignore this, many who chafe under Beijing’s current rulers envy Hong Kong’s spirit of independence and even admire the pro-democracy protests.

An artist in Beijing told me he was in awe of Hong Kong’s perseverance in the face of seemingly impossible odds. He could not voice this opinion openly, since he has already been warned by local police to keep quiet after spending two months in jail for supporting Hong Kong’s Occupy Central protests – a 79-day occupation of the territory’s financial district – in 2014.

“I hope more people could learn something from the protests,” he said. “I don’t think we would ever see people on the streets, but maybe just push for China to open up a little more.” 

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This article appears in the 16 Oct 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Syria’s forever war