Who lost Hong Kong? It’s a question that should worry – and anger – western politicians and voters as they watch from afar the slow, merciless strangulation of the former British colony’s courageous pro-democracy movement. Once the grand panjandrums of China’s ruling Communist party have completed Tuesdays national day celebrations, additional, potentially fatal twists of their state security garrotte appear inevitable.
The malign nature of Beijing’s looming actions may only be intensified by the large-scale demonstrations planned in Hong Kong to coincide with the People’s Republic’s 70th anniversary. Multiple protests and strikes are going ahead despite official bans, pre-emptive arrests, brutal police tactics and media intimidation. But they look destined to end in more damagingly futile violence, similar to that seen at the weekend.
If Hong Kong’s battle for democracy – meaning universal suffrage, direct elections, civil rights, free speech and observance of the rule of law – has not already been lost, it is teetering on the brink. This is not because the hundreds of thousands who backed the protests when they began in June have suddenly changed their view on Beijing’s devious efforts to deepen its control.
It is certainly not because the protesters have miscalculated or somehow blown their chance of change. In promoting their demands they have, for the most part, shown dignity, eloquence, restraint, persistence and admirable innovation, for example through “be water” pop-up demos, organic ground-up organisation and alternative peer-to-peer social media. These are future paradigms for global protest.
But after four months of epic struggle, what do the pro-democracy forces have to show? Official withdrawal of the extradition bill that triggered the upheaval is their sole tangible victory to date. Meanwhile, increased violence involving a minority of protesters is playing into Beijing’s hands, feeding its false narratives about malign agitators, terrorists and foreign agents.
The cause is being lost because, firstly, it was always a grievously unequal battle. China’s rulers, initially taken aback by the scale and intensity of its inhabitants’ alienation, are now moving with growing determination to suppress it, not address it. They can do so with increased confidence because the turmoil has not prompted significant copycat protests in one-party mainland China, as some initially predicted.
Beijing is winning because no discernible internal political challenge has emerged to Xi Jinping, China’s paramount leader – even though his inflexible and complacent approach has made matters worse. Xi, a strongman leader who casts himself as a latterday Mao with a little red online book of political thoughts to match, is not backing off. He’s doubling down.
Beijing is also winning because Hong Kong is no longer quite the vital financial and commercial hub it once was. It was once the primary gateway to China; now the ports of Shanghai, Shenzhen, Ningbo and Guangzhou each handle more container traffic than Hong Kong. Beijing is winning because the painstakingly fabricated “one country, two systems” fudge agreed with Britain in 1997 has not lasted the course. Nowadays it is seen from Beijing as less of an asset, more a liability – an artificial arrangement potentially prolonging mainland exposure to Hong Kong’s subversive ideas.
At the time of the British handover, there was optimistic talk about how an emerging China’s growing global economic integration would encourage a political transformation and, with it, Beijing’s gradual embrace of western values and international rules-based systems. Such hopes now appear largely misplaced. What Hong Kong shows clearly are the limits to China’s adaptability – and the Communist party’s undying attachment to political uniformity, not plurality.
Under Xi, China’s expansive aim is to change the world to suit its purposes rather than adapt to suit the world. It is both too strong – in terms of its economic and military might – and too weak – in terms of its monolithic politics – to contemplate a compromise over Hong Kong. On Monday police warned ominously of the “extreme danger [of a] very serious violent attack” on national day, appearing to pre-emptively prepare the way for an even fiercer crackdown.
If Hong Kong’s battle is indeed lost, could the pro-democracy movement – with the odds stacked against it – have reasonably expected any other outcome? Yes, it could. Such hopes were not wholly delusional. As a legal guarantor of Hong Kong’s freedoms, Britain has a duty to stand up to China’s repressive behaviour. But aside from a few carefully phrased diplomatic whinges, it has signally failed to do so. Such weak shilly-shallying is contemptuously dismissed in Beijing.
The US counts itself a champion of global democratic values, or did so before Donald Trump took office. Congress has made threatening noises but the White House has taken no substantive action. If the US applies punitive measures to China, they concern unfair business practices – not human rights. In fact, Trump’s ruinous trade war has intensified Beijing’s paranoid sense of a hostile global contest. In such circumstances, any unilateral climbdown, anywhere, is deemed politically unacceptable.
Despite waging a trade war, Trump also frequently praises Xi under the mistaken impression that insincere flattery will render him more amenable. Yet the behaviour of other western governments since the Hong Kong crisis blew up has been no less servile. What this spineless dereliction implies for other, similar pro-democracy movements opposed to authoritarian regimes, such as those in Egypt and Russia, or for China’s persecuted Uighur and Hui Muslim minorities, is gravely dismaying.
In Washington, London and other capitals, it’s plain that money and power speak louder than democratic ideals, broken umbrellas and bloodied heads. Perhaps it was always thus. Yet if Hong Kong is permanently, definitively lost to democracy, it will be, at least in part, because the west failed to fight for it.