Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam served up a cringe-inducing display of self-criticism on 18 June, no doubt prepared by Beijing strategists and resembling a watered-down Cultural Revolution struggle session, note analysts Jianli Yang and Aaron Rhodes. But it nevertheless failed to assuage concerns about proposed extradition legislation that could, if enacted, land Hong Kongers before Communist Chinese courts. While Lam and the Chinese leadership had agreed to suspend the bill, she refused to retract it, and only predicted that consideration would lapse by the end of the current session of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council in July 2020.
While making perfunctory references to the importance of the Rule of Law for the people of the city, she returned repeatedly diverted discussion to the theme of “economic development” and “improved livelihoods.” In this, Lam harmonized with Chinese Communist leaders who, when defending the country’s abysmal human rights practices in international forums, perpetually cite rising standards of living as evidence of human rights compliance, and as an excuse for the denial of freedoms.
But the people of Hong Kong, who have been raised in freedom and individual rights in a British common law system with independent courts, will not be comforted by those crude tactics. Indeed, the withdrawal of the rendition bill would not ease their deep anxieties about the future, because Hong Kong is moving, seemingly irrevocably, into China’s totalitarian political orbit.
Hong Kong’s current lease on freedom expires in 2047, at the end of the 50-year period in which its current political and economic system is allowed to exist side-by-side with that of the mainland. The recent protests — proportionally, the largest in modern political history — are the protests of a people being legally led into captivity. What is more, Hong Kongers know that their freedoms are being incrementally encroached upon now, well before the deadline. Figures loyal to Beijing control the Legislative Council. Civil liberties have been eroded, evidenced by jailings, expulsions and kidnappings of political undesirables. Chinese rulers are noted for their long view, but Xi Jinping is apparently not waiting for 2047 to achieve the dream of absorbing Hong Kong back into China, a dream shared by millions who still deeply resent its seizure and colonization by the British in the 19th Century.
The protests, being more than just about the danger of rendition, will likely go on, and the confrontation may well evolve into a life-or-death struggle pitting freedom in Hong Kong against the very survival of Communist Party rule in China. Chinese censorship authorities have tried to minimize mainland reaction, keeping news about the protests, and Beijing’s stand-down, out of media and the Internet, and official media have even preposterously claimed that the massive demonstrations in Hong Kong were demonstrations against American interference. But, Hong Kong and China being in many ways one society, information and opinions move freely between people, out of the reach of restrictive technology.
Many members of the Beijing political and business elite also fear China’s courts, sympathize with the aspirations of the Hong Kong demonstrators, and may be emboldened by the regime’s retreat before freedom-demanding citizens, its first since Tiananmen Square. With the battle for Hong Kong now shifting to the mainland, and becoming a battle for China, the official silence of the past few days may suggest a power struggle.
The outcome could be tragic. Chinese chat rooms show substantial disdain, even hatred for the people of Hong Kong and their actions; those feelings are perhaps driven by resentment, but they also draw upon historically deep-seated feelings of being humiliated by the West, and traditional fears of disorder and chaos. Chinese ethno-nationalism has been blossoming, stoked by the country’s ascendance as a global power and by Xi’s “fascism with Chinese characteristics.” Sensing the erosion of his power, and keen to avoid Gorbachev’s mistakes, Xi could order a military crackdown, taking the long view that China can and should weather a storm of condemnation in order to preserve his legacy.
The border between mainland China and Hong Kong, like that which divided two Germany’s, is not a border between peoples, but one between profoundly different political sensibilities. The right to a fair trial, which requires independent courts, is among the most consequential human rights, protecting core political freedoms. But in mainland China, all legal enforcement agencies are subordinate to political forces; Xi has made a point of denouncing and attacking the very idea of judicial independence, and there is no prospect for reform. How would Hong Kongers ever be able to live under such a system? It is hard to avoid the conclusion that, in the course of the current conflict, Hong Kong will either liberate China, or be crushed by it.
Given its unique history, its ad hoc political relations with and its proximity to mainland China, Hong Kong has inevitably become a front line of the 21st century value war between autocratic China and the free world. The world democracies cannot afford to look on with folded arms.
Jianli Yang is founder and president of Citizen Power Initiatives for China, a Tiananmen Massacre survivor, and a former political prisoner in China. Aaron Rhodes is president of the Forum for Religious Freedom-Europe and author of The Debasement of Human Rights (Encounter Books, 2018).