Chen Ying writes from Hong Kong
Within an explosive period of six weeks, we have seen protest marches totalling close to five million people, together with the most heavy-handed use of police firepower since 1997.
The invasion of the Legislative Council building went viral around the world. This level of sustained social protest has not happened since the march of 1.5 million people in Hong Kong against the Tiananmen massacre in June 1989.
Hong Kong has had enough. This is our city’s reaction to decades of Beijing’s undermining of the “one country, two systems” accord, signed with Britain in 1984.
In 2003, 500,000 marched against the enactment of an anti-sedition law, Article 23, which eventually forced the first post-1997 Chief Executive Tung Chee Hwa to step down.
Five years ago, the 2014 Occupy Central or Umbrella Movement started after the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPCSC) blocked proposed reforms to the Hong Kong electoral system. The occupation of Hong Kong’s Central District paralysed traffic for 77 days. At the peak of the protests, on one afternoon 89 tear gas canisters were launched.
Occupy Central was defeated. Whilst repeatedly mobilising over 100,000 people to demonstrate, without a clear programme or leadership the protest lost its focus. Its leaders were given jail sentences and some pro-democracy legislators were barred from holding office. Only half of Legco is directly elected, and the pro-democracy minority has been further marginalised by disqualifications and tightening of Legco procedures to restrict debate.
Five years on, with near-total control over Legco, the HK Government exploited the case of a Hong Konger who committed a murder in Taiwan to attempt to push through an extradition law. This touched upon a raw nerve. Hong Kong is already weary of the arbitrary disappearance of people taken across the border. The new law would enable many more people to be extradited to China.
The massive explosion of opposition spilled over into a society-wide protest against the Government’s arrogance and its refusal to address many economic and social ills:
Expensive housing, low pay and long working hours, deteriorating health care and no retirement pension for an aging population, plus the emphasis on Putonghua (Standard Mandarin) over the local Cantonese language in schools, the attacks on press freedom, the increasing numbers of super-rich mainlanders.
During 2004, a Hong Kong Lennon Wall sprang up – thousands of post-it notes, cultural revolution-style big Chinese character posters, works of art etc. Today, there are over a hundred Lennon Walls springing up all over different neighbourhoods in Hong Kong.
The public image of the police, already tarnished since 2014, has further plummeted. The attack on the Legco building expressed activists’ frustration that the neutered Legco no longer functions as any check against Government excesses. Society appears sharply polarised between blue and yellow camps – the blue pro-government, pro-Beijing and pro- police camp on the one hand, and the much larger oppositional yellow camp.
All this is occurring against a steadily deteriorating economic background. In the past two decades, Hong Kong’s economic importance to China has diminished dramatically. 1n 1997, HK’s GDP was 20% of China’s (though with six million vs 1200 million people) and it handled about half of China’s international trade. Now its GDP is 3% of China’s and falling further, overtaken by Shanghai and Shenzhen.
The Gini coefficient in Hong Kong is very high at 0.54, with a minute layer of super-rich individuals exercising an uncurbed monopolistic stranglehold over the city. The movement’s immediate demands are very focused and enjoy widespread support – withdrawal of the extradition proposal, the resignation of Carrie Lam as chief executive, amnesty for those arrested, and an independent commission of inquiry into the whole event, not just police brutality.
However, its political leadership and more long term programme is currently not clearly formed. Whilst this has made it impossible for the government to identify and target leaders, like in 2004, it does beg the question of what will happen next.
The government is totally paralysed and has lost its credibility – the ruling elite, including those who are strongly pro-Beijing, think they are a complete failure. Beijing, through its liaison office in Hong Kong, already calls all the shots.
A serious flight of capital has begun, with Singapore the main destination. Those with the capacity to emigrate are actively planning to do so (as many did before 1997). The fear an economic collapse of confidence and a free-fall for the Hong Kong currency, currently pegged to the US Dollar.
Hong Kong is in an unprecedented crisis, not seen in a couple of generations. This is happening during an epoch where China is on a collision course with USA. Pro- independence political forces in Hong Kong and Taiwan are already in close dialogue.
A majority of Hong Kong people still consider themselves culturally as Chinese, and see their future destiny as part of a modern Chinese nation which is liberated from the stranglehold of the Chinese Communist Party. The CCP itself, whilst forever plagued by infighting and power struggles, will not just implode or give up its monopoly of state power on its own.
The necessary task of uniting the best elements of the protest movements in Hong Kong, Taiwan and mainland China to build a proletarian party to take on the CCP will be a huge challenge.