How China deals with Hong Kong a key indicator for West

How China deals with Hong Kong a key indicator for West

Protesters are hit by police water cannon during a demonstration against a proposed extradition bill in Hong Kong, China. (Reuters)

As the Union Jack came down over Wan Chai on a hot summer evening in 1997, Hong Kong’s future as a special administrative region (SAR) seemed secure, guaranteed under the Sino-British Joint Declaration. As such, the city continued to grow as one of the most significant global financial centers, holding the world’s highest Financial Development Index score and consistently ranking as the most competitive and freest economic area in the world.

In 2014, however, a series of sit-in street protests, often called the Umbrella Revolution, took hold in the territory as a response to a growing encroachment by Beijing, which Hong Kong residents had long feared. More recently, protesters and authorities have clashed in Hong Kong again. This week, following almost continuous rioting, demonstrators removed a Chinese national flag from its pole and flung it into the city’s iconic Victoria Harbour as police fired tear gas.

How a newly muscular Beijing resolves this issue on its doorstep will be central to understanding how it will meet other challenges in the coming decades. In reality, the plight of far-flung Hong Kong is a lot closer to home as the international community learns to work with China going forward.

To many protesting out on the streets, independence is the only realistic long-term option. Many new political groups advocating for independence or self-determination have been established, as they deem the “one country, two systems” principle to have failed. The scene of protesters vandalizing buildings and throwing bricks while police fire tear gas and rubber bullets has become all too familiar in what should be one of the most advanced cities in the world.

As heavy rain fell on Sunday, Hong Kong’s 11th straight weekend of anti-government protests culminated in a large rally at the city’s Victoria Park. Thousands chanted, “Fight for freedom. Stand for Hong Kong.” Many protesters carried banners decrying alleged police brutality and what they claim is collusion between law enforcement and criminal gangs. Notably, others carried banners proclaiming “Hong Kong independence,” while Chinese state TV showed montages of riot police and heavy military vehicles drilling in nearby Shenzhen in an effort to show off the Chinese state’s ever-growing might.

Xi Jinping’s personal power play risks undermining everything that made China exceptional.

Zaid M. Belbagi

The two sides could not seem further apart; while the events themselves are an important juncture in respect to China’s growing authoritarianism. There is something familiar about the sense that Hong Kong’s very existence and the identity of its people is being deliberately quashed by authorities who want to tie them closer to China. On the international stage, China has acted with impunity, threatening its neighbors in the Pacific, muscling in on the internal affairs of impoverished nations through aid administered on loan shark terms, and consistently undermining international policy on North Korea. Domestically, events in Hong Kong are symptomatic of a wider crackdown that has seen the arrest of pastors, the closing down of churches and the forced internment of Turkic-speaking Muslim ethnic minorities in “re-education” camps, where they are subjected to political indoctrination, including being forced to give up their faith.

According to Michael Abramowitz, the president of Freedom House, which conducts an annual study of 65 countries, such behavior is most definitely on the rise. “Democracies are struggling in the digital age, while China is exporting its model of censorship and surveillance to control information both inside and outside its borders,” he said.

While for decades China managed to avoid most of the problems suffered by dictatorships, Xi Jinping’s personal power play risks undermining everything that made the country exceptional. Troubles in Hong Kong are but one representation of how, in the place of what was always a flawed but highly successful system, a colossal cult of personality focused on the premier alone and bolstered by an ever-growing police state has concentrated more power in his hands than any Chinese leader since Mao Zedong.

The world was slow to respond to Hong Kong’s political crisis, mostly owing to the fact that Chinese trade and investment has become critical to the global economy. Between 1978 and 2013, the Chinese economy grew by an average rate of 10 percent a year, producing a tenfold increase in average income. This has created a spectacular consumer market for international companies and endless opportunities. However, China’s general slowing down and its concern over US-imposed tariffs has also highlighted how vulnerable it is and how incredibly reliant it is on global trade.

Hong Kong’s political crisis originally began as opposition to a bill that would have allowed extradition to mainland China, but it has now mushroomed into the demands of a forward-thinking people rebelling against the unrepresentative Hong Kong government and even Chinese sovereignty itself. The values being upheld by the semi-autonomous territory, which remains culturally, politically and linguistically distinct from the mainland, are the same values that the international community holds dear. The West’s response to the so-called Arab Spring was duplicitous, half-hearted and at times restricted genuine protest movements from reaching their potential. The international community cannot now stand by and watch one of the world’s key financial centers become strapped into the straitjacket of Chinese authoritarianism.

  • Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator, and an adviser to private clients between London and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Twitter: @Moulay_Zaid
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