On October 1st, the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, Hong Kong was rocked by a huge wave of protests. Huge numbers of protestors took to the streets in many parts of the city even though the police had refused to grant permission to any demonstration and had declared all protests that day as illegal assemblies.
At the time of writing, one protestor, an 18 year old secondary school student, had only just been transferred out of intensive care, a day after he was shot in the chest at close range by riot police. The bullet could easily have been fatal, having entered his left lung, 3 cms above his heart.
Widespread anger against the police’s use of live ammunition spilled over to October 2nd as the city struggled to return to work. Many shopping centres and outdoor squares in many parts of the city thronged with protestors while the police further inflamed public sentiment by trying to defend the shooting as justified and legal on the grounds that the officer’s life was threatened.
Independent TV coverage clearly contradicted the police statement, and showed that the police officers ignored the injured protestor’s plea for medical help for three minutes. If this student was killed, the Hong Kong Government would face a monumental crisis.
Well over 200 protestors were arrested, dozens hospitalised and the MTR management closed over 20 underground train stations early in the day. The police were thinly spread and outnumbered in many instances, struggling to cover a large number of hot spots. Five more live rounds were fired that day.
The night before, 30th September was deadly quiet, the calm before the storm. Sunday 29 September weekend was an international day of protests involving many cities around the world, and Saturday 28 Sept was the 5th anniversary of the 2014 Umbrella movement, when HK police launched 79 tear gas canisters five years ago that day. On both dates there were more protests and running battles between the police and protestors.
The level of police weaponry and brutality five years on have far exceeded most people’s expectations. On Sunday alone over 160 more protestors were arrested. In the good old days, protest organisers would negotiate with the police over the route of a march and almost always managed to secure agreement and thus receive permission to march. Nowadays, the police refuse all marches point blank. On Sunday, as an illegal march started to gather at 2:30 pm, the police started launching tear gas, very early in the day compared to before. A combination of snatch squads as well as undercover police seemed to be aiming for as many arrests as they can achieve, with the intention of keeping arrested protestors in custody for 48 hours so as to lessen numbers for the big day on October 1st.
Ever since the infamous leaked tape of the Chief Executive’s meeting with business representatives passed on to Reuters earlier in September, it is now common knowledge that
1) Beijing does not want to dirty their hands by sending in the People’s Liberation Army
2) The Hong Kong Chief Executive has to seek President Xi’s permission over any single concession she may wish to make, making a mockery of the One Country Two Systems framework.
3) A battle of attrition will now go on for a long time – Beijing’s intentions seem to be to wear out the demonstrators, paying any temporary economic price for this period.
4) Hong Kong is one of many pieces, but a crucial one, on the Monopoly gameboard in China’s struggle to fend off the USA in an economic war with global implications.
Hong Kong has enjoyed de facto city state status after 1997, with its own currency, stock market, mini constitution (the Basic Law), independent judiciary based on the UK’s Common Law, civil service, police force, tax, health service, education system, Olympic team & membership of many international & UN-sponsored bodies. Hong Kongers had enjoyed many civil liberties not allowed in China – freedom of speech & assembly, unfettered access to the internet, and the right to vote for half the seats on its Legisative Council. It is supposed to be protected by the One Country Two Systems framework agreed between the UK and China in 1984, which just leaves the People’s Republic of China in charge of Defence, Foreign Policy & National Security.
However, 22 years later, Hong Kong’s autonomy has been whittled away, with active collusion between its three previous Chief Executives and Beijing. Over one million people from China have migrated to Hong Kong since 1997 (there is a daily quota of 150 migrants). Many Hong Kong businesses have been bought out by Chinese state enterprises. The economic integration into the Pearl River Delta gathers momentum whilst civil rights are being sliced away salami fashion. With 28 years remaining before former paramount leader Deng Xiao Ping’s promise of no change to Hong Kong’s status for 50 years, some businesses are already factoring this into their business and land deals, as Hong Kong was doing so in the two decades before 1997. Most recently, one of the big four property developers offered a portion of their held land in the New Territories at a nominal rent of $1 per sq feet to social enterprises to develop into community projects and low-cost housing, but only up to 2047.
Hong Kong’s declining GDP, 2% of China’s compared to 25% back in 1997, is not the key issue. Its special status and the security of its laws to protect commercial interests, continues to benefit many Chinese state and private enterprises. Even though losing its special status as a safe haven for money laundering by corrupt cadres and an international finance centre is of no benefit to China right now, the complex state of political intrigue and faction fights inside the Communist Party, and the pressure it is under to continue to deliver economic growth as the “trade war” with the US gets tougher, means that miscalculations are getting made and rigid defensive stances become increasingly adopted. International attention focussed on Hong Kong has raised the stakes for Beijing, at a critical time of its conflict with the United States.
Hong Kong protestors are already looking at 2047 in the face and vowing that the struggle must continue now or there is not going to be a better chance in future.
After the complete withdrawal of the extradition Bill last month, the movement will continue to press for its 4 other demands. None of the other demands - for an independent committee of inquiry, for reversing the Government’s declaration of June 12 protest as a riot, for the release of all arrested protestors, for genuine universal suffrage to elect the Chief Executive – taken on their own, really take Hong Kong beyond its early post-1997 days of relatively high autonomy and do not challenge China’s sovereignty. However, in the current climate, these concessions are perceived by Beijing as likely to cause instability within China itself, and are therefore strongly resisted.
The protest movement is determined not to be dissipated, divided and defeated, learning the lessons of 2014. It will seek to escalate its actions in order to force the Hong Kong government into further concessions.
It has now started to target pro-China businesses (one of which owns the Starbucks franchise in Hong Kong) and the Bank of China branches in Hong Kong through boycotts and physical attacks on bank ATMS. The movement’s resilience and fluidity of tactics continue to defy all attempts by the Hong Kong Government and Beijing to break it.
Indeed the city’s population knows its future as an autonomous entity, a de-facto city state, is at stake.