In examining the 2012 “pro-democracy” national-education amendment, the 2014 “Umbrella Movement” and the 2019 extradition-bill protests, they don’t seem to be very democratic and could backfire. In a democracy, groups with diverging viewpoints debate the issues, and do not resort to violence or cursing those who hold a different vision of where the country is heading. What’s more, the Hong Kong government’s proposed education curriculum and fugitive bill may have nothing to do with China’s central government and, in fact, are consistent with democracy.
The national-education amendment was nothing more than a civic course designed to give Hong Kong students a better understanding or proper perspective of Chinese history, culture and other institutions, providing students with the necessary information to hold rational debates and make sensible decisions. Unfortunately, the protesters called it “brainwashing,” precluding any rational debate, killing the amendment and making students less informed about China.
The 2014 Umbrella Movement was over something that Hong Kong already had preserved. The fact that the protests were allowed proved that neither the Hong Kong nor central government had reneged on the Basic Law, the special administrative region’s mini-constitution.
The central government understood the different stages of economic and political development and cultural norms between the SAR and the mainland by virtue of the “one country, two systems” platform guaranteeing Hong Kong’s status quo, except in foreign affairs and national defense, for 50 years. Perhaps the central government thought that within that period, economic development and political and cultural values would converge, leading to a successful reunification.
Furthermore, the SAR’s chief executive was at least elected from a pool of acceptable candidates by the 1,200-member Electoral Committee representing citizens and major sectors of Hong Kong known as “functional constituencies” such as labor organizations and the teaching profession. While one can argue what “acceptable” means or that the number of approved candidates might be small, they do represent Hong Kong society. Before the 1997 handover, on the other hand, the colonial governor was appointed by the British government.
Besides, no one really knows what “civic nomination” is or how it works. In the West, presidents or prime ministers are elected by the political party to which a candidate belongs. In Canada, for example, a person wanting to become the prime minister must run for a political party’s leadership. If his or her party wins the largest number of popular votes, the leader will automatically become the country’s prime minister. That is, the prime minister of Canada is not directly elected by the general population, but by a group of people sharing the same values and visions.
On the proposed fugitive bill, the protests made even less sense because it had nothing to do with mainland China or infringements of human rights. The bill was reported to have been motivated by a murder case in which a Hong Kong resident killed his pregnant Taiwanese girlfriend and fled to Hong Kong to seek haven because there is no extradition between the SAR and Taiwan. In that sense, the extradition bill was no more than a law prohibiting a person committing a crime elsewhere to use Hong Kong as a fugitive enclave.
What’s more, it was the Chinese government that sustained the SAR’s economic well-being by sending large numbers of tourists and designating it as a yuan hub that attracted foreign investment. The British, on the other hand, used Hong Kong as a cash cow, taking away the land from the local population and leasing it back to them. The policy gave the British an unlimited source of revenue. No wonder the UK did not want the territory to return to China.
The protests could backfire
Peaceful protests could and should be tolerated, but those in Hong Kong over the extradition bill were violent, inflicted significant property damage, and disrupted commerce, risking the city’s economic prospects, causing capital flight and destabilizing its social fabric. The SAR’s socioeconomic disruptions might be the reason large numbers of Hongkongers took to the streets and rallied in support the government, demanding that the police disperse the violent protesters.
The protesters should understand that destroying property and provoking the police to retaliate will not win them many supporters other than some in the West. For example, British Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt, one of the two frontrunners for the prime minister’s office, warned China of “grave consequences” if it did not respect the rights of the Hong Kong people or fulfill the obligations of the Basic Law, implying that the central government was involved in the protests.
The problem with Hunt’s warning is that the rights of the protesters were infringed on only after they resorted to violence, throwing bricks and stones at the police to provoke a response. Police are also people, they have the right to protect themselves and the responsibility to uphold law and order. And as one young man seen on television carrying a colonial flag replied to a reporter asking why he carried the flag, he said, “Hong Kong has freedom of expression.”
Hunt might also want to ask himself if the UK would allow what happened in Hong Kong to occur in his country. Would he tolerate protesters breaking down the gates of Parliament and wrecking its furniture and other assets?
Wrecking Hong Kong is not in the interests of anyone, including the protesters. Without a stable economic, political and social environment, no Hong Kong resident will have a future.