01.07.2015 Author: Vladimir Terehov

The Situation in Hong Kong Becomes Difficult Again

1403598548074_678Hong Kong again, as in the Autumn of last year, may become the focus of news agencies as a place where notable events in the world politics are unfolding. Though, the street protests that erupted here a year ago in connection with the recommendations of Beijing to change the procedure for electing local authorities managed to be dissipated rather quickly.

But on June 18 this year, the relationship between the Central Government of China and Hong Kong once again soured after the local government failed to obtain approval of these recommendations from the local legislature. However, before turning to the issues of the immediate and fundamental plan that arise in connection with the latest events in Hong Kong, it is necessary to touch briefly on its history.

Hong Kong became part of the British Empire in 1842 under the Treaty of Nanking, a document rare for its cynicism, even against the background of lawlessness of the nineteenth century committed by the “white enlighteners” in relation to “those being enlightened”. It was a consequence of the defeat of China during the reign of the Manchurian Qing Dynasty in the First Opium War of 1840-1842. At the time the British Empire solved its own problems of financial security of the colonial policy by violation of the ban on opium trade in China.

The transition from illegal to “legal” trade of drugs in China, grown on plantations in India, brought fabulous profits to the British Crown, but imposed on the ancient Chinese nation the prospect of a complete physical degradation by the end of the nineteenth century.

According to the Sino-British Declaration of 1997, Hong Kong became a part of China under the political slogan of “one country, two systems”. Its specific content was reflected in the fact that over the next 50 years, the Special Administrative Region (SAR) of Hong Kong had to undergo a sort of socio-political and economic adaptation to the “mainland” which was formally in charge of only defence and foreign policy.

The current system of governance of Hong Kong is largely inherited from the last years of the colonial period. Local laws are made by the Legislative Council currently composed of 70 deputies and the government, which is actually controlled by the Chief Minister, is engaged in current affairs. The Chief Minister is a key person in the Hong Kong power system, and that is why Beijing, as well as Hong Kong’s population, places such importance on the election procedure. So far, according to the current local constitution, he has been elected by a special committee which today includes 1,200 people representing primarily the business community in Hong Kong.

The new procedure proposed by Beijing in late August last year for electing the Chief Minister is much more democratic from the outside, because it involves not the election committee but universal suffrage. But the people of Hong Kong will have to choose one of three candidates who are subject to prior approval by the central authorities. It will also approve the results of the elections.

Such democracy is unacceptable to the politically active part of Hong Kong, that is, students. In September 2014, the streets of Hong Kong were filled with protesters, whose actions received the name “Umbrella Movement” in the Western media. Umbrellas are common attributes of Hong Kong during the rainy season. It is noteworthy that among the student protesters, there were quite a few Taiwanese who chose to study at the Hong Kong’s Universities. The “Umbrella Movement” was also supported by Taiwan where there are similar problems with the “mainland“.

After the recession of street activity last fall, the process of resolving the intrigue that arose in the relations between Beijing and Hong Kong moved into the buildings of the Legislative Council. As far as one of the fundamental provisions of the local constitution was to be changed, the Beijing “recommendations” required the approval of a qualified majority of the Legislative Assembly, as well as the approval of the current Chief Minister.

However, only 8 deputies voted for the new draft law introduced by the local government, with 28 against. The rest either abstained or were simply absent from the voting hall.

Judging by the reaction of the Chinese press to this setback, Beijing was confident in success. Today diatribes are distributed against some of the dissenters in the “pan-democratic” forces. So, almost immediately after the vote, the Office for Hong Kong and Macao under the State Council urged local activists to stop “politicking and focus on solving economic problems“. To illustrate this statement, the Chinese government publications refer to graphs showing negative changes in some important indices of business activity in Hong Kong over the last five years. These include decrease in growth rates of GDP, influx of tourists from the “mainland”, and retail volume.

There are, however, doubts about validity of cause-effect sequence of the onset of the falling growth rate of the economy of Hong Kong (2010-2012) and concurrent political activities of the “pan-democratic” forces of Hong Kong. It is possible that such correlation is present. But we must not forget the continuing decline since 2008 of global economic activity as a whole, to which the economy of Hong Kong (to maintain its status of one of the world’s major financial and trading centres) is very closely tied.

With a territory two and a half times smaller than Moscow and a population just over 7 million, Hong Kong takes 40th place in the world in terms of GDP. The annual income per capita is USD38.5 thousand which is on par with the United Kingdom and Japan. Although Hong Kong is not an independent state, it fields a delegation to the Olympic Games separate from China and is involved in several other international events and fora (e.g. APEC) under the name “Hong Kong, China”.

Most likely, the high standard of living and the prevailing status quo in the format of Hong Kong’s relations with the “mainland” are quite satisfactory to the population of the former, who (as well as Taiwanese) do not want to change anything. However, it is possible that the Chinese official media has reasonable grounds for the allegations, according to which the “pan-democrats” that blocked the Beijing’s much-needed bill represent only themselves in Hong Kong.

Nevertheless, more reliable is a version of undue haste of the central government of China in attempting to reorganize the political system of Hong Kong. The process of adapting the Hong Kong SAR to the “mainland” may be more or less painless only with extreme caution and the gradual introduction of innovations. So far, judging by the comments of the Chinese press, the position of the central government with respect to the procedure for electing the Chief Minister remains the same and reduces to the confirmation of proposals of August 2014.

As for the “externalities” of provoking political turbulence in Hong Kong (according to the developed scenario of “colour revolutions”), it is completely possible to permit their occurrence.

Moreover, it would be strange if these factors were absent. In the context of the global two-way game (the main participants of which are the USA and China), each of the top players always uses the weaknesses of the competitor.

Currently, one of the China’s main weaknesses is its difficulty reconciling new external conditions with one of the main objectives of the state, which reduces itself to the restoration of the (once lost) “unity of the nation and the national territory”.

There is no doubt that there was a blatant injustice towards China in the nineteenth century. One of the most shameful pages in the history of the modern “civilized world” is tied to the China of that time. But the century and a half since then, not only the global political world, but also China’s “lost” territories and their populations have radically changed. Without taking these changes into consideration, it is impossible to solve one of the key issues of the China’s government.

The efforts of the external directors of “colour revolutions” are doomed to fail if their object does not create the right conditions for it.

Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the Asia-Pacific region, specially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.