Restive Hong Kong lays bare deep-seated fissures
(Photo by Philip FONG / AFP)

It’s a welcome development that Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, Hongkong’s chief executive, has promised to completely withdraw the extradition bill that sparked months of turmoil. But the underlying tension will not easily subside. Not long before Britain ceded Hongkong to China in 1997, Chinese as well as Taiwanese leaders were asked if the “one country, two systems” formula would ever be extended to Tibet. Chinese and Taiwanese were equally adamant in their refusal to consider any such possibility. That demonstration of Han nationalism makes one wonder what price might be exacted from Hongkongers for 15 consecutive weeks of noisy, rumbustious anti-mainland protests.

It is to be hoped that Ms Lam’s statement will end speculation over whether or not Li Xinping would send the People’s Liberation Army to quell the unrest. After all, if neighbouring India can deploy thousands of troops in Jammu and Kashmir, Beijing might also feel justified in taking strong-arm measures. Despite Ms Lam’s denials, it was clear the Chinese wanted Hongkong to present a tranquil front before the National Day celebrations on 1st October.

But the question is, after more than three months of tumult, can Hongkong ever be the same again? As the massive anti-government protests continue, violent clashes between radicals and police have kept escalating, as witnessed over the last weekend, prompting Beijing to devise a new rhetoric. It is argued on behalf of the authorities that if ever PLA troops from the Hongkong garrison, or armed police from across the border, have to be called in to quell the unrest, it does not necessarily mean the end of the ingenious “one country, two systems”. Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that in some senses China faces its biggest political crisis since the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989.

There is no denying that however tough the mainland leadership might be (especially in its response to stirrings of nationalism in Tibet or among the Uighurs of Xinjiang), Hongkong is a different kettle of fish altogether. Without doubt, it would be a disaster and a nightmare for Beijing if its unique governing formula for Hongkong ever has to come to an end.

A large number of Hongkongers may welcome such a termination and the opportunity to take control of their future for it is undeniable that many locals saw the British handover as a betrayal, especially since local sentiment was not taken into account. But China’s nationalistic attachment to the former colony and its seemingly liberal dispensation for Hongkong’s future concealed sound self-interest. The world’s second biggest economy needs a door ajar to trade with the world.

Ms Lam is believed to have told a closed-door meeting of businessmen that she had caused “unforgivable havoc” by igniting the political crisis and would quit if she had a choice. If she hasn’t a choice, if her hands are tied, that can only mean Beijing demands she stay at the post, for Hongkongers would happily see her out. Ms Lam confessed to the business leaders that she now had “very limited” room to resolve the crisis because it had assumed a much larger dimension. It had become a national security and sovereignty issue for China amidst rising tension with the United States over a trade war and with Britain over the latter’s residual interest in a former colony.

“If I have a choice” Ms Lam is believed to have said in English, “the first thing is to quit, having made a deep apology.” It almost sounds as if the task of being chief executive is beyond her capacity. As she says, “The political room for the chief executive who, unfortunately, has to serve two masters by constitution–that is, the central people’s government and the people of Hongkong–that political room for manoeuvring is very, very limited.”

Politics apart, the riotousness has exposed deep social and economic divisions in Hongkong society. It also prompts questions about the future. China’s paramount leader Deng Xiaoping made a 50-year promise endorsed by the Basic Law that the system would continue till 2047. It might in theory, but will it in practice as tourism declines and investments falter? A former chief executive of Hongkong, Leung Chun-ying, and the Basic Law expert, Maria Tam Wai-chu, have expressed views on the complexities of the future under the “one country, two systems” formula. China’s official People’s Daily recently published a long article by Ms Tam in which she recalled how as early as in the 1980s Deng had predicted the possibility of mobilising the PLA “if there is a huge disturbance” in post-handover Hongkong.

However, she told Reuters that Hongkong was far from feeling the need even for a local emergency law, let alone seeking military assistance. At the same time, Mr Leung posted a message on Facebook to declare that the protests had actually provided Beijing with a timely opportunity to do a “complete housecleaning” by identifying all those otherwise hidden problems. “A lot has to be done, and it must get to the bottom of [the problems] in the coming years,” Mr Leung said.

Whether one agrees with Mr Leung or Ms Tam, the point remains that what began as an objection to extradition to the mainland for trial has burgeoned into a full-blown campaign for political, economic and social rights. It has drawn attention to the many deeply entrenched and unresolved problems that plague the city. And it has brought to the surface the growing anti-Beijing sentiment among young Hongkongers. As in Kashmir, merely sending in troops will not resolve all these thorny issues. It will only deepen hatred. Perhaps that is why the chief executive and her administration are not even considering the need to invoke local emergency laws. But that makes talk of bringing in the PLA even more unwarranted.

All this points to the beginning of a much bigger challenge for both Beijing and defiant Hongkong where thousands of school and university students are boycotting classes, burning barricades and throwing petrol bombs. Recently, they gathered in the Chinese University’s hilltop campus, taking turns to deliver speeches from a stage with a black backdrop embossed with the slogan “Students in Unity Boycott for our City”. They are convinced they are fighting for democracy. Unlike in India, the police respond with only water cannons and tear gas.

It hasn’t yet come to the demand for self-determination (as in Kashmir) but the warning signs are there. The two sides must learn to adjust and meet each other’s expectations in peace so that the “one country, two systems” formula–the equivalent of the now abolished Articles 370 and 35A–does ensure Hongkong continues to enjoy the constitutionally guaranteed genuinely high degree of autonomy.

The writer is the author of several books and a regular media columnist.

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