Beijing’s dilemma in Hong Kong

The Hong Kong protests are into their tenth week. There is no sign of an amicable solution. Neither side is ready to compromise. It began with the ill-advised move to enact a law which will allow those charged with certain crimes to be extradited to China.

These immediately triggered student protests, fearing encroachment by China on its autonomy. Eventually, Carrie Lam, the territory’s chief executive, relented, agreeing not to push the requisite bill through the legislature. But the protesters insisted on its withdrawal. She refuses to do so. As a consequence, the protests gathered further momentum, leading to further demands for stopping interference by China in the territory’s management of its own affairs.

Carrie Lam was a prisoner of China, she could not, would not, do anything without prior approval of Beijing. The standoff has virtually brought the world’s leading financial and commercial centre to a grinding halt. Main shopping centers and transport, including the international airport, have been ‘occupied’ by the young Hong Kongers in support of their demands.

Sections of ordinary citizens, including regular wage workers, have bolstered the pro-democracy protests. Employees of Hong Kong’s successful airlines were warned by the authorities against participating in the protests. Incensed with the show of defiance by the workers of the airlines, China banned all its flights from entering its airspace last week. In other words, the protests enjoy popular support.

It is so because China has slowly but surely chipped away at Hong Kong’s autonomy, making a mockery of the promise held out at the hand-over of the territory by the British in 1997 of ‘one country, two systems’. Hong Kong was to run its own affairs for a period of fifty years before its full-fledged merger with China. This was pragmatic since an outright merger would have resulted in an abrupt disruption in Hong Kong’s status as a leading global hub of commerce and finance.

It has one of the busiest ports in the world, accounting for a sizable two-way trade. Its own dollar is globally recognized. And its stock exchange serves as magnet for global companies to raise money and trade. A number of Chinese companies have relied on Hong Kong listing their shares on the territory’s stock exchange and raising funds. In the face of the continuing protests, the Chinese have sabre-rattled often, warning of serious consequences if these continued to disrupt normalcy. However, as the students showed no signs of relenting, it suggested protests were bordering on terrorism and foreign forces were behind them.

Of course, this was not true. Hong Kongers prize their independence and baulk at the suggestion of China tightening its grip through a pliant Carrie Lam on its administrative and political life. Thus far, the clashes between the police and the protesters have stopped short of a bloody confrontation, though secret agents have infiltrated the protests and a number of people have been arrested. Yet, on Tuesday after the airport was occupied by the protesters, China sent a menacing message, with PLA’s armoured corps staging a parade on the territory’s border.

This was the clearest reminder, if any, of the deadly Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. Countless peaceful protesters were crushed under tanks by a vengeful leadership loath to grant a modicum of say to the people in managing their lives. However, the Chinese leadership will be making a grave mistake crushing the Hong Kong protests in a similar manner. One, Hong Kong enjoys media freedom, with the protests being held under the watch of the global media. Besides, the demands are not hard to meet. Withdrawing the extradition bill outright might result in a notional setback but it would not loosen the Chinese grip on the territory.

Sacrificing Carrie Lam for ensuring normalcy is not a high price to pay either. China can wait to fight the pro-democracy Hong Kongers some other time. Above all, if China chooses to crush the protests, it would virtually crush the goose that lays the golden eggs for its vast corporate and commercial sectors. Of course, China would be treated a pariah in the global capitals, with all its attempts to play the superpower at the world stage receiving a grave setback. Under the circumstances, China has only one option.

It should kill the extradition bill, instead of keeping it on the back-burner, and replace its agent Carrie Lam with a more acceptable chief executive of the territory. The longer the unrest continues, the more the chances of a peaceful solution will recede.

Young students need reassurance of no-interference from China, not its tanks mowing them down. Once the internal power struggle in the highest echelons in Beijing is settled, with President Xi Jinping under pressure from the hardliners, we can expect an end to the latest round of pro-democracy protests. Hopefully, these will end up strengthening democracy, not throttling it further.

- S Sadanand

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