As the world rang in a new decade, Chinese President Xi Jinping took to state media in his New Year’s address, praising China’s domestic achievements in 2019, highlighting its 100 trillion yuan GDP as well as its strengthened commitment to tackling global challenges; he paid tribute to the 20th anniversary of Macao’s return to the ‘motherland’. Macao’s prosperity and stability, he exclaims, “is testament to the full applicability, achievability and popularity of ‘One Country Two Systems’” (OCTS). But the protestors of Hong Kong know different, as the city had recently entered the new decade with a resurgence in protests, marking the Special Administrative Region’s entry into its seventh month of social unrest.
Early protests in June were triggered by a fear of political persecution under the infamous extradition bill, and stemmed from an insistence on the upholding of the OCTS principle that has underpinned Chinese governance of Hong Kong since 1997. Yet it would be a mistake to conclude that China’s proposed extradition bill was the fruit of malicious intent: the original issue concerned a Hong Kong resident’s murder of his girlfriend whilst vacationing in Taiwan; given the absence of extradition provisions between the two regions, the bill would have fixed a loophole in China’s system of governance and prevented Hong Kong from becoming a criminal safe haven. What could be seen as a legitimate attempt to address a legal vacuum, however, is rendered questionable given the Communist Party’s track record of stifling free speech and abusing human rights. Under this lens, Hong Kong protestors’ demand that China uphold its obligations under the constitutional principle of OCTS until 2047 seems modest and just.
But the withdrawal of the extradition bill in October proved to be too little, too late. The demands of protestors have since expanded to include a broader range of grievances, such as calls for an independent investigation of police brutality and the strengthening of democracy. With escalating violence and tensions on the streets, any remaining traces of sympathy towards Hong Kong in the mainland seem to have faded. The official narrative perpetuated by Chinese state media portrays the continued protests as nothing less than disruptions of social order, and the voices of the radical separatists have been extrapolated to represent the entire movement. It is suggested that Hong Kong is ungrateful of its post-colonial and dismissive of the economic ramifications of their actions. Indeed, protests in Hong Kong have led its economy into recession, which saw output drop by 3.2 percent in the third quarter, signaling the worst economic performance for the city since the 2008 financial crisis; visits to the region during national holidays in October also decreased by 55% compared to the previous year. However, what the pro-China media fail to address are the underlying grievances that set the stage for these protests. Hong Kongers, most notably the younger generation, have suffered from high living costs and soaring housing prices, with the latter reaching a record high in August 2018. It is this brewing resentment of the mainland that was brought to a head with the extradition bill, not an irrational desire for anarchy.
The consequences of twisting the Hong Kong narrative are clear. Armed with the flawed logic that standing in solidarity with Hong Kong is on par with expressing anti-Chinese sentiments, mainlanders have clashed with supporters of the Hong Kong protesters at universities abroad, as exemplified by the confrontation in Brisbane; conflicts have even reached the online community, where video games such as Grand Theft Auto have been used as battleground between players in mainland China and Hong Kong. However, Chinese state media are not the only ones to blame: though the resilience of Hong Kong protesters is admirable, their approach to the protests calls for further scrutiny, as the lack of central leadership renders a productive outcome infeasible and facilitates perpetuations of false narratives. Outbreak of discontent in the mainland can also be attributed to the lacking ability of protesters to draw crucial distinctions between the Chinese people, the Chinese government, and the Communist Party, paving the way for attacks on government oppression to be equated with attacks on the wider Chinese population and their way of life.
Yet, representations of the Chinese perspective suffer a similar fate abroad. As the world watches events unfold in Hong Kong, China’s side of the story remains heavily underrepresented and its population’s opposition to the protests falsely equated with opposition to democracy itself. The anti-Chinese rhetoric adopted by Western media outlets will do nothing but add fuel to the raging fire of Chinese patriotism and reinforce resentment towards the West for meddling in what is widely seen as an internal affair. This has only been worsened by the Trump administration’s Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which has been characterized as yet another attempt to stifle China’s development during US-China trade negotiations, as well as the Nobel Peace Prize nomination for Hong Kong’s protesters, which has been viewed as an ironic lack of understanding of Chinese affairs. Though it is not wrong for external parties to chime in, one needs to delve into China’s history to fully understand its current predicament and the true reason behind domestic opposition to the protests: chaos in Hong Kong undermines China’s core interests of promoting economic development and maintaining social stability, which has underpinned domestic decision-making since its post-1949 rise under Mao. Due to the fact that the Communist Party derives its legitimacy from the support of the people, nationalist and patriotic sentiments are wielded by the party to promote unity. The symbolism of the Hong Kong protests therefore presents a unique challenge to Chinese leaders, as its success could pave the way for similar movements taking root in Taiwan (another region under OCTS) or other volatile regions such as Tibet. The pressure to resolve the issue has been further elevated by elections in Taiwan, during which the president of Taiwan’s pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, Tsai YingWen, published a campaign video last Monday likening Taiwan’s freedoms with the struggles in Hong Kong.
As the crisis in Hong Kong shows no signs of abating, China seems to have embraced the need to adopt alternative strategies. After the atrocities committed at Tiananmen in 1989, Chinese leaders undoubtedly recognize the importance of balancing its desire for a peaceful resolution and its need to manage and contain the Hong Kong crisis; thus far, it seems determined to walk the road of peaceful development without resorting to a Tiananmen-style use of force. Earlier this month, perhaps triggered by a landslide victory for pro-democracy parties in district council elections, President Xi appointed Luo Huining as the new Hong Kong envoy. The envoy is historically tasked with supporting pro-establishment parties in Hong Kong, an ever-crucial role given Hong Kong’s upcoming legislative council election in September. The bending of China’s retirement rules to appoint an envoy with no relevant connections to the city undoubtedly marks a shift in Beijing’s approach to resolving the Hong Kong issue, though its effects remain to be seen.
In concluding his New Year’s address to the people of China, Xi emphasizes that “Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability is the wish of Hong Kong compatriots and the expectation for the people of the motherland”- whether this wish will be realized, however, is another question entirely. Nevertheless, during a time where neither side seems to want to back down, one should not only question whether Hong Kong could feasibly continue to sustain such disruptions on a social and economic level, but also whether the blind adoption of a moral critique of the Chinese population by external parties will do anything more than further escalate tensions. It is also crucial for mainlanders and Hong Kongers to avoid alienating each other, as the outcomes will be productive for neither party: one must not allow a conflict between people and government to evolve further into a conflict between people and people.