Hong Kong Demonstrations

Having recently read an article in ForeignPolicy.com on the demonstrations in Hong Kong the issue of over-simplification of issues, and stark black and white judgements, often casting China in a villainous role prompted me to write the following comment on the article.

I found this article at times almost unbelievably superficial and often unable to withstand scrutiny. For example, take the paragraph

“The demonstrators in Hong Kong aren’t just demanding democracy. They’re also asserting their own identity in the face of increased efforts by Beijing to impose greater homogeneity on its far-flung territories — a trend exemplified by the sentencing last week of Uighur academic Ilham Tohti to life imprisonment.”

There is the use of the word democracy as if it has a universal, unambiguous meaning. There are many different forms of democracy, calling this a movement for democracy gives newspaper headlines that afford a gratuitous slap to Beijing, but it fails to pick up on what is arguably the more important points.

We’re told Hong Kong people are asserting their own identity. Really? What identity would that be? This notion may support the argument that follows – Beijing attacking diversity within the regions – but it stands no scrutiny. The referenced but not reconciled “identity” is a hollow sound bite that adds nothing to our understanding of the situation. Surely what the demonstrators are asserting is their political voice. This is their right by law. However, lest we get carried away with the thought that Hong Kong is pioneering some roadmap for itself (and by wishful thinking, the rest of China) to an inevitable embrace of western-style liberal democracy, we should keep in mind that these demonstrations are over the pre-election vetting of candidates that sits within an agreed and established wider democratic process.
In the UK there is no mechanism for the public to elect the Prime Minister, and in the United States the electoral colleges select Presidential candidates who the people then vote on. You may argue they’re not the same things, and you’d be right. But are they any less undemocratic?

The article claims that there are “increased efforts by Beijing to impose greater homogeneity on its far-flung territories.” Can this really be substantiated? At the very best Beijing’s approach is an attempt to maintain the status quo. And surely the one country two systems framework is a huge fly in this particular ointment.

As for citing IL ham Tohti to support the point, this seems odd as he lived in Beijing. Besides, the charges against him were of separatist activities. Whatever one’s views on the case, the historical treatment of China by western powers and Japan led to hypersensitivity around the issues of sovereignty and territorial integrity that remain today. Though long a protectorate of China, Xinjiang only formally became a province under the Qing in 1884 as a means to try and safeguard China’s territorial integrity. At the heart of Tohti’s case is, that same safeguarding principle, and has little, if anything, to do with some supposed Orwellian plot by Beijing to bring about a homogenous state. The Chinese are, if nothing else, pragmatic, and such, a plan to homogenise China would be scrapped before the ink had dried. Resistance would come from every province, which, contrary to what seems to be a widely accepted view, enjoys significant amounts of autonomy within what is effectively a federalist state.

This highlights one of the many fault lines within this article: the treatment of the situation in Hong Kong as a “them and us”, Hong Kong versus China; as if China is a monolith rather than a vast country of incredible complexity and glaring contradictions. To raise the possibility that Shandong or Hunan, or any of China’s 34 provinces (or equivalents) could be as strongly opposed to the direction of travel coming from Beijing as those demonstrating in Hong Kong undermines the article’s primary draw string – our pre-occupation in the west with a simplistic idealised view of democracy and freedom, needing to be ever-vigilant in offering support for the fledgling pleas by oppressed peoples the world over for democracy. It’s a redundant duality of the cold war.

Are we not blind to some uncomfortable truths? LHM51 glories in the fact that “Hong Kong was fortunate to have been a British colony, having been as it was, steeped in British political sensibilities and traditions of liberty and self-soverignty.” Let’s not dwell on Britain’s use of military force so that she could continue to illegally peddle opium to the Chinese people, and as compensation for the insolence of China trying to put an end to the trade acquired Hong Kong from which to co-ordinate its illegal and immoral activities. Nor that Hong Kong was for perhaps a century little more than an elitist club for foreigners, and local Chinese were denied the dignity of equality – and the thought of “self-soverignty” so insanely preposterous that there really is little point in discussing it. Let’s move to the relatively more enlightened 50 years or so post world war two. By 1945 Hong Kong had been under British rule (save for a short period under the Japanese) for 102 years. LHM51, along with just about every western commentator on the current demonstrators seem unaware that by the handover back to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, ending 156 years of British rule, Hong Kong had no tradition of democracy, and the only “British political sensibilities” it was steeped in was the direct appointment of the Governor by mandarins in London.

Chris Pattern, having lost his seat in the British Parliament, was compensated by his former political colleagues (who had secured a fourth Conservative term governing the United Kingdom) by being appointed the 28th and last Governor of Hong Kong – Hong Kong people had no say in his, or any of the other 27 Governors. In his memories, former Prime Minister John Major revealed he had earmarked Pattern to be Chancellor of the Exchequer. The will of the British people put an end to such plans, and so he was dispatched to a place where the will of the people counted for nothing – Hong Kong. Most of the other 27 Governors were, at least, appointed on merit. It is difficult to see Pattern’s appointment as anything more than old-fashioned nepotism, a job for one of the boys – perhaps this is one of the British political sensibilities and traditions mentioned!

There had been calls for universal suffrage in the 1988 elections to Hong Kong’s Legislative Council (LEGCO). Britain would not entertain the idea. Pattern had different ideas, and for the 1995 elections introduced universal suffrage, with the people able to vote in 20 of the LEGCOs 60 seats, interest groups elected the others, though for the first time none were directly appointed by the governor.

It is perhaps worth noting that the response by the people of Hong Kong to their newfound political enfranchisement hardly reflected glory back onto the system. Only about half of those eligible to vote even bothered to register. Of those, only 27% actually exercised their right to vote – meaning less than 14% of those eligible to vote did so.

This eleventh hour attempt at introducing democracy (two years before the handover) hardly gives Britain the moral high ground from which many expect her to speak. Arguably too little too late, it felt to many like Britain had ruled Hong Kong with little if any regard for the will of the people, but was hell bent on ensuring that China could not. It certainly left (and leaves) Britain open to allegations of hypocrisy.

In contrast, each of the Chief Executives (the replacement for Governor) since China resumed sovereignty have been elected – perhaps not democracy in a form practiced in the west, but undoubtedly “more democratic” than the appointment of Governors by anonymous officials in London, and “more democratic” than any elections held under the British for the LEGCO.

As difficult as it may be to leave behind the baggage of the cold war, and the comfort of a childlike belief in them and us, good and bad, we must surely begin to reframe our understanding of China. References such as “the browbeaten masses of the mainland”, “tyranny in mainland China”, “crude, bumptious, grasping “locusts” spawned by a corrupt, authoritarian regime” and “China needs to learn and adopt western political openness and democracy” say infinitely more about their authors than it does of China.

China is different. Expecting her to be the same as the west is naive, one might say arrogant. Recognising that difference, even when you don’t agree with it, is the only way of developing an understanding that reflects reality, and is essential if we are to build bridges between China and the west.

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