Hong Kong’s ‘hopeless’ last stand
The Battle for Hong Kong is just beginning. It's no longer about extradition. It's not about puppet politicians. Hong Kong's protests have entered a new phase.
And pro-democracy demonstrators are resigned to a defiant, hopeless last stand against Chairman Xi's overwhelming Communist China.
It was doomed to fail from the start.
Hong Kong was occupied by Britain in 1841 and used as a base of operations in its war against China. It was ceded to the Empire in 1842 by treaty to become a permanent military outpost. Over the next 150 years, it grew into an economic hub - and a colony of Western democracy in the heart of Asia.
But Britain washed its hands of the cultural flashpoint it created when it handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997. A transition agreement known as "one country, two systems" served only to put the inevitable day off.
The island city would keep many of the democratic freedoms and institutions not allowed on the communist mainland - but only until 2047, when its integration would be made complete.
To Hong Kong's youth, that day no longer seems so far away.
What began as a peaceful protest over moves to deport Hong Kong citizens to mainland China for trial has now escalated into a clash between liberal democratic and authoritarian communist values. The extradition bill has been withdrawn. The protesters, however, remain.
"Reclaim Hong Kong! Revolution of our time!" demonstrators chanted. Pro-democracy politician Raymond Chan sums up the grim sentiment: "If we lose, it may be the end of Hong Kong as we know it."
"Resist Beijing, liberate Hong Kong! Now or never! Pray for us!" tens of thousands of demonstrators chanted as they marched on the US Consulate in Hong Kong at the weekend.
Three months after the protests began, it's the start of the new school year.
University students and workers are on strike. Some High School students have taken to wearing masks and singing protest songs in solidarity with the protests.
They know it's their future which is at stake.
"I'd rather speak up and die than remain silent and live" one banner reads.
"The whole system in Hong Kong is rotten, from top to bottom. We want to tear it down and start fresh," protesters shout.
What began as a campaign of civil disobedience has evolved into one of uncivil disobedience.
Hong Kong activist Kacey Wong told media: "The law is already being broken, by the police, by the government … That's why you see everybody masking up and violating some laws, but those laws were disrespectful. The people who are protesting have very high discipline, and idealism of what the law is supposed to be."
Professor in Chinese political economics at Johns Hopkins University Ho-Fung Hung told Bloomberg that extreme housing prices, economic malaise, a loss of cultural identity and frustration at a lack of political voice were driving the protests.
"Participants come from all economic backgrounds," says Hung. "What binds them together is a shared sense that there is no future for them in Hong Kong. Compared with their parents, they will live a lower quality of life."
But some protesters see it in much broader terms.
"It's not just about fighting back against one country but against the spread of communism and authoritarianism," a protester known only as Leung told reporters for the Los Angeles Times. "It's Hong Kong and Xinjiang today, but where will be next?"
In a new speech, Chairman Xi exhorted his Communist Party to "struggle" harder against challenges to the party's interests.
The word struggle has special significance, which is why Mr Xi used it almost 60 times in his 10-minute lecture. It was one of founder Chairman Mao Zedong's favourite buzzwords.
Using "struggle" so prominently now is seen as a hardening of Mr Xi's attitude towards Hong Kong.
And the state-controlled media has embraced the message.
Ok so the Hong Kong Facebook page of Xinhua news agency just branded people as cockroaches. Does that ring a bell to the Rwanda genocide and Hitler's treatment to Jews? #FreeHongKong #BoycottChina pic.twitter.com/AOhd68WNGL— jajabrinks (@darkmodeisking) August 17, 2019
Any form of secessionism "will be crushed" the China Daily declared earlier this week. Hong Kong was an integral part of China, and rallies supporting democracy were "proof" of the interference of "foreign forces".
"Stop trying the patience of the central government," the paper warned. "Hong Kong is an inseparable part of China - and that is the bottom line no one should challenge, not the demonstrators, not the foreign forces playing their dirty games."
Chinese state media has begun dehumanising demonstrators, calling them "less than human" and "cockroaches".
In which a Hong Kong police officer points at elderly citizens (members of a volunteer group called "Protect the Children)" with his baton and calls them cockroaches. (8 September, Mong Kok. Via HKU Campus TV) https://t.co/uq2HZmXNvf pic.twitter.com/hjflD6IcrH— Mary Hui (@maryhui) September 9, 2019
Now, Hong Kong's police force is taking up the chant. Officers have been videoed yelling "Cockroaches, shut up!". One Police Officers Association denounced protesters as "no different from cockroaches".
And, state-controlled media insists, it's not even the protester's fault.
"The demonstrations in Hong Kong are not about rights or democracy. They are a result of foreign interference. Lest the central government's restraint be misconstrued as weakness, let it be clear secessionism in any form will be crushed," the China Daily warns.
DOOMED TO FAIL?
Former vice-chancellor of the University of Hong Kong and historian Wang Gungwu told This Week in Asia he had watched tensions inevitably rise over the decades.
"On the question of democracy, Hong Kong people have high expectations," Wang says. "The Chinese, of course, don't really want democracy, and that was quite clear from the beginning."
And Mr Xi seems increasingly less inclined to allow Hong Kong to remain a democratic exception.
The trading city is no longer what it once was.
The 1997 Asian financial crisis hit Hong Kong hard, dramatically reducing its power as an industry and economic hub. As such, it's no longer as valuable to Beijing's interactions with the world - and it was less motivated to maintain its special exception status.
"The benefits have been getting fewer and fewer, particularly when all industries have moved to the mainland," Mr Wang says. "Hong Kong actually has no industry. It is purely a financial centre. If a financial centre runs into such difficulty as during the financial crisis of 1997-2000, some of the shine is gone."
But Hong Kong isn't done yet, he says.
Just as having a foreign outpost on its doorstep, maintaining a stable hub of trade was so beneficial in the past, so too for the future.
"Hong Kong people know that the Chinese would have loved to move the financial centre to Shanghai, but they couldn't do it," Wang says. "This is Hong Kong's strongest card - the contribution of its financial services to China.
"Hong Kong should provide the kind of law, the kind of protection that makes people feel confident in Hong Kong," Wang says. "All these are assets for China. I don't think they are stupid to let these assets go."
Jamie Seidel is a freelance writer. Continue the conversation @JamieSeidel