This year’s long-lasting and still ongoing social turbulence in Hong Kong, a special administrative region of the People’s Republic of China, reminds me the Crimea crisis in 2014. There are indeed several similarities between the two events.
First, relatively small issues sparked large-scale protests. Hong Kong’s protests were triggered in June by the Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation (Amendment) Bill 2019. The bill was largely designed to extradite certain criminal suspects to mainland China but was criticized for likely undermining Hong Kong’s judicial independence and endangering dissidents under the “one country, two systems” arrangement. The bill was subsequently withdrawn in September, but demonstrations have continued to this day, and have become increasingly violent.
The Crimea crisis started in November 2013, when then-Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych rejected a pending agreement on association with the European Union and chose closer ties with Russia. That led to a series of protests including the occupation of Kiev’s Independence Square (Maidan Nezalezhnosti) and pushed Ukraine on to the brink of civil war.
Second, big powers were behind both scenes. In Hong Kong’s recent unrest, the two leading political rivals apparently are the pro-establishment (or pro-Beijing) camp and the pro-democracy camp, but the defining powers are in fact China and the West, especially the US. Hong Kong has become a geopolitical pawn of power struggles between Beijing and Washington.
Similarly, in the Crimea crisis, the two domestic factions within Ukraine – one inclined toward the EU and the other toward Russia – were the main fighters on the stage, but the big bosses behind the scenes were actually Russian and the West, including the US. Ukraine eventually became a victim of cataclysmic geopolitics.
Third, public opinion was against the central government. On March 16, 2014, the Crimean status referendum was held and led to the independence of Crimea from Ukraine and its request to join the Russian Federation. The Hong Kong District Council elections held on November 24 this year were also considered a de facto “referendum,” with a landslide victory for the pro-democracy movement, showing deep distrust in and dissatisfaction with Beijing.
During the Occupy Central movement in Hong Kong in 2014, I published the article “Central is not Tiananmen, thankfully,” saying, “Of course, it is also a good thing that Hong Kong’s Central is unlikely to be another Tiananmen, given the tragic events that unfolded on June 4, despite the apparent potential for violent conflict between the authorities and Occupy protesters.” Similarly, I would like to say today that Hong Kong is not Crimea, thankfully.
One key difference between Hong Kong and Crimea is the people’s will for independence. During the Hong Kong protests there were indeed some banners and posters advocating independence, but most Hongkongers have never sought to break away from China. The illusion of Hong Kong independence is not realistic and in fact quite silly, because the city cannot survive without the support of mainland China, and no Western country will take it over. The US has made the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act into law, but it would be foolish for Hong Kong people fully to trust and rely on American intervention.
Another key difference between Hong Kong and Crimea is that China is not Ukraine. Ukraine could not control its own fate among big powers and had no capacity to prevent the annexation of Crimea by Russia. In contrast, powerful China is directly struggling with the West and has firm control over Hong Kong. Just as former Singaporean foreign minister George Yeo said in July, “Like the Monkey King, Hong Kong cannot leave the Buddha’s palm.”
Tragically, the 2014 Crimea crisis resulted in many deaths and injuries. Although in recent months Hong Kong has experienced unprecedented violence and chaos, large-scale casualties are unlikely, as both China and the West have no plan to intervene physically with military forces. That is the luck of Hong Kong.
Hong Kong was seen as a successful business hub and mature society based on the rule of law, but recently it shocked the world by showing how violent and chaotic it could be. Hong Kong should regain its good reputation, but its future stability and prosperity ultimately lie in its own hands.
This article was first published by the Business Times.