In June of 1966, the spectacular view of Hong Kong’s vertiginous hills from the top-floor bar of the 26-story Hilton Hotel – now torn down and replaced by tycoon Li Ka-shing’s Cheung Kong Centre – was eerie and ominous, with smoke hanging thick in the city’s humid air. The tops of the hills appeared to be on fire, and in a sense they were.
The blazes were the campfires of thousands of refugees from China who had fled the excesses of Mao Zedong’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution for the safety of what was then a British Crown colony.
Today, the children and grandchildren of those thousands of refugees, and thousands more who came down the Pearl River in other times of Chinese stress, are in Hong Kong’s streets in arguably the most remarkable demonstration of defiance of Beijing that the world has seen. The people took to the streets in March and April before turning out in record numbers in June to protest a bill in the Legislative Council that would have allowed for the extradition of Hong Kong’s citizens to China.
The demonstrations have increased in size and fervor in the face of tear gas and rubber bullets and, over the past couple of days, horrific violence on the part of the police, who have been filmed charging onto the city’s MTR stations to pound passengers with batons and spray them with tear gas. The police are admittedly responding to growing vandalism on the part of the frustrated demonstrators with increasing mayhem on both the deserving and undeserving in a cycle of carnage that appears to have no end. The government itself has retreated and passed control to the police, who are out of control.
There is a subtext to this, and it holds ominous implications for the city of 7.5 million Chinese, who are no longer Chinese. The truth is, they are in effect a nation in their own right, much as Taiwan is, and they want nothing to do with the country and government that plans to subsume them. The overwhelming odds are that China will get its way and in the process destroy the way of life and commerce of one of the world’s great cities – and possibly wreak havoc on its own economy.
China is not going to back down. It has already proven that with its refusal to countenance a peace offering by the embattled Chief Executive Carrie Lam. As Reuters correspondents John Pomfret and Greg Torode wrote on August 29, Lam earlier this summer “submitted a report to Beijing that assessed protesters’ five key demands and found that withdrawing a contentious extradition bill could help defuse the mounting political crisis in the territory.” It was turned down flat by the mainland government, headed by General Secretary Xi Jinping, who is on his way to owning this crisis through his intransigence.
The reality is that Hong Kong is in effect no longer part of China, and not because of its 156 years under British rule, which ended in 1997. It is its own polity, with its own admittedly flawed constitution, the Basic Law, agreed between China and the UK and which China has continued to chip away at inexorably in the ensuing 22 years. Hong Kong has its own legal system based on a combination of English common law and local legislation, compared to China’s civil system, which can be bent by communist party officials.
Hong Kong also has its own increasingly battered tradition of press freedom, exemplified particularly by the freewheeling Apple Daily headed by democracy advocate Jimmy Lai. Its churches have prelates selected by its religions and not by the state. Its book publishers and sellers were free to publish scandalous revelations about Beijing’s leaders – until Beijing’s operatives kidnapped them and dragged them over the border and ran them over the washboard until they acquiesced to China’s version of the truth.
When the government, with its Closer Economic Partnership Agreement in 2003, agreed to let in millions of Chinese tourists, thousands of Hong Kong residents discovered they had about as much in common with most of their fellow Chinese as an Alabama redneck has with a New York banker. That led to confrontations in the subways and on the streets when tourists unwittingly misbehaved and became the subject of screaming locals. Chinese women who occupied birth beds in Hong Kong hospitals became known as “locusts.”
The statistics proved it. Surveys by the University of Hong Kong found that more and more people were identifying themselves simply as citizens of the city. A Hong Kong Public Research Institute survey published recently by The Economist demonstrates how dramatically attitudes have changed.
Among all Hong Kong citizens, fewer than 20 percent identify themselves as residents of China. Among the young, the totals are so minuscule as to be astonishing. In the 18-29 age group, the figure identifying themselves as Chinese is almost unmeasurable while those identifying themselves as solely Hong Kongers is in the range of 75 percent. Even among those 60-plus, those identifying themselves as Chinese is barely above 20 percent.
The Beijing Olympics of 2008, widely regarded as a triumph, brought tens of thousands of Hong Kong people into the streets in celebration, marching down Gloucester Road in Central. That camaraderie has vanished. Propelled by widespread jeering of the national anthem during football matches between Chinese and Hong Kong teams, the Legislative Council attempted to pass a law making it an offence to insult the Chinese flag. They were laughed at. Since 2015 the catcalling and threats of violence have required the deployment of police to forestall clashes.
The tragedy today is that Xi Jinping and the Communist Party are unable to recognize in the budding nation the rebellion their policies have created on China’s southern flank, any more than they would be able to recognize an equally separate nation in Taiwan or Tibet. The grim outlook is for more police, a growing presence of the People’s Liberation Army, more tear gas and more truncheons against a city equally determined to maintain its independence. This cannot end well.