Liberal City, Authoritarian Country

Hong Kong recently held elections for the Legislative Council of Hong Kong, also known as Legco. The ‘Umbrella Revolution’ may have died down, failing to achieve any of its major aims, but the city is still as restless as ever. A year after the failure of this movement and in the aftermath of this significant election, it is time to take a fresh look at Hong Kong: the liberal city within an authoritarian country.

Last year, I wrote a post during the height of the Umbrella Movemement about the impossibility of Hong Kong’s demands. In this post, I described the idealism of the protesters and the reality check that was needed: Beijing would never, ever concede anything to the Hong Kong protesters. We know, after all, the strength of will that exists in Xi Jinping and the leaders of China. There would never be any concession, any negotiation: to kowtow to Beijing is all that is acceptable, and never the other way around. But what we could have foreseen is the fact that the anger would not have disappeared, even after the massive crowds, shining smartphones and open umbrellas did. A victory the protest movement did not achieve, but a final defeat was far from inflicted.

Nathan Law celebrating after his election victory
Nathan Law celebrating after his election victory

That much was clear from the results of the Legco election. Six seats out of the forty up to grabs went not to establishment figures or pro-Beijing politicians, but instead to newer, much more radical faces. Take, for example, Nathan Law, who had protested with, and remains close to, Joshua Wong, the leader of the Umbrella Movement. With the electoral victories of people like Law, it is clear that Hong Kong has barely lose its appetite for sending clear signals to Beijing about its dissatisfaction with Beijing.

And after all, it is not difficult to see why Hong Kong is so unhappy. It is a curious mix characteristics that makes up Hong Kong: Oriental, but also liberal; Western, but also Chinese. For this reason, Beijing had promised Hong Kong at least fifty years under governance by ‘One Country, Two Systems’: Hong Kong could remain a Westernised city-state with its own liberal democracy and retain this way of life for the next half-century, despite being formally a part of the still nominally communist China. Halfway through the agreement, however, and China seems like it may renege on parts of the deal.

How, then is this liberal city in an authoritarian country to survive? To whom can Hong Kong turn to, to protect its political liberties and its way of life? As some have put it: “We do not want to become just another Chinese city”. The painful truth that Hong Kong’s importance continues to diminish as cities in the mainland continue to flourish and prosper does not help sooth its fears. And, by electing pro-democracy activists and radicals to the legislative council, Hong Kong has demonstrated very clearly this fear. As Nathan Law himeslf said, “Let me make it very clear, we are not the ones who disrupt the status quo, but the Beijing government.” The men Beijing views as rebels are the voices for liberty that Hong Kong desires; one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter, indeed.

CY Leung

The way forward continues to be extremely murky. Is there a way to sit at the negotiating table with Beijing, and to ask them for concessions? The central government has already demonstrated on many occasions that it has no desire, not indeed any real need, to do so. Some of the more radical activists have proposed more dramatic steps. Independence, they say, is the answer; if Beijing will not grant what we want, why listen to them? Become an independent city state- along the lines of, say, Singapore- and do what we want with our future, our destiny. Or so goes the argument. Another proposal argues for the returning of Hong Kong to the United Kingdom. These proposals, of course, requires a complete suspension of geopolitical reality and a nosedive into a pool of fantasy: there is no chance that China will ever allow any of its regions to become independent. The emphasis has always been on ‘One Country’, and not on ‘Two Systems’; separatists would never be tolerated. After all, what sort of an example would an independence movement in Hong Kong set for Xinjiang and Tibet?

Without a resolution, however, Hong Kong is a volcano waiting to erupt. After all, there will be future elections, including the election for Hong Kong’s chief executive in 2017. The current chief executive, CY Leung, is deeply unpopular in his own city, and until his re-election bid, which promises to be explosive, he will have to fight many battles with the new, youthful activists who are now members of Legco. In addition to political difficulties, of course, is the high level of inequality that is present in Hong Kong. As Brexit and the rise of Trump in the US has demonstrated, inequality is a perfect recipe for future political chaos.

It is also important to remember that Hong Kong’s problems are issues that many in the west had never expected to arise. When the UK handed Hong Kong back to China, they had thought that ‘One Country’ Two Systems’ would end up with ‘One Country, One System’. After all, China’s economy was developing along Western lines; was it not also obvious that China’s political institutions would also evolve from the mechanisms of a one-party state to those of a liberal democracy? In the end, however, this has not happened; if anything, Xi Jinping has ensured that China will become increasingly authoritarian, with more and more power transferred into Xi’s own hands. Democracy simply has not, and will not in the foreseeable future, catch on in China.

There is no easy way out. If anything, Hong Kong’s civil liberties may continue to be eroded and its democracy increasingly restricted, for the fate of Hong Kong still ultimately resides almost entirely in the hands of Beijing. The people of Hong Kong, however, have not given up on their will to fight. The road onward will be messy indeed.

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