By: John Berthelsen

What China’s leaders in Beijing seem incapable of understanding is that nobody except the Han Chinese in the lands they claim – nobody in Xinjiang, nobody in Tibet, nobody in Taiwan and certainly nobody in Hong Kong – wants to live under their rule. Hong Kong proved that with a million people on the street on June 9.

They are apparently incapable of understanding why those they seek to bring under the Chinese yoke would prefer not. They are incapable of understanding that the Panchen Lama they created is no substitute for one the Tibetans believe was a reincarnation going back hundreds of years, and that they would like the return of the one that Beijing has disappeared. They are incapable of understanding that the government-appointed Catholic prelate in China is no substitute for the one appointed by Rome. They are incapable of understanding they can’t “re-educate” a million Uighurs out of their Islamic faith. They are incapable of understanding that the fourth chief executive they have produced to lead Hong Kong gathers no more respect than any of the previous three.

The events in Hong Kong that blew up earlier this week, complete with tear gas and truncheons, didn’t start with the decision to introduce a measure that would allow for the extradition of dissidents and crooked property tycoons. It is clear that Chief Executive Carrie Lam, at the behest of Beijing, should have had some realistic idea of the depth of outrage on the part of the territory’s 7 million residents and the distrust of both her government and the one in the mainland.

The first ominous sign, just a year after the handover from colonial governors to China, concerned the end of Cheung Tze-keung, a romantic gangster known as “Big Spender” for his lavish lifestyle, who moved fluidly back and forth across the border between Hong Kong and Guangdong. A kidnapper, gunrunner and robber, he was best known for having masterminded the abductions of real estate tycoon Walter Kwok Ping-sheung and Victor Li Tzar kuo, the son of Li Ka Shing, Hong Kong’s richest tycoon. Cheung is said to have earned the gang a phenomenal HK$1.6 billion (US$204.4 million), pocketing HK$662 million for himself. The rest of the cash was split among his gang members.

Big Spender’s finish was unceremonious. Eventually he was caught in China. But instead of being brought to Hong Kong, where he had committed the crimes, he was tried in Guangdong and executed in 1998 in a ditch with a bullet to the back of the head.  The fact that Beijing ignored Hong Kong’s jurisdiction to rid the region of a notorious criminal didn’t raise much controversy except from a handful of followers of the Basic Law.

But then Hong Kong’s courts were faced with a more troubling case, considering applications for residency from the mainland-born children of the territory’s permanent residents.  In two judgments delivered on their right of abode under the Basic Law agreed by the Chinese and British government, it became clear that there was no such right despite the clear language of the law, and that Beijing was going to rule the system.

In the first case, the court ruled that the child of a permanent resident parent had the right to Hong Kong citizenship and that applicants not need the permission of mainland authorities for residency. A few weeks later, the Court of Final Appeal “clarified” its ruling that there was no such right, and that it had not intended to challenge the power of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress.

Then, in 2003, Beijing attempted to ram a national security law down Hong Kong’s throat that would have included prohibiting sedition or subversion against the central government, prohibited foreign organizations from conducting political activity in the territory, and to punish theft of state secrets.  That was followed by the biggest demonstration Hong Kong had ever seen, with an estimated half-million people on the streets.

That was the last time the people of Hong Kong ever won. Since 2003, despite the clear provisions of the Basic Law that were designed to govern the territory as a separate government for 50 years, the erosion has never ceased.

Booksellers and at least one executive have been kidnapped by Chinese operatives and taken over the border. The booksellers – two of them citizens of other countries – are believed to have been receiving scandalous information on Xi’s cohorts in Beijing from its opponents, particularly the so-called “Shanghai Clique” headed by the nonagenarian former leader Jiang Zemin. Their disappearance raised deep concern about press freedom, along with unofficial and continual trashing of Apple Daily, the territory’s most popular broadsheet, run by democracy advocate Jimmy Lai.

After the Chinese-language daily Ming Pao published revelations of riches from the Panama Papers on the part of the family of Xi Jinping, editor Kevin Lau was attacked by a knife-wielding assailant in broad daylight on a harborfront street in the village of Sai Kung. It has never been determined who hired the assailant. Some 6,000 journalists marched to the government headquarters to demand that the government uphold press freedom against intrusions from the mainland.

The city’s courts, which give it a global reputation as a bastion of the rule of law on China’s flank – where there isn’t any – have steadily been reined in, their power, particularly in political cases, eroded.

The climax came with the Umbrella Movement, the 79-day political movement that took its name from the use of umbrellas to blunt the use of pepper spray by the Hong Kong police to disperse massive crowds demanding universal suffrage that had been promised by the Basic Law. The Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress said it would screen candidates for the 2017 election of the chief executive. Tens of thousands of individuals began the protest in September of 2014.

Eventually the authorities prevailed. Despite the demonstrations, Beijing retained the right to vet the chief executive, hardly a wise political decision since all three of its choices since the handover in 1997 had proven to be political failures. Tung Chee-hwa, head of a politically connected shipping concern, was forced out, to be replaced by Donald Tsang, a former civil servant who ended up in the dock on charges of taking favors from those he governed. Leung Chun-ying, a property tycoon, proved so unpopular that he stepped out after a single term, to be replaced by Carrie Lam, the former bureaucrat who is pushing the extradition law.

Six opposition members elected in the wake of the Umbrella protest to the Legislative Council, the territory’s governing body, have been removed from office for various “infractions” dictated by Beijing. The Hong Kong authorities have brought clearly political charges against pro-democracy advocates and barred some from running for office. They have forced the outlawing of a one-man local rule party.

They have forced a change in the office of the Provost at the internationally recognized University of Hong Kong to put a Beijing-friendly figure into the office. 

There has been a widely ridiculed attempt to push a law through the Legislative Council to make it an offense to insult the Chinese national anthem. That was propelled by widespread jeering of the national anthem during football matches between Chinese and Hong Kong teams. That has gone on since 2015 as anti-mainland Chinese sentiment has risen, with catcalling and the threat of violence requiring the deployment of police to forestall clashes.

The city’s residents have a long list of complaints that have grown sharply, including the massive influx of mainland tourists who, the locals say, are uncouth and untidy and are changing the nature of the city. 

As social and political tensions have grown, polls show that fewer than 18 percent of Hong Kong people identify themselves as solely Chinese. More than 40 percent identify themselves as solely “Hongkongers,” Hèung Góng Yàhn in Cantonese ( 香港人). Another 27 percent identify themselves as “Hong Kong people in China.”

Where the end of this will be is unknown. It must be remembered that many of the ancestors of those on the streets this week swam down the Pearl River to get away from the excesses of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution and Great Leap Forward. They have little reason to trust the government in Beijing nor, increasingly, do their descendants.