Protests, democracy demands, outside meddling, regime change and the future of China – all of these issues have put Hong Kong in the spotlight. Have the students and Beijing both blinked at this point? VoR’s Peter Lavelle hosts a discussion.
Peter Lavelle is joined by:
Martin Jacques, author of When China Rules the World
Andrew Leung, CEO of Andrew Leung International Consultants Limited – a company founded in London and re-incorporated in Hong Kong
Mark Sleboda, international affairs and security analyst
MJ: “I think the most important issue is the issue of governance of Hong Kong and in this context the issue of democracy, which means the electoral law and how the 2017 election is going to be organised. But of course, one cannot understand this issue in the abstract, and we have to have a clear understanding of what happened in 1997 – the notion of ‘One Country, Two Systems’. What is the relationship between China and Hong Kong? How has it been changing? How is Hong Kong changing?”
AL: “It is extremely important – the identity issue… And then this question of identity is well captured in a short video in The New York Times, showing a young girl, a lady protester, and she was probably educated abroad, and she realises that students know that they can’t change the system but they have certain ideals – their ideals about democracy and freedom. A lot of these young students, they were born after the handover and have not experienced the kind of colonial rule old-timers like me have lived through and who can compare the kind of freedoms Hong Kong has been enjoying since the handover…
“Hong Kong has been voted the freest economy in the world for 20 years in a row by the Heritage Foundation in Washington DC. Now, you can’t be voted to be the freest economy in the world without a vibrant civil society, without the freedoms and liberties underpinning a free economy… So people are wondering, why all these protests all of a sudden?”
MS: “We saw this video – of a Ukrainian girl, who actually in the end turned out not to be a Ukrainian girl, by a western production company that has intimate links with certain political forces that are well-known for exploiting dissent in foreign countries… It’s a playbook – it is a rule from a playbook. There is a definite script being written out here and I think it’s quite disingenuous that certain political forces in Hong Kong and abroad are exploiting the idealism and the faces, most importantly, of 15, 16 and 17-year-old students.”
MJ: “The White Paper is very important in the sense that it became the focus, if you like, for some discussions and debates in Hong Kong of where Hong Kong is going. I think it’s very important to understand that Hong Kong was a colony for 155 years and when the proposal of ‘One Country, Two Systems’ came from the Chinese, which was an extremely innovative proposal, which is deeply unfamiliar to the West, and where the media coverage of Hong Kong makes absolutely no attempt to try and understand – the superficiality of the coverage and failure to provide any kind of historical context is hardly new to us, but nonetheless, it’s been pretty breath-taking in this instance.
“I think the problem in Hong Kong is of course, traditionally, it did not look to China in the colonial era – they looked westwards, they didn’t look particularly northwards […] Economically, of course, they had to look northwards because that was where its bread was buttered…
“But basically, I think Hong Kong is pretty ignorant about China – or a lot of people in Hong Kong are pretty ignorant about China. They don’t relate to China particularly, they look down on the mainland – this is a very-very powerful cultural phenomenon over a long period of time. Why do they look down on the mainland? They think the mainlanders as poor, inferior, badly educated, badly dressed…
“There’s a growing pain to the relationship ‘One Country, Two Systems’ and the fact that there’s been a lot about ‘Two Systems’ and very little about ‘One Country’ – which I think partly China could have done more about, but that’s another question… And then, there is what is happening to Hong Kong – in 1997 the Hong Kong economy was 18 per cent the size of the Chinese economy, it was nearly a fifth; today, it’s 3% per cent…
“I think Hong Kong is still struggling to work out what it is and what its relationship with China is going to be and it is having to come to terms with the fact that the kind of hubris that was shown by Hongkongers in the period – particularly the 20 years from about 1978 to 1997 and the handover, that was a particular era when Hong Kong got lucky because China started its great reform programme and China was still not open. So Hong Kong had this transient moment when it was the gateway to China and that is not true anymore.”
“I think Patten, to be blunt about it, was a very poor governor of Hong Kong because he wasn’t a governor of Hong Kong, he was grandstanding…”
AL: “I worked in Hong Kong all my life. I made my career for 38 years, before and after the handover, and I even worked with Chris Patten and accompanied him on certain visits before the handover… But I think that the conundrum in Hong Kong is this rise of identity and it doesn’t square with the risks Beijing sees of allowing all these youngsters, all these liberal democrats of having their own way and trying to elect someone whom Beijing suspect of being subversive and whom Beijing may not trust, who is likely, in the eye of Beijing, going to lead Hong Kong’s separatism…
“To be fair, Hong Kong was handed over to China in 1997, it’s now almost 17 years! So I think that the Hong Kong people now have a right to demand for universal suffrage. But the irony is that universal suffrage was not included in the Joint Declaration in the first place. But it was Beijing who took the initiative to introduce the idea of universal suffrage in the Basic Law which is Hong Kong’s ‘mini-constitution’, and Beijing promised universal suffrage will happen in 2017.
“Under the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ formula, don’t forget ‘One Country’ meaning one country under one party rule and ‘Two Systems’ – Hong Kong with its own separate identity embracing western values and so on and so forth, there are safeguards in the Basic Law on how the election is going to take place. That would be the Law Arbitration Committee which is broadly representative of Hong Kong’s society and economy – what are these sectors involved in this broad representation? They are the business sector, the professional sector, the grassroots sector and the politicians. Now, you can’t say that such a committee regardless of the number is not broadly representative and then the Hong Kong government and then the Beijing government also supports a consultation on how this committee and how this process is going to be made more open and democratic – that is subject to consultation… But all the safeguards in the Basic Law have got to be complied with. Now the activists and the students say – forget about the Basic Law….”
MS: “I would like to disagree a little bit with one of the guests who says there is no precedent for a ‘One Country, Two Systems’ policy within the West because right now we are very much looking at the devolution of the United Kingdom into a ‘One Country, Two Systems’ rule between the government in London, although complete independence was denied, there are promised measures for even further autonomy and devolution of powers to Scotland. If we take a look at such policies such as education, healthcare – they are becoming increasingly rather dramatically divorced from the reality that the rest of the United Kingdom exists under where education is not free but rather quite expensive…
“‘One Country, Two Systems’ is not unique. It has a precedent in the rest of the world. The exact way this is constructed will evolve, it’s an undergoing process. But these protests were premised on a technicality of democracy. It’s not like the people of Hong Kong have been denied democracy – as has been pointed out by a whole host of measures, it is already an extremely democratic prosperous society. So this is over the composition of a 1200 member-standing committee – we’re not talking about some smoking room with 10 people deciding who the nominees will be… This is the technical reason for the protests but it has been blown out of all proportion.
“These students are being terribly exploited by certain political forces and when you have these political forces in Hong Kong that have undeniable documented well-videoed connections with such neo-conservative figures in the United States such as Paul Wolfowitz, you really have to take a step back and say – what is the big picture, what is going on here, what foreign political forces are exploiting this domestic situation?
“We have heard repeatedly that what happens in Hong Kong is not China’s business and China itself has taken a step back and allowed the authorities in Hong Kong to work out what’s going on there. But if it’s not China’s business, it most certainly is not the United States’ business, it’s not the United Kingdom’s business – it’s no one else’s business in the world the way the particulars of democratic methodology evolve in Hong Kong between Hong Kong, their authorities, and the government in Beijing.”
MJ: “A very significant section of the Hong Kong-Chinese still don’t feel that they are part of China, so what they see is ‘Two Systems’ in a sort implicit fashion or some, I’ve noticed, even a little bit more explicit fashion. They don’t see ‘One Country’… So we’ve got the growing pains, I would suggest, of a new kind of relationship.
“I would like to underline the fact that it was not the British, it was not the West that paved the way for universal suffrage. The British controlled Hong Kong for 155 years after they seized it at the conclusion of the Opium Wars, and at no stage did they introduce democracy of any serious character. There was no universal suffrage. The Governor, including the final one – Chris Patten, who is a member of the British Conservative party, was always selected by the British government… The Hong Kong people never had any say in that and it was the Chinese, as Andrew [Leung] points out, that introduced the idea of universal suffrage…
“There is a complete absence of this kind of reportage. The cliched assumption that is made in western media discussion, and I include in this the broadsheets, it’s not just the tabloids, it includes the BBC, they never put it into any kind of historical context. The assumption is – China is against democracy and the West – Britain, is for democracy, and this is historically not true! The British did not introduce democracy!”
AL: “All western media has forgotten about the ‘One Country’ and just concentrates on the ‘Two Systems’. Now, I need to throw in a bit of balance here. The ‘One Country, Two Systems’ formula is truly unique. You just can’t compare it with Scotland and the United Kingdom because ‘One Country’ belongs to a different system, a different concept of liberties and freedoms in the West – I mean it’s a completely different system! And where is Scotland, and where is the United Kingdom? Of course they embody the same kind of laws – the British law, but in ‘One Country, Two Systems’ we are talking about two political systems, so that is the uniqueness of it all.
“The White Paper, according to the activists, is the last straw on the back of camel because it is a rising kind of identity. But then you look at the White Paper – it no more than encapsulates all the safeguards in the Basic Law. It’s never gone beyond the Basic Law. Again, this is being played up. Now, as far as the Beijing suspicions are concerned, a lot of people say – well, you’re just being too suspicious, the Hong Kong people would never want to separate from the mainland and there is no foreign influence involved… But in Hong Kong, only a few months ago, it was widely reported that the owner of the most anti-Beijing and anti-establishment newspaper the Apple Daily, was found out to be the only funding source of all these activists – he has given 20 million Hong Kong dollars to the Catholic Bishop of Hong Kong… What has the Catholic Bishop of Hong Kong to do with 20 million dollars?
“While I’m not saying this is concrete evidence of foreign intervention, but again, on RT Television it was also mentioned that the American National Democratic Institute [NDI] is known to be funding a programme in the University of Hong Kong where a professor – Professor Benny Tai is the leader of the anti-occupy movement…”
MS: “These types of occupations of territory are very non-traditional means of protests. They aren’t spontaneous, they require large infrastructure and organisation beforehand – food and water need to be guaranteed, lavatory facilities have to be ascertained, medical supplies, legal things… This is not something that sprang up overnight. They were carefully scripted. They are organised. That doesn’t take away from the genuine sentiment that many of these children, however idealistically and naively the feel about what they’re doing, but they are script players, they are extras in a larger screen event that is taking place…
“Western media coverage of what’s going on in Hong Kong – of course it’s entirely one-sided. But if there’s one thing we can take away from all of this, it’s that China’s response to the protests there make unclear how undemocratic a country it is. Because, as we have seen from the events in Ferguson – Ferguson, Missouri where there were riots over the killing of a black student just earlier this year in the United States, where the US political authorities actually pulled out military gear in order to put down these protests – I mean, heavy gear that was previously used in Iraq; the Occupy Wall Street repressions in the United States; the brutal putdown of the anti-neoliberal austerity protests across all of Europe – these peaceful protesters were put down with rubber bullets, truncheons, tear gas, pepper spray, LRAD [Long Range Acoustic Device] sound cannons; and then after the protests were put down laws were put in place to prevent this type of occupation protest from ever happening again… I’m saying China has not lived up to the bill of what real democracies do to repress peaceful political protest movements. China needs to take lessons from Ferguson and from New York City and Oakland and how to properly restore law and order with a forceful hand rather than this democratic process…”
MJ: “I do share the view that of course there is a pro-western lobby and presence within Hong Kong which is hardly surprising given the place’s history. And I’ve spoken at many meetings in Hong Kong and one of the characteristics, quite frequently, is a pro-western lobby that hasn’t really changed its tune since the handover.
“I think China’s handling of Hong Kong is very cautious actually, and from the beginning they have been aware that with the Basic Law and so on, that Hong Kong needed to be treated differently and sensitively and patiently. I think that their handling of Hong Kong has been very patient, but also clear – and that is that they don’t want to create a problem for themselves. They don’t want to end up with an electoral law that at some point means that there is even the slightest possibility that candidates, who are very anti-Chinese essentially, sort of pro-independence candidates, are elected. I think that’s their red line if you like, and that is understandable.
“I would go a little bit further than this and be slightly critical of the Chinese in that, not because of the western allegations of the Chinese being assertive in Hong Kong, but rather the opposite – I was in Hong Kong at the time of the handover, I lived there from 1998 to 2001 and the extraordinary thing is there was virtually no sign of a Chinese presence; after the handover I remember just seeing one Chinese flag and I’m not saying there weren’t any more but I didn’t see any in Hong Kong! Basically, the arguments for ‘One Country’ and the relationship and so on, have been left to the Hong Kong authorities, and I think historically the administration and the way the government works are still quite colonial in their mentality – they have still got, not surprisingly, that characteristic because of the tradition, but it’s not really political leadership… So, the argument for the relationship with the mainland isn’t made strongly – it’s made rather weakly and they have haven’t really developed a new kind of leadership, a new presence – there are organisations that are pro-China, but there isn’t a presence that is for example, the Chinese Communist Party in Hong Kong…”
“This is a question really for the Chinese – not to become vulgar or heavy-handed about it but to find a way of their presence being there and being persuasive…”
AL: “I think the students know that this kind of highly disruptive protest on a massive scale is unsustainable for the rest of the Hong Kong public who have to go about their ordinary business – these people have to go to work and then the street sellers have got to sell their stuff and then the shops have to open… I think the majority of the Hong Kong people just don’t want this kind of disruption even though most of them want more democracy. I mean, who doesn’t want more democracy?”