COVID-19 accomplished what police repression and threats could not, dampening the public demonstrations. And no doubt by the turn of 2021 there was a sense that public protest had reached the limits of what it could achieve. The spread of the virus in China did lead to a strike by some public health workers, protesting the failure of the Region government to bar traffic from the mainland. But this would probably have been unworkable in any case. With the end of demonstrations came the arrests of some of those who had previously been active in the democracy movement. Maybe Hong Kong was settling into a new normal.
The motives and objectives of the Hong Kong protest are both reasonable and just. There is no reason that China should not abide by the spirit of the original Basic Law; and, indeed, there is no reason China should end Hong Kong’s special status in 2047. For all that, China is unlikely to do other than increase its control over the territory, all the more because of the incalcitrance of the protests.
The rational objective of political action is to make things better (at least for those pursuing the action), rather than worse. In Hong Kong it may have become inevitable that things may become worse than they were before. Justice is a goal of political action, but prudence is the prime virtue in the pursuit of that goal. From the outside it seems that it would have been prudent for the protestors to accept the government’s withdrawal of the Extradition bill, while continuing to press by quieter and indirect means for ever wider guarantees of autonomy.
The November 2019 District Council elections reflect at a minimum the population’s dissatisfaction with the heavy hand of Beijing, and at a maximum the broad sympathy for the protests, violence and all. The problem with counsels of prudence is that the prudent way may not always be what people are prepared to accept, for better or worse (compare the elder George Bush’s “Chicken Kiev” speech). If a people consider a situation unsupportable, it is hard to induce them to accept a compromise. With luck (and with their own considerations of prudence) the Beijing authorities might take the election results as an occasion for them to rethink their approach.
From the outside the situation of the ordinary person in Hong Kong is not unsupportable. After all, the population of the mainland live under even more restrictive conditions and survive just fine. But Hong Kong was promised better, and that promise was made in part to secure the people’s consent to a process over which they had no say and which, had they their druthers, would not have wanted at all. One fears that Hong Kong’s future will be one of an alienated population, giving surly, coerced acquiescence to outside powers whose rule is palpably illegitimate.
When loyalty is strained or unreciprocated and voice is futile, Hirschman believes that people still have the option of Exit: they may leave the organization or territory. This may be overly optimistic. Multinational financial and manufacturing firms may relocate—to Singapore or, perhaps, Taipei—and will also be able to maintain their business ties with China. Many of the well-to-do in Hong Kong have long ago hedged their bets and have established the right of permanent residence in Canada, Australia, England, or the United States; and as things grow bad, those with money who have not already arranged their sanctuary will be able to get out. This is not true for the ordinary person, who will be stuck in a destroyed Hong Kong. Indeed, a sense that there is no future in the territory has been part of the overall sense of depression and frustration that has fed the unrest. For the bulk of the population Hong Kong is like Sartre’s hell: No Exit.
Under the English, technically the people of Hong Kong had no voice—the trade-off for the continued protection of a free way of life. When China moved to reclaim the territory—the lease of the New Territories would expire in 1997 and there was no practical way to maintain those parts of the region which had been ceded in perpetuity without the New Territories; and, in any case, as Deng Xiaoping early made clear to Margaret Thatcher, China could easily take back the colony any time it wanted (it wouldn’t even have to invade: Hong Kong relied on the mainland for its water supply).
The people of Hong Kong could not be certain that the personal and civil liberties they enjoyed under Elizabeth would be able to continue under the PRC. The Chinese side attempted to address this fear. Hong Kong would revert to Chinese sovereignty under the formula of “one country, two systems”—China was one unified country; but Hong Kong (and, potentially, Taiwan) would retain their own social and economic systems: ordinary life would go on as before; the police and courts would continue to function as before; the economy would function in accord with the principles of a free market; the Hong Kong government would have control over foreign trade policy and over the region’s borders, controlling as it saw fit not merely immigration from abroad but from the mainland as well. Hong Kong would be governed by Hong Kong people (that is, not by functionaries sent by the mainland). Deng Xiaoping said that Hong Kong should primarily be ruled by “patriots”—that is, persons who accepted that Hong Kong was part of China and gave their primary political loyalty to China. But, he said, patriots did not necessarily imply “leftists”—that is, pro-communist figures—and primarily by patriots did not mean that everyone had to be a patriot. And, Deng said, none of this would change for 50 years (and, he later added, that did not mean that things had to change after 50 years).
The Central authorities, of course, expect the people of Hong Kong to be loyal Chinese patriots. And the Hong Kong population may indeed have a certain identification with the wider Chinese heritage and a pride in being part of that heritage. This does not automatically translate into an attraction to the People’s Republic. Continue reading SOME SPECULATION ON THE UNREST IN HONG KONG: PART 2–LOYALTY
The late Albert O. Hirschman, one of the last century’s more interesting organizational theorists, argued that when members of a particular organization, whether a business, a club, or a country, become unhappy with their position, they have three possible responses. They may quit or leave; they may demand that they be more frequently and meaningfully consulted on how the organization is governed; or they may feel sufficient emotional or rational attachment to the organization itself (for example, a sense of patriotism toward one’s country) that they will (to a degree) put up with the disadvantages. “As a rule, . . . loyalty holds exit at bay and activates voice” (Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970). Hirschman’s model or theory seems to provide a useful way to examine the continuing demonstrations, peaceful at first but increasingly violent, that wracked Hong Kong for much of 2019.
The demonstrations were set off when the government of Hong Kong proposed to pass an Extradition Law which would allow the extradition of persons accused of crime to countries or territories where there currently were no specific extradition treaties. These included (specifically per the 1997 agreement on retrocession) mainland China. Under the proposed law the People’s Republic could seize Hong Kong residents who may possibly have violated Chinese law, but not the laws of Hong Kong (or any other country), to be tried (if at all) by Chinese courts. Sometime earlier, China, in the absence of an extradition law, had apparently kidnapped a couple of Hong Kong bookstore owners who had published works purporting to give the inside dope on various scandals among the Chinese elite, taking them to the mainland. The extradition law would make the process more routine. Although the law was proposed by the Hong Kong authorities themselves, not the Central government, the suspicion was that China had actually demanded such a law, or that the Hong Kong people had proposed it in anticipation of such a demand from the Center.