Can Hong Kong protect its 'freedom'?

"One country, two systems”, the brilliant formulation that allowed Britain to transfer Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China in 1997, allowed a lot of people to believe that the two systems would converge over time. That while the mainland would adopt free markets and democracy, Hong Kong would become better integrated with its motherland. That Hong Kong would change the mainland. In China, economic freedom would lead to political freedom and it would follow Japan, South Korea and Taiwan towards democracy.

Like many other comfortable stories that the West and China told us and each other over the past three decades, this too turned out to be a fairy tale. Trapped in ugly reality, the people of Hong Kong are putting up a massive resistance to preserve their system. Unfortunately for them, it might already be too late.

Even if the extradition bill that caused a million people to take to the streets earlier this month has been suspended, Beijing will eventually impose its system on Hong Kong.

In fact, the protests reinforce Beijing’s belief that unfettered access to the world, personal freedoms, rule of law and participatory government will be the death of their hold on power. What is happening in Hong Kong is everything they have methodically prevented from happening elsewhere in China. Hong Kong is the exception that proves their rule.

Indeed, the city presents an existential threat to the legitimacy narrative of Communist Party of China. Hong Kong has not bartered freedom for prosperity. It is comfortable with Western norms without losing its Chinese character. The Party’s claim on the monopoly of power is weakened by freewheeling Hong Kong next door. The two systems in the “one country” threaten one another. One has guns and the other has umbrellas.

Actually, it’s more than guns. When the British handed over Hong Kong in 1997, the city’s economy was around 20 per cent of the China’s GDP. Today it is less than 3 per cent. Shanghai, Beijing and Shenzhen have bigger economies than Hong Kong. Guangzhou, Chongqing, Tianjin and others are catching up fast. Despite being a global financial centre, Hong Kong’s relative economic importance is declining.
NO WIN SITUATION: What is happening in Hong Kong is everything Beijing has methodically prevented from happening in China
Hong Kongers are concerned that the proposed extradition law will damage the city’s economic prospects, scaring off investors and even precipitating a financial crisis. As J Kyle Bass, a hedge fund manager, told Yahoo Finance, “If the law passes, the autonomy of Hong Kong will come into question by the US. That means that the US is going to treat Hong Kong as China, that is, no more most favoured nation trading status. We will impose tariffs, and when you look at Hong Kong’s trade as a percentage of its GDP, it’s enormous. So if all of a sudden a free trade zone becomes impeded by the US treating them as China, it literally changes the calculus.”

But Beijing might not lose too much sleep over the loss. From the perspective of China’s leaders, keeping Hong Kong under their political thumb is more important. That is why Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s administration tried to brazen it out, tone deaf to overwhelming popular opinion. For Beijing, putting the extradition bill on the back burner is merely a tactical concession to contain the protests. 

China’s leaders will also be further convinced that their policy of online censorship and surveillance is crucial in preventing such large scale protests from breaking out in other cities. Hong Kongers could mobilise effectively in such larger numbers because they used secure messaging platforms that were outside China’s control. Telegram, one of the social media platforms that the protestors used, reported being at the receiving end of distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks from state-actors traced back to China. So Beijing is likely to double down on domestic censorship and international cyber-attack capabilities.

Even if Hong Kongers are prepared for an extended confrontation with their government, China will prevail by sheer attrition. As long as the protests remain non-violent, the Hong Kong authorities will be able to wear them down. If there is an outbreak of violence that the police cannot handle on their own, the PLA garrison will be called out. No one wants that to happen, limiting the levels of violence. Yes, it’s all very bleak for Hong Kongers who wish to preserve their freedoms.

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