Mission Impossible in Hong Kong

Mission Impossible in Hong Kong

A million people on the streets. A demonstration that stretched across Causeway Bay. A movement that foreign media breathlessly dubbed Hong Kong's "last stand". Last week's protests marked a historic moment, but they also had an idealistic, almost fatalistic, air.

The spark that lit the flames of public anger was a bill to amend the territory's extradition law and strengthen the government's commitment to fighting crime. It pointed to the case of a Hong Kong man accused of murdering his girlfriend while the two were in Taiwan. He cannot be sent back to Taiwan for trial because the two territories have no extradition agreement.

But everyone knows the ulterior motives. The law would also allow criminal suspects to be handed over to the Chinese mainland. But the prevailing system there is rule by law, not rule of law; there is no guarantee that suspects extradited to China will receive a fair trial.

More importantly, the amendment further undermines the "One Country, Two Systems" framework. Hong Kong is still relatively free and open. Political debate, markedly absent in China proper, rages fiercely on the island. The extradition law could fatally compromise Hong Kong's political freedoms.

The proposal fits in perfectly, however, with President Xi Jinping's grand strategy for China.

According to Elizabeth C Economy, a China scholar, Xi has launched a "third revolution" in Chinese politics. Mao Zedong launched the communist revolution and Deng Xiaoping powered reform and opening up. Xi has embarked on a new journey: reform without opening up.

This trajectory is a far cry from what many expected. Experts had predicted that a wealthier China would become increasingly liberal and democratic, more like Hong Kong in other words. Instead, China successfully weathered the 2008 financial crisis and has emerged more sceptical of Western thought than ever.

And deeply embedded in the psyche of Chinese leaders is the sense that China has recovered from the "century of humiliation". Between the Opium Wars and the Communist victory in 1949, China was forced to accept unequal treaties and was occupied and invaded by foreign countries.

That Hong Kong's relative freedom is a remnant of British colonial rule, combined with Xi's doubling down on authoritarianism, means that there is little chance that Hong Kong's protests will amount to anything in Beijing's eyes. The final stage of his "Chinese Dream" would require jettisoning the last remnant of the century of humiliation.

Given this trend, "two systems" is not a priority for Beijing. When swearing in the government of Hong Kong in 2017, Xi reminded legislators that they should "remain committed to the principle of 'one country'".

And so even as protests turned violent and second reading of the bill was delayed, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam condemned "organised riots" and refused to back down. But as of Friday, even some of her own supporters were saying that debating the bill in the current climate would not be wise.

But although Hong Kong is fighting an impossible mission, Xi's decision to tighten the noose could prove short-sighted for three reasons.

First, a key plank of the "China Dream" is the reunification of China and Taiwan. The "one country, two systems model", Xi declared in January, was originally "raised to accommodate Taiwan's reality".

But Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen insists Taiwan will never accept that formula, and her foreign minister last week tweeted his support to the Hong Kong protesters: "Please know that you are not alone".

Second, the extradition law gives a pretext for the United States to escalate its trade war with China. Currently, Washington treats Hong Kong as distinct from China in trade and economic matters under the United States-Hong Kong Policy Act of 1992. However, the president can revisit how the law is applied if Hong Kong becomes less autonomous.

Should this act be amended, shell companies from China that operate in Hong Kong by importing sensitive materials from the US, something they cannot do on the mainland, would no longer benefit from the legal loophole.

Finally, the quick escalation of the use of force against protesters last Wednesday will not win any hearts and minds. Instead, it will reaffirm the protesters' resolve to retain autonomy from the rest of China.

It remains unlikely, of course, that Beijing will bow to pressure. But the iron-fisted attempts of Xi and his supporters to trip up the opposition could complicate his own efforts at reaching the Chinese Dream.

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