Protests in Hong Kong have spiraled into a clash of East and West, communism and democracy.
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The massive, violent demonstrations that stopped Hong Kong in its tracks this summer—even as protesters went so far as staging the largest-ever shutdown of a major airport—had perhaps as many angles as participants.
For one, China viewed the protests as a challenge and potential embarrassment to its authority.
At first, it appeared Beijing was prepared to deal with the protests using a militaristic hand. In July, it deployed fresh troops to the semi-autonomous Chinese city. Video broadcast on China Central Television showed a long convoy of armored personnel carriers and trucks crossing the border at night and troops in formation disembarking a ship.
“This time the task has a glorious mission. The responsibility is great. The job is difficult,” an unnamed major said to troops before they departed. “The time for a true test has arrived!”
Yet Beijing stopped short of a forceful intervention. “We believe the [Hong Kong] government has the capability to calm down the current situation,” a deputy commissioner of the foreign ministry office in the city said.
Even as Communist leaders celebrated 70 years in power on October 1, they stood by as protests escalated after a teenager was shot by a Hong Kong police officer.
On the other hand, many democracy-loving residents of Hong Kong see their city as a “capitalist enclave in a Communist empire” (as Time reported) that is preparing to take over. The city, once under the British crown, was returned to China in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” framework, which promises certain democratic rights not afforded on the mainland. These concessions are slated to remain in place until 2047.
In recent years, however, some residents have accused Beijing of steadily eroding these special freedoms. They went so far as to stage a demonstration in front of the U.S. embassy demanding Washington’s intervention.
Consequently, Beijing has slammed the protests as efforts by criminals to split the territory from China, backed by what it said were hostile foreigners.
Yet another group of demonstrators urged others to not listen to “extremists” seeking foreign intervention, suggesting that would only further complicate Hong Kong’s cause.
For all its viewpoints, the city’s upheaval did have a definite starting point.
The protests began in June against legislation pushed by the city’s leader, Carrie Lam, that would have allowed criminal suspects to be sent to mainland China for trial. Mrs. Lam, who was elected as the city’s chief executive by a pro-Beijing committee of Hong Kong elites, has come under withering criticism for pushing the extradition bill. Many in Hong Kong saw the bill as a glaring example of the city’s eroding autonomy.
This pushed demonstrators clad with black T-shirts, masks and hard helmets to break into the city’s legislature building on the anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover to China on July 1. There they spray-painted walls and furniture with slogans like: “Hong Kong is not China, not yet.” Across the city, the activists infiltrated government offices and defaced portraits of the city’s leaders.
Since then, clashes with police have become increasingly violent as the demands evolved into wider calls for democracy.
Despite the uncertainties on how to handle the situation, it is clear Hong Kong has become a battleground between dichotomies—between capitalism and communism, democratic liberties and authoritarian stability, and—arguably—the United States and China.
Ultimately, many fear Hong Kong is the clearest example of a resurgent Communist China and a possible relapse into Cold War-type thinking.
Chinese authorities have long eyed the former British port and subtly worked to win control of the city.
“Under President Xi Jinping, the Communist Party has quietly used its levers of social control: the freest courts, schools, media and economy on Chinese soil,” Time reported. “‘Just as he’s cracked down on any signs of dissidence in mainland China,’ says Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong, there has been a ‘whittling away of free speech, the autonomy of universities, an undermining of the rule of law, and that’s increased people’s anxieties.’”
Another of these quiet “levers” of control is the use of the Chinese national anthem, played during the handover of Hong Kong from Great Britain in 1997. It is emblematic of the kind of spirit Beijing seems to want to first impose on, then imprint into, Hong Kong’s DNA.
The anthem, which includes the lyrics, “With our flesh and blood, let’s build a new Great Wall! China is now facing its greatest danger,” and “millions of hearts together,” was originally written to represent the fight against Japan prior to the start of World War II. It was later adopted to glorify Mao Zedong’s Communist China.
Today, it is likely China views democracy as the force from which it must protect itself.
When the city was handed over from the British crown, Beijing mandated that government-funded schools require its students to sing the anthem at flag-raising ceremonies. Though the rules were long ignored, it was reiterated in 2004 following mass demonstrations and now most schools are holding such ceremonies. Ever since 2004, Hong Kong’s TV networks are required to begin evening news with government prepared promotionals including the song.
However, the majority of Hong Kongers are not proud or fond of the anthem.
Thousands of Hong Kong soccer fans booed loudly and turned their backs when the Chinese national anthem was played before a World Cup qualifier match against Iran on September 10, taking the city’s months of protests into the sports realm.
The crowd broke out into “Glory to Hong Kong,” a song reflecting their campaign for more democratic freedoms. After the match started, fans chanted “Fight for freedom” and “Revolution of Our Times.”
In an appeal to the U.S., some protesters waved American flags and sang “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
“We, Hong Kongers and Americans, are united by our yearning for freedom and dignity,” some placards read. Some urged Washington to intervene.
Hong Kong billionaire Jimmy Lie told CBS: “We are fighting a war. We are fighting with the same value against a dictatorship which will become the greatest competitor to the Western values in future.”
The demonstrations appear to show that, at their very core, Hong Kongers identify more with the American way of life than their own Chinese neighbors!
A survey from the University of Hong Kong revealed that only 11 percent of the city’s residents call themselves Chinese citizens. Seventy-one percent of those in the city said they are not proud about being Chinese citizens.
Such deep-seated division is strikingly odd for two cities that share a language, culture and land—akin to Los Angeles or New York City defying the federal government in Washington.
Their unique histories explain the rift.
Hong Kong’s character is heavily flavored by the more than 150 years it was under the authority of the British crown.
“The United Kingdom had held Hong Kong as a colony since 1841, when it occupied the area during the First Opium War,” the National Geographic reported. “The war broke out after Qing-dynasty China attempted to crack down an illegal opium trade that led to widespread addiction in China. Defeat came at a high cost: In 1842, China agreed to cede the island of Hong Kong to the British in perpetuity through the Treaty of Nanjing.”
Finally, a treaty in 1898 called the Convention for the Extension of Hong Kong Territory effectively gave the prosperous trading port in its entirety into British hands for a 99-year period.
During that century, “British Hong Kong’s trajectory was different from that of mainland China, which became a Communist country in 1949,” National Geographic continued. “Up to 100,000 Chinese found refuge in Hong Kong after the Communist Party took power. Capitalist Hong Kong soon experienced an economic boom, becoming home to a multicultural, international community.”
When the deadline neared, the “one country, two systems” principle was adopted. In it, China granted the prosperous trading city another 50 years of autonomy in every area except foreign affairs. The city has its own legal systems, borders and rights such as free speech.
Hong Kong’s special status continued from 1997 without any serious threats. But starting in 2014, candidates for Hong Kong’s leaders were vetted by Beijing. That, along with the recent extradition bill, has triggered the mass protests fueled by concern that China is working to cut short the 50-year guarantee of freedoms.
“Mr. Xi, who is 66 and in his seventh year of his now unlimited tenure as the country’s paramount leader, has cast himself as an essential commander for a challenging time,” The New York Times reported of Xi Jinping, China’s president. “He has been lionized in the state news media as no other Chinese leader has been since Mao.”
While economic reforms in the 1970s had the West thinking China would slow-walk its way to democracy, the opposite appears to be the case.
National Interest wrote on the growing concerns: “Under President Xi Jinping, China has become noticeably more authoritarian, not less, at home. His presidency has been characterized by an insistence that all individuals in positions of responsibility devote more serious study of and adherence to Marxist-Leninist doctrine. He has conducted a systematic purge of the Party’s ranks in the name of combating corruption. Although that appeared to be a reasonable justification in some cases, given the level of corruption that had developed along with China’s meteoric economic growth, in other cases Xi seemingly used it as a pretext to get rid of personal and ideological rivals.”
Mainland China is not just seeing political crackdowns. Forbes described a rise in “antagonistic behavior toward religious minorities.”
“In May 2015 and April 2017, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) reiterated its commitment to the ‘Sinicization’ of China’s religions, which is the CCP’s attempt at both secularizing and subjugating religious thought and practice to the control of the party.
“Sinicization runs concurrent with a decision made in October 2017 at the 19th Party Congress to write ‘Xi Jinping thought’ into the Chinese constitution (a move similar to those made previously by Mao and Deng Xiaoping).”
Chinese authorities are accused of placing over a million Uighur Muslims and Christians in re-education camps. In 2018, it demolished a megachurch that had 50,000 congregants.
There are also China’s increasing aggression toward Taiwan and territorial domination in the South China Sea, its One Belt and One Road initiative, and the pushback against the United States through a trade war—all exclusively recent examples of Beijing’s assertiveness under President Xi.
Think: What does this mean for Hong Kong?
“If the view from Hong Kong is one of impending doom, the view from mainland China has been one of irritation,” Time reported. “China is a nation of 1.4 billion people, and Hong Kong no longer a key portal. Its residents are seen as spoiled and disloyal, the problem as distant and isolated.”
“Yet the signs of Beijing’s growing impatience are hard to miss. Having initially blacked out news of the protests, China is now spreading misinformation freely.”
“The crisis has become a test of Xi’s willingness to show restraint and abide by global norms. What is unfolding in Hong Kong is the largest, most visible repudiation of Beijing since the pro-democracy rallies at Tiananmen Square in 1989, which ended in a state-sanctioned massacre of unarmed activists. Few believe a repeat of that event is likely…”
So far, the jostling has been limited to the protesters themselves and their local government officials. But that does not preclude the possibility that, if agreements are not reached soon, the conflict in Hong Kong could turn even more violent.
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned global leaders of the looming risk of the world splitting in two, with the United States and China creating rival internets, currency, trade, financial rules “and their own zero sum geopolitical and military strategies.”
In his annual “state of the world address” to the General Assembly’s gathering of heads of state and government, Mr. Guterres said the risk “may not yet be large, but it is real.”
That risk was practically confirmed as China’s Communist Party marked 70 years in power with a military parade showcasing the country’s global ambitions.
Trucks carrying nuclear missiles designed to evade U.S. defenses, a supersonic attack drone and other products of a two-decade-old weapons development effort rolled through Beijing as soldiers marched past President Xi and other leaders on Tiananmen Square. Fighter jets flew over spectators who waved Chinese flags under a cloudy autumn sky.
The display highlighted Beijing’s ambition for strategic influence to match its status as the second-largest global economy.
Those strategic goals include displacing the United States as the Pacific region’s dominant power and enforcing potentially volatile claims to Taiwan, the South China Sea and other disputed territories.
“No force can stop the progress of the Chinese people,” Mr. Xi said in a nationally televised speech.
Supported by China’s economic boom, military spending has risen 400 percent over the past decade as Beijing tries to match the United States, Russia and Europe in weapons technology.
The People’s Liberation Army, the world’s biggest military with 2 million men and women in uniform, also is working on fighter planes, the first Chinese-built aircraft carrier and a new generation of nuclear-powered submarines.
In a speech a day before the parade, Mr. Xi reminded Taiwan, which Beijing claims as its own territory, of the ruling party’s pledge to unite the self-ruled island with the mainland, by force if necessary.
Whether that happens to Taiwan or Hong Kong, and if the United States does get drawn in, the world may have to prepare for a new Cold War.