Australia’s government has joined Ireland, Britain and Japan in putting out a Hong Kong travel warning as clashes between police, highly-organised civil rights protesters with gangs of Beijing-sponsored thugs allegedly ferried from mainland China in the mix show no sign, after nine weeks of street fighting, of losing steam.
Rhetoric and attitudes on both sides have hardened. The question at the heart of the conflict is no longer the proposed but now shelved extradition law that lit the fuse; it is, instead, who is to govern Hong Kong?
That was the question the British and Chinese governments, in the Sino-British Joint Declaration, were willing to have pushed under the rug for 50 years. For half a century, Hong Kong would be a “special administrative region” that would enjoy political and economic freedoms unknown in the rest of the republic. The ex-colony’s Basic Law aims to protect the city’s “capitalist system and way of life” and allow it “a high degree of autonomy,” including executive, legislative, and independent judicial powers until, that is, 2047.
It’s clear that Beijing has no problem in principle with preserving Hong Kong’s capitalist system. Why should it, when it is more than happy to have capitalism in the mainland, providing the capitalists accept the uncontested rule of the Communist Party?
What appears now to be the existential struggle that has emerged 28 years ahead of schedule has been caused by China’s attempts, some subtle, some not, to erode the territory’s autonomy and squeeze the life out of its democracy.
While the writ of the Communist Party does not run in Hong Kong, Beijing has the authority to interpret its Basic Law, and it has loyalists in important political positions.
It has become increasingly intolerant of criticism, dissent and democracy. Only candidates approved by a nominating committee chosen by Beijing are permitted to stand in the election of Hong Kong’s chief executive.
Beijing was doubtless hoping to let the next quarter of a century or so pass by with as little trouble as possible, until such time as the One Country-Two Systems formula could be thrown in the bin.
But if push comes to shove and the protest movement has escalated the shoving, its determination to punish dissent as only it knows how cannot be under-estimated, in part because it cannot allow potential resistance movements in the mainland to learn that protest can succeed.
The warning issued this week by the central government’s Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office has been stern even by Beijing’s standards: protesters have been told that the government’s restraint should not be taken for weakness, and reminded of the strength of the People’s Liberation Army, ready and able, doubtless, to “liberate” Hong Kong.