Hong Kong 1 9 August 2019.

Between 1839 and 1842, Britain fought China over the opium trade.  China lost that war and the island of Hong Kong to boot.  Under British rule, Hong Kong became a major port and later a financial center.  Sometime between 1914 and 1945, Britain lost the “Mandate of Heaven.”  In 1997, Britain returned Hong Kong to the Peoples’ Republic of China (PRC).  However, the agreement hedged about Hong Kong’s status to safeguard its Western-type freedoms and its economic dynamism.   The freedoms included free speech, the right to assemble, and free access to the internet.  None of these rights exist anywhere in the rest of the PRC.  Hong Kong is, in many ways, self-governing.  The return agreement pledged China to respect these terms until 2047.  The common term for this is “One country, two systems.”

Despite the promise to respect the agreement until 2047, many people in Hong Kong believe that the PRC has been slicing the salami for a while now.[1]  Both the legislature and the committee that appoints the chief executive have been slowly packed with local agents of the PRC.  The chief executive, Carrie Lam, is seen as a puppet of Beijing.  The PRC’s organs of state security have begun to operate against dissidents living in Hong Kong.  So, things are starting to look like “One country, one system.”

In February 2019, Carrie Lam, the chief executive, introduced a bill into the legislature.  It would allow the extradition of people accused of crimes to places with which Hong Kong has no extradition treaty.  One of those places, oddly, is the PRC.  Since the PRC’s security services have already kidnapped a number of people from Hong Kong, this bill looked like an attempt to neaten-up that process.

Beginning on 9 June 2019, huge numbers of Hong Kong residents took to the streets to protest against the bill.  On 12 June 2019, a few of the demonstrators threw rocks at the police; the police responded with tear gas, pepper spray, and beatings.  Nothing deterred, the demonstrations continued.  On 15 June 2019, Lam said that the extradition bill had been suspended.  She didn’t say that it had been withdrawn entirely.  That didn’t cut it with the demonstrators.  On 16 June 2019, two million of them filled the streets of Hong Kong.  They demand that the bill be formally withdrawn and that Lam resign.

More than just digging-in on the extradition bill, the demonstrators have begun to surface deeper concerns and make more sweeping demands.  It may be that the China-watchers in Hong Kong–whose own futures are on the line (unless they can get a Canadian visa)–have concluded that the PRC is not headed toward any meaningful liberalization under Xi Jinping.[2]  Increasingly, people are demanding what might be seen as a re-negotiation of the 1997 agreement.  They seem to want Hong Kong’s special status to be both perpetual and real.

This shift in the goals of the movement may have alarmed the government in Beijing.  Well it should.  Beijing’s failure to make timely concessions has allowed the movement to grow.  Well, Xi Jinping’s failure to understand the situation has allowed a crisis to occur.

[1] Daniel Victor and Alan Yuhas, “How the Demonstrations in Hong Kong Have Evolved,” NYT, 9 August 2019.

[2] Making deals with authoritarian states in the professed belief that they will move along some pre-ordained path of political development is sometimes wishful thinking.  “Nothing is written.”  This isn’t meant as a swipe at the Obama administration’s deal with Iran, which I still support.  However, John Bolton, not John Hill, is the National Security Advisor.  He has a different take on this issue.  Apparently, so do the people in Hong Kong.

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