Future historians will look back on these weeks in the middle of 2019 and say this was the moment when the clashing attitudes of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the people of its troublesome Hong Kong outpost crossed a point of no return.
It is a period that has brought into sharp focus a parting of the ways between Beijing and Hong Kong that started soon after the territory was returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997.
This division has deepened and broadened as the years have passed and Hongkongers, especially the young, have become increasingly convinced that they possess a unique culture that is very different – and much better – in its civic values than what Beijing has to offer.
Recent polls show that about 55% of the territory’s seven million people identify themselves exclusively as “Hongkongers.” Only about 10% consider themselves just “Chinese.” The remaining 35% think of themselves as Hongkongers of ethnic Chinese heritage.
At the same time, the largely positive attitude towards Beijing held by a majority of Hongkongers at the time of the handover has disappeared. Now nearly 60% of Hongkongers deplore Beijing’s policies towards the territory, and only about 20% approve.
Determination to defend those values has intensified as Beijing has shown equally firm resolve not to give Hong Kong the degree of autonomy or the clear path towards full democracy the territory’s seven million people believe they were promised.
Until now, Beijing has been subtle in its response to Hong Kong nationalism and activism. The CCP has not wanted to harm the attractiveness of Hong Kong as a center for international business with and investment in China.
Beijing has also been aware, especially while in the midst of potentially catastrophic trade negotiations with the United States, that what happens in Hong Kong influences the attitudes of trading partners.
Another effect on Hong Kong’s attractiveness as a commercial gateway to China is a now visible flight of people from the territory to more attractive resting places.
Hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong people acquired second citizenships or residencies in the 1980s and 1990s before and after the handover.
These second passports, and homes in places like Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States, were insurance policies. Many of these people, especially the breadwinners, returned to Hong Kong to carry on taking advantage of its buccaneering approach to business.
Those attractions are now looking a lot less convincing.
Packing up and leaving
There are usually about 300,000 or so Canadians in Hong Kong. Most, but by no means all, are Hongkongers who acquired Canadian citizenship in the run-up to the handover. There is now substantial anecdotal evidence, but not yet any hard-and-fast numbers, that some of those people are packing up in Hong Kong and moving back to Canada, where most already have homes and families.
The 2016 Canadian census showed a significant movement of people from Hong Kong to Canada as people who had gone back to the territory to work reached retirement age. The first indication of the extent of the new flow of Canadians returning from Hong Kong will probably show up as pressures on social services.
One of the reasons why usually apolitical Hongkongers came out in their millions in the recent demonstrations was that business people fear the implications of the extradition law proposed by the administration and now shelved.
There is a long history of business people in China using corrupt officials and police to kidnap and hold hostage partners in contract disputes. Until now Hong Kong, with its British-style rule of law, has been a haven from which it was possible to do business in China without too much fear of being kidnapped, though it does happen.
Allowing officials from the mainland, where there is no rule of law and all judicial outcomes are decided by the Communist Party, to extradite people from Hong Kong is a real threat to the territory’s future as an entrepot. And that threat applies just as much to foreign business people based in Hong Kong as it does locals.
Taiwan watching closely
Events in Hong Kong are also having a profound affect in Taiwan.
The “One country, two systems” model of autonomy for Hong Kong’s return to Beijing’s sovereignty as a “Special Administrative Region” was meant to encourage Taiwan to accept a similar deal for political union with China.
Beijing’s clear determination not to allow democracy or any real autonomy in Hong Kong has already convinced the vast majority of Taiwanese, who have an independent country and a vibrant democracy, that they want nothing to do with union with China.
The Hong Kong demonstrations have thus revived the political prospects of Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen as general elections approach in January. Her political career looked over after her Democratic Progressive Party did badly in major municipal elections last year and she resigned from the party leadership.
But her fortunes have revived as the relationship with Beijing again dominates the issues in the Taiwan election.
The presidential candidate for the opposition Kuomintang is the mayor of the southern port and industrial city of Kaohsiung, Han Kuo-yu. Until recent events in Hong Kong, Han’s platform to seek closer economic ties with China in order to boost the island’s economy looked like a winning formula.
Polls now indicate Taiwanese voters are looking far more favorably on Tsai’s policies of keeping Beijing at arm’s length, maintaining Taiwan’s de facto independence and seeking trade partners elsewhere.
But events of the last few weeks suggest the CCP has come to the end of its patience both with Hong Kong and Taiwan.
Threat to invade
Most indicative of the crossing of that line was the thinly veiled threat from Beijing this week to use the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) garrison against Hongkongers, who continue to demonstrate in their hundreds of thousands for autonomy and political reform.
“The behavior of some radical protesters challenges the central government’s authority, touching on the bottom line principle of ‘One country, two systems’,” said a spokesman for the Ministry of Defense in a briefing on Beijing’s new defense policy. “That absolutely cannot be tolerated.”
The spokesman also used the occasion to reaffirm Beijing’s perennial threat to invade Taiwan if its 23 million people don’t soon agree to political union.
The Hong Kong demonstrations, which have drawn more than one million marchers on several occasions in the last few weeks, remain largely peaceful. But there have been increasingly frequent clashes between police and activist protesters, who have surrounded the police headquarters, invaded the Hong Kong Legislature and, on Sunday, defaced the entrance to Beijing’s liaison office in the territory.
In the past, the police have usually taken a calm and composed attitude towards protests and freedom of political expression, as Hong Kong’s distinct legal and human rights system requires. But in this latest round of demonstrations, the police have been accused of being far too eager to use tear gas and riot squad baton charges.
There is even substantial evidence that on occasion the police have instigated the violence for political purposes. Portraying the demonstrators as violent extremists might diminish international sympathy for them. Increasing the level of violence might also encourage the bulk of peaceful demonstrators to stay away from future marches.
The mounting social turmoil took a new twist this week when cudgel-wielding thugs, apparently from triad gangs, attacked and beat scores of people returning home from the demonstration marches.
While Deng Xiaoping and other Chinese leaders in recent years have called triads “patriotic organizations,” it is unlikely that the CCP ordered the fighters to attack the demonstrators. More likely is that local officials in Hong Kong were trying to curry favor with Beijing by using the triads to display their patriotism.
But the deployment of the triad fighters is a major and unpredictable escalation in the conflict between Hong Kong and the Beijing authorities.
The Hong Kong garrison of about 6,000 PLA soldiers has been largely invisible in the two decades since the 1997 return of the territory’s sovereignty to China after more than 150 years of British colonial rule.
The territory’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law, stipulates that the troops can only be used at the request of the Hong Kong authorities to respond to a natural disaster or to restore social order.
But the administration of Chief Executive Carrie Lam has been struck impotent by the public outcry against her attempt to introduce a law permitting extradition to China of people the Chinese Communist Party considers criminals. Much of the strategic response to the protests seems to be in the hands of the police.
For the moment, that is probably the way things will remain. The activist demonstrators are a small minority at the moment and the Hong Kong police have the situation well in hand. There is no compelling reason to get the PLA out of their barracks and on to the street.
What coming weeks and months will show, however, is the depth of discontent and frustration with Beijing among Hong Kong people. And if violence mounts and activist protest becomes the norm, Beijing will be entirely to blame. It has misunderstood and misplayed the relationship with Hong Kong and its people from the start.