The Hong Kong District Council elections were held on 24 November 2019 for all of its 18 District Councils. Various political parties, described as pan-democratic in Beijing and pro-democratic by the Western media outlets, swept to an overwhelming victory after winning 85 % of the votes (cast by the electorate who came to the polling stations).
Political movements that represent the interests of the Chinese government were the undisputed losers of the election. Incidentally, among these parties, the main one is also called the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong.
All of these arbitrary “labels” actually do not help us understand the truly complex political landscape in Hong Kong or the equally complicated relationship between Hong Kong and the mainland. Foreign Minister of the PRC Wang Yi stated (on behalf of the people of Hong Kong) the next day after the election that its results would have no effect on the status of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) within China, in accordance with the “one country, two systems” principle. The official also talked about Beijing’s continued support for Carrie Lam, the Chief Executive of Hong Kong.
During a press conference on 26 November, China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Geng Shuang was asked to comment on the fact that “US Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) called on the President to sign into law the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act” (approved by the Senate and the House of Representatives). In response he urged the United States to “stop interfering in Hong Kong affairs, which are China’s internal affairs” otherwise China would “take strong countermeasures” in retaliation.
We will need to briefly reference the modern history of Hong Kong in order to answer the question “Why is there so much fuss lately in the United States (China’s “well-wisher”) about the recent events happening in one part of the PRC?”. And why is there an increased focus on the state of Beijing’s relationship with its geopolitical opponent, Washington, whose influence on the aforementioned events is unmistakable.
Since 1842, i.e. at the time of so-called Opium Wars (one of the biggest crimes against humanity), Hong Kong was ceded by China to England and became part of the British empire. At the end of 1984, the People’s Republic of China and the United Kingdom signed the Sino–British Joint Declaration, in accordance with which Hong Kong was to be returned to the PRC in 1997 on condition that there would be a 50-year transition period after the handover.
During this period, Beijing was to be responsible for defense and foreign policy matters, at the same time, Hong Kong would retain its existing government (on regional and local levels) and legal systems. Apparently, attempts made by the PRC to interfere in Hong Kong’s judiciary sparked yet another series of street protests (unprecedented in scale, duration and the level of violence) involving a proportion of Hong Kong’s residents, mainly students.
The demonstrations continued even after Carrie Lam removed from the government agenda a plan to amend the local legislation. These changes would have allowed Hong Kong to hand over certain criminals to other nations (particularly China).
The recent developments raise an issue of whether the current residents of Hong Kong fully understand what will happen in the near future, in 2047, when “overnight” their region will become a part of a country whose political, government and judicial systems noticeably differ from its own. Or perhaps, the protesters are full of youthful optimism (after all, there are 13 year-old children among the detainees) and think: “This will not happen soon and not to us”.
Would it not be better to stretch out the period of adaptation to a “new life” in the PRC where the current pace of development is comparable only to that in the first half of USSR’s existence? After all, without close cooperation with China, economic development of Hong Kong (and Taiwan too for that matter) in the future is impossible.
And Beijing is attempting to ease this adaptation as, undoubtedly, it fully supported Carrie Lam when she tried to make aforementioned changes to the local legislation.
However, as we later learned, the protests (that in recent months became more destructive, take for example the vandalism of the international airport) were not truly caused by the Chief Executive’s attempts to change laws. After all, there was no change in intensity of the demonstrations once the decision to revoke the amendments was made. Moreover, the behavior of the particularly active groups of “protesters” grew increasingly violent, and, as a result, the local police began to respond more forcefully.
Such developments are characteristic of all the previous “color revolutions” (witnessed thus far), that, according to conmen in political circles, happen “naturally” simply because “a situation in any given country becomes unbearable”. There is no doubt that the events in Hong Kong over the last 6 months are a part of this trend.
Still, the aims of a part (but far from all) of the “pro-democratic” forces, which swept to an overwhelming victory in the aforementioned Hong Kong District Council elections, are truly futile. And members of this particular group of demonstrators were the ones shouting “Hong Kong is not China” and walking around with British and American flags that they even hung on the building housing the Legislative Council.
The protests that support the aforementioned rallying cry are doomed to fail, and not necessarily because China resumed sovereignty over Hong Kong in accordance with the Sino–British Joint Declaration (signed in 1984 and subsequently registered by the PRC and UK governments at the United Nations) but because troops of the People’s Liberation Army are demonstrably present on the outskirts of the city. There is absolutely no doubt that China is willing to resort to drastic measures if the situation in Hong Kong becomes untenable.
Despite the scale of the protests, their instigators and participants seemingly understand the limits of what is tolerable. After all, going beyond them will not simply mean rubber bullets and water cannons for the demonstrators.
China has not responded in the aforementioned manner because Beijing fully understands the scale and price of its confrontation with its geopolitical opponent. The situation in Hong Kong is for now a part (but not the key component) of the complicated game between the leading powers.
The main component stems from the issues plaguing the trade and economic ties between the USA and China that have been the subject of multi-stage negotiations over the past two years. Every week (or even more frequently), U.S. President Donald Trump has described the state of this relationship in the most conflicting manner.
We would like to highlight the fact that both sides need an agreement of some kind. It is also important to note that the U.S. side is at present represented by President Donald Trump and his small circle of allies. Most of the American establishment appear to be “asleep” as they wait for their main political opponent (or more foe) to lose his main advantage in the upcoming election (i.e. the unusually high pace of economic growth in the United States in recent years).
Undoubtedly, Beijing fully understands this, and does not wish to hand Donald Trump’s opponents yet another trump card, in the form of drastic measures in Hong Kong. After all, such a step will either further complicate the negotiation process or completely terminate it.
And the fact that pro-democratic forces will come to power at the district level in Hong Kong is actually a positive development. Now, supporters of democracy will have to deal with all the issues caused by Hong Kong’s especially violent protesters.
Still, by and large, the Hong Kong District Council election, in and of itself a fairly insignificant event, still sends a warning signal to Beijing indicative of the mood that is prevailing in this SAR at the moment. And a much more important event is scheduled for September of next year, i.e. the Hong Kong legislative election. We can confidently predict that it will pose a serious challenge for the PRC leadership.
And steps are already being taken to prepare for it. First of all, the losers of the recent election (the pro-Chinese “democrats”) have already called for a thorough introspection. Secondly, Chief Executive of Hong Kong Carrie Lam said that she respected “the result of the elections, which reflected the dissatisfaction of Hong Kong residents with deep-rooted social issues”. Finally, the government promised to seek a common ground with various political factions with the view of a possible consolidation in the future.
And we will see what effect these steps will have on the current situation in Hong Kong.
Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.