Hong Kong Protest Won’t Go Away

Hong Kong’s Occupy protests have finally been ended after 77 days as police cleared the last of the three protest sites. But while that battle is over, the war goes on between those seeking to assert Hong Kong’s autonomy within the Basic Law agreed prior to 1997 by China and Hong Kong establishment forces backed by Beijing aiming to preserve the status quo.

Quite what form the struggle now takes has yet to be determined. But the issues will not go away. The public in Hong Kong and overseas, surprised at the tenacity of the mostly young demonstrators, will not be surprised to see them back. For their part, the student leaders now appear to admit that this particular form of protest, which blocked key roads in the central business district and in the heart of Kowloon, eventually lost them support from ordinary citizens who may have approved of their aims but tired of the traffic delays.

But for that very reason they seem determined to find new ways of making their voices heard if no progress is seen to result from the demonstrations. Meanwhile, their tenacity has also made it more difficult for the pro-democracy opposition parties in the Legislative Council to accept any fig-leaf of compromise that might be offered on the key constitutional issue – the system for electing the next chief executive.

As for the government side, its policies now seem more than ever likely to be set by Beijing. Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying is a discredited figure, viewed as incompetent by the establishment camp before the protests began, tarnished by revelations of undisclosed payments – an issue which is not dead – and largely invisible throughout the Occupy protests. The government has been rudderless, seeming mainly to follow the instructions of the Hong Kong Liaison Office, Beijing’s official representative in Hong Kong, not to give ground on the election issue but to avoid violent confrontations that would keep Hong Kong in the world headlines and further embarrass Beijing.

The question now is how Beijing responds now that Occupy is over but the movement lives on. Will it seek to take some sort of revenge on Hong Kong, viewed by many on the mainland, not least by foreign businessmen trying to ingratiate themselves with the Communist Party, as a spoiled child whose wealth owes much to the generosity of the motherland? Retaliation might take the form of restricting tourism, local listing of mainland companies or favoring other centers for the development of yuan trading.

However, Hong Kong is much less a beneficiary of Beijing “gifts” than is often imagined and overt penalties would further alienate the people. Many in Hong Kong who disapprove of the demonstrations also remain hostile to Beijing’s efforts to speed up integration into the One Country part of the 1997 agreement. The much advertised “gifts” also prove less valuable than claimed. Allowing limited cross-border trading of stocks went ahead, after a short delay, in the middle of the Occupy protests but almost immediately proved a huge disappointment.

It has also been noted that while Hong Kong’s financial markets have been focused almost entirely on the mainland, Singapore has been successful in launching new, internationally traded financial products. In other words, the push for mainland integration has damaged, not enhanced Hong Kong’s global position.

Beijing’s responses are in practice more likely focused on issues within Hong Kong than on measures to help or hinder its economy. Will it seek to crack down on opposition groups by accusing them of being unpatriotic and “in the pay of foreign forces?”

In that case, one can expect enhanced pressures against press freedom and the independence of the judiciary, both often thorns in the side of a one-party state now headed by a president who combines autocratic tendencies with the power of the party bureaucracy. Or will it recognize that discontents in Hong Kong go far beyond the electoral system to a range of livelihood issues. Can Beijing induce genuine change in a status quo protecting a small business and bureaucratic elite while not making significant concessions on the constitutional issues?

Both sides are intransigent over the 2017 election issue, with Beijing having tried and failed to lay down the election procedure in some detail and have that accepted as a genuine version of promised “universal suffrage.” That matter should anyway have been left to Hong Kong, not to the National People’s Congress.

There may still be a little wiggle room on interpretations but a more likely route to meeting some of Hong Kong’s demands would be to reduce the number of special interest Functional Constituencies in the Legislative Council, or at least vastly enlarge their electorates as had previously been done under the last British governor, Chris Patten, a reform reversed in 1997.

The most significant comments to date have come from a former head of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office of the State Council, Chen Zuoer. He spoke of the need for “comprehensive treatment” not “small patches” for Hong Kong’s problems. That could be ominous or encouraging, depending on perceptions. Is the problem too little sharing of wealth and power in Hong Kong, or too much liberty? The latter seems the more likely interpretation as Chen also focused on alleged foreign funding of the protests.

Chen also claimed that Hong Kong needs “deep reflection” on its role in promoting the country’s "sovereignty and interests.” Also ominously, another mainland official, Zhang Rongshun of the NPC Standing Committee, commented that there was a “need to have a re-enlightenment about the One Country-Two Systems principle and national identity.” In short, the authoritarian instincts of the party apparatchiks and their self-serving definitions of patriotism seem likely to prevail over addressing the actual causes of discontent.

“Patriotism” is the rallying cry of the Xi administration. Naturally, Hong Kong, with its liberal traditions and close connections to open societies in the West (and Asia) is suspect. But patriotism can be double-edged in the Hong Kong context. The establishment figures who pay lip service to Beijing are also the people with the closest connections to the West via education and investment. They are beneficiaries of Hong Kong’s ill-balanced system but fundamentally wary of the Communist Party – which was why they mostly backed second generation, high-living tycoon Henry Tang against assumed long-time party member CY Leung for chief executive in 2012.

The treatment of Hong Kong is an international issue for Beijing when it is seeking to claw back some “soft power” influence after high-profile disputes with smaller neighbors. Hong Kong’s protests have also spurred already growing anti-mainland sentiment in Taiwan. Although Hong Kong is far less important to China than it was, a China trying to appear a benign global influence needs to show wisdom rather than focus on a “patriotism” that is alarming to many, especially in the region.

Another straw in the wind may be the comparisons being made by mainland officials between troublesome Hong Kong and well-behaved Macau. The chief executive there was recently re-elected – the only candidate. Xi will visit the territory next week on the occasion of the 15th anniversary of the handover from Portugal and attend the chief executive’s re-installation. But this is ironic given that Macau’s ill-distributed prosperity since 1999 has been almost entirely due to the mushrooming of casinos that have become a machine for laundering ill-gotten mainland money and avoiding foreign exchange controls.

Since Xi’s campaign against corruption began, Macau's casino turnover has fallen by about 25 percent. But it still exceeds that of Las Vegas. For sure Beijing likes the lack of overt politics in Macau and the much tighter de facto controls on media and academia. But discontent simmers among a population that has seen most of the benefits of the gambling boom go to the owners of the casinos, shops and hotels, not to real wages for Macanese.

Hong Kong’s students may be too idealistic for their own good, or even that of pragmatic Hong Kong. But it is a grim prospect for China, let alone Hong Kong, if Macau is admired as a model for anything other than making money by any means while Hong Kong’s social progress is thwarted in the name of patriotism.