Some Thoughts On Hong Kong’s Protests

Tear gas. Violence on the streets. Airport closures.

The view from Bangkok on the Hong Kong protests is almost one of weary familiarity. Not exactly déjà vu; the nuances mean that resemblance with Thailand’s color-coded movements will never be reached. But the parallels are there and they are eery.

This makes it particularly interesting to see how Thais on social media, particularly the politically savvy ones, seem to have much to comment about on the protest. After seeing some of this commentary, I wanted to just write up some of my own observations and thoughts; in some ways they are counterpoints to what I have often seen written by Thais

1. Hong Kong’s importance to China

It is interesting to see how many have downplayed the importance of Hong Kong to mainland China, usually to make the argument that protestors should not be making too many demands given that Hong Kong’s economic status has diminished. It is true that Hong Kong is no longer as important to China as it was, say, when Chinese sovereignty resumed in 1997. Back then, Hong Kong’s economy was a fifth of China’s — now it is a mere 3%.

But Hong Kong’s economic dwarfing relative to all of China belies the true value it presents. As explained by The Economist:

…the more autocratic the mainland gets the more it needs Hong Kong commercially. Had China reformed its financial and legal system, the territory would be irrelevant to its global business. Instead the opposite has happened: China has grown fast and globalized, but not opened up….As a result, Hong Kong’s economy is disproportionately useful to China. It has a status within a body of international law and rules that gives it seamless access to Western markets….It includes: a higher credit rating; lower risk-weights for bank and counterparty exposures; the ability to clear dollars easily; independent membership of the WTO; “equivalence” status for its stock exchange with those in America, Europe and Japan; recognition as a “developed” stock market by index firms and co-operation agreements with other securities regulators.

Cross-border bank lending booked in Hong Kong has roughly doubled in the past decade, much of it Chinese companies borrowing dollars intermediated through the territory. Hong Kong’s stock market is now the world’s fourth largest…About 70% of the capital raised on it is for Chinese firms, but strikingly the mix has shifted from state enterprises to tech firms such as Tencent, Meituan and Xiaomi. These firms have specifically chosen not to do mainland listings because the markets there are too immature and closed off from Western investors…

…Hong Kong’s share of total FDI flowing into mainland China has remained fairly constant, at 60%. Although the amount of multinational money flowing into and out of China has soared, most firms still prefer to have Hong Kong’s legal stamp….Meanwhile, the number of multinationals with their regional headquarters in the territory has increased by two-thirds since 1997, to around 1,500. 

The Economist

I quoted extensively here because this is an important point. Hong Kong is important to China not because of its GDP contribution on paper, but because the key legacies left by British colonial rule — an open economy, the rule of law — makes it unique to the rest of mainland China. China cannot simply “replace” Hong Kong with another city such as Shenzhen, because it is unwilling to guarantee the same level of openness and justice.

Indeed, it can be argued that Hong Kong’s unique value has only increased under Xi Jinping, given the Chinese president’s tendencies towards more control and centralization. China remains characterized by rule by law rather than rule of law, and an IMF study last year found that China’s economy remains more closed than the average developing economy.

And hence why I would advise caution before writing off Hong Kong’s importance to China. The one country, two systems formula has permitted China to reap the benefits of an open economy and the rule of law in a limited special administrative region without having to loosen the nationwide power of the Chinese Communist Party. It would be a massive own goal to the CCP to let this experiment flounder.

II. Separatism and foreign intervention

A second point that I want to discuss is that of separatism and foreign intervention.

I’ve lost count of the number of commentaries written by Thais about the Hong Kong protests that have dismissed the supposed goal of Hong Kong independence. Suspicion of separatism is not unfounded, given the protestors’ knack for carrying US flags. The nostalgia for British rule also seems too evident, especially after the colonial flag was stuck in the legislative council chamber during its occupation by the protestors. I would argue that such actions, although not materially harmful, have been extremely damaging to how the movement is perceived both in the mainland and abroad. Independence movements tend to be excitingly illegal, and so this is what observers will often latch onto, as they have indeed in this case.

Separatism, however, does not actually appear to be a widespread goal. Instead, the protestors have seem to have made clear that they have five key demands, such as the complete withdrawal of the extradition bill. They fall rather far short of calling for an independent city state or a return to British rule. Indeed, I would imagine that most Hong Kongers are realistic enough to realize that independence is a pipe dream, and might not even be desirable.

A closely entwined thread is that of foreign intervention. The Chinese government has repeatedly demanded that foreign countries such as the US and the UK stop “interfering” in its internal affairs and accused invisible foreign hands of backing and colluding with the protest movement to sow chaos. Indeed, this is a trope that occurs just as frequently in Thailand as in Hong Kong, where conspiracy theorists such as Tony Cartalucci accused the US of backing and funding various anti-Thailand plots. (Cartalucci has since been banned on social media and exposed as a Russia-funded troll).

Just as in Thailand, China’s accusations sound similarly conspiratorial. I say this because of two reasons. Firstly, there is flimsy evidence for a massive Western plot to undermine China via Hong Kong, and if there were one I do not doubt for a moment that it would already have been uncovered by the media. There are too many anti-interventionists in the US who would readily criticize any Hong Kong interference. Secondly, it contradicts everything we know about the current US president, Donald Trump. If anything, he has come under increasing criticism domestically for his hands-off approach and how he has even praised how China has handled the protests. The UK, on the other hand, lacks the capacity or the motive; Dominic Raab can call Carrie Lam all he wants, but the reality is the UK is too mired in its own domestic problems to wield meaningful influence on the other side of the globe.

If anything, believing conspiracies of foreign intervention appear seems more like falling prey to propaganda that was aimed primarily for domestic consumption.

III. Airport closures and violence

At one level I am sympathetic with why there is so much dissent in Hong Kong. Take this piece from the New York Times:

Rents higher than New York, London or San Francisco for apartments half the size. Nearly one in five people living in poverty. A minimum wage of $4.82 an hour…Anger over the growing power of mainland China in everyday life has fueled the protests, as has the desire of residents to choose their own leaders. But beneath that political anger lurks an undercurrent of deep anxiety over their own economic fortunes — and fears that it will only get worse.

“Many young people see there is little way out economically and politically, and it is the background of their desperation and anger at the status quo,” said Ho-fung Hung, a political-economy professor at Johns Hopkins University.

Alexandra Stevenson and Jin Wu

Just as how lack of socioeconomic mobility has driven more and more young Americans towards the left wing of the Democratic Party, the same force is pushing young Hong Kongers towards a desperate push to have a voice in how the system is run. Without a democratic outlet for dissent, protesting can seem like the only avenue available. Some younger Thais have indeed sympathized with the movement.

The tragedy lies however not with the cause of the protests, but with what they have become. It was written somewhere on Twitter that a movement that became famous for allowing ambulances to pass found itself instead blocking critically ill patients. In particular, the airport closures have been difficult to watch.It is no small thing to close an airport, especially one as busy as Hong Kong’s. It disrupts the lives of so many of those uninvolved and is a devastating blow to Hong Kong’s reputation as an international business hub.

It reminds me, inevitably, of the seizure of Suvarnabhumi airport in Bangkok during the yellow shirt protests against Thaksin Shinawatra’s nominee governments. The occupation, which lasted over a week, was hugely damaging and accomplished little; the fatal blows to the government were landed not by the protestors but by the courts. Instead, it repelled even those who disliked Thaksin and his cronies.

Then as now, no winners can come from things like airport seizures and violence. No pleading for understanding from the Hong Kong protestors will help. Things like the rule of law and universal suffrage are good goals, but they are not achieved by inconveniencing the lives of countless others.

So what next?

The protestors need to de-escalate — possibly for their own good, given many observers think a more heavy-handed response becomes increasingly likely the closer we get to the PRC’s 70th anniversary celebrations on October 1st. Violence and seizing transportation hubs does them no good. It may be painful for them to realize, but they have likely exhausted their means of making themselves heard. On the other hand, Beijing’s attitudes are too narrow and zero-sum. More attempt needs to be made at finding middle ground.

No one knows what a good ending to the current situation looks like, and indeed there may not realistically be one. We can only hope that everything in Hong Kong is resolved peacefully.






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