The pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong have ebbed somewhat now that they are entering into their sixth week — which, notably, happens to be Captive Nations Week, a mostly forgotten annual recognition of those nations which remain under the grip of a regional communist overseer, a list to which Hong Kong was recently added. Nevertheless, the protests continue to draw people into the streets, and for good reason.
The catalyst for the protests in Hong Kong which initially drew out around two million people may have ostensibly been the justifiably despised bill that would permit extradition of Hong Kong citizens to Communist China, but it’s safe to say that thoughts of the recently observed 30-year anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre were not buried too deep in the collective consciousness of the assembled multitudes.
The significance of the Hong Kong protests should not be underestimated, even if other events have displaced them from the headlines. This is about far more than simply an unpopular proposed law, like a cut to public pensions or a new tax. It takes more than that to stoke the passion sufficient to compel more than a quarter of a city’s population to take to the streets. What ignited the rage of the Hong Kong protesters was more existential. They turn to their north and find looking covetously back a system capable of the horrors of the Cultural Revolution and Tiananmen — however genteel the veneer which coats it for the moment — and cannot help but wonder how long the fragile wall of “one country, two systems” can hold up.
They are right to be worried. For a while it looked as though sheer economic reality and increasingly unavoidable exposure to life in the free world had wrenched China largely out of the communist darkness, to the point where Marxism became a mere formality. China had a rapidly growing population, and it became clear to the government that the only way to economically support that growth and bootstrap China into the 21stcentury was through the cultivation of private enterprise. In the early 1980s, roughly 75 percent of Chinese economic activity was undertaken by the state — ten years later that number had dropped to 50 percent.
That realization was also the only thing that kept Hong Kong relatively safe from being absorbed into the authoritarian grip of mainland China after the Sino-British Joint Declaration turned England’s eastern jewel over to the totalitarian state. Hong Kong served China as a tether to economic reality. The investment the city generated, the trade that flowed through its ports, and its general economic energy was something of a lifeline to the mainland, and there was little interest in Beijing to trample all of that under the socialist boot.
In many ways, Hong Kong was the perfect representation of China’s semi-official bipolar position of desiring the economic benefits of capitalism without the annoying risks of democracy. Nevertheless, it had become increasingly evident over time, even to the Chinese authorities, that the two are inseparable.
But the PRC has never been comfortable with two democratic thorns in its side — Hong Kong and Taiwan — and the new crop of leaders are losing patience. Xi Jinping, like the rest of the Chinese communist leadership, is a child of the Cultural Revolution, and his tolerance for pragmatism is leavened by ideological considerations. He grows weary of being sneered at by what he and the Communist Party of China view as wayward children of the PRC. The shining success and defiance of fully independent Taiwan are infuriating, but for similar economic success and political defiance to be displayed by semi-autonomous Hong Kong, which lies so close but just barely beyond his full grasp, is increasingly intolerable.
There is a precedent for the erosion of Hong Kong’s tenuous political autonomy. For instance, back in 1999, the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal affirmed a law which allowed mainland Chinese the right to reside in Hong Kong. The territory’s newly installed Vichy government referred the matter to Beijing, which abruptly re-interpreted the law. The court then dutifully reversed its ruling — a dark adumbration of the mainland’s ultimate fealty to “two systems”.
So now Hong Kongers witness their puppet administration executing the will of Beijing with a proposal (albeit on hold for the time being,) to overturn a key element of their separate judicial system — the rule of law — which has not only attracted investment but protected them from the arbitrary system of state “justice” which continues to rule in the PRC. It’s no wonder they are on the streets. For Hong Kong — and Taiwan — the debate between socialism and capitalism is not an academic one, bantered about for political entertainment during presidential “debates” or over joints at a local college safe zone. For them it is a reality looming and waiting across the strait, ready today to undermine the rule of law, and threatening tomorrow to punctuate its authority with the same brutal directness it did in Tiananmen Square thirty years ago.
Kelly Sloan is a Denver-based public affairs consultant, columnist, and the Energy and Environmental Policy Fellow at the Centennial Institute. The views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official views of the Centennial Institute or Colorado Christian University.