By Kumar David –
Red-lights flash on every radar screen so I start with a worst-case scenario. Assume this hypothesis, just grant for a moment the argument: “Radicals, militants, mobs, what you will, on the streets of Hong Kong are committed to a fight to the finish”. I have views on how it came to this and will allot blame anon. But assume: Dumping the “extradition” bill, booting out Carrie Lam and amnesty for rioters are, for the extremists, transitional demands, staging posts to discard at an opportune moment in a sustained fight to the finish. What’s the “finish”, I’ll take that up as well, but for the mobs it goes beyond what the Central Government will grant and is designed to disrupt the peace. Then what? That’s the chilling prospect, that’s what I call a fight to the finish when Beijing steps in and takes control. What will that HK look like? I’ll discuss that too. And I need to touch on the ideology, if any, of the militants. Phew, I’ve loaded up a heavy plate; time for the first course.
What’s the finishing-post in the eyes of different contestants? The minimum demand of the huge pro-democracy rallies and the wish of almost everyone in HK is dumping the “extradition” bill. Leaving aside semantics and ‘face’ (unfortunately more important than wisdom among Chinese) the bill is gone, dead, kaput, buried, cremated. Everyone on all sides knows that it will not rise again on the third, thirtieth or three thousandth day. I am happy as it was a pernicious proposal but I have no sympathy for those flogging a dead cat.
If not all, a goodly section of the protest movement wants Carry Lam’s head as well. That may happen after 1 October (70-year anniversary celebrations of the PRC) or after the 20 January 2020 Taiwan elections. Her health can decline precipitously requiring rest and recuperation or she may have a beatific vision evoking a desire to join a nunnery; ah these things can be arranged! I would be sorry to see Mrs Lam go; her immediate predecessor was a shifty, shady businessman, the one before that was convicted in the lower courts for financial felony and the first Chief Executive was a dropsy old uncle. Mrs Lam is the most efficient CE Hong Kong has had and her integrity has never been questioned. If she is pushed out Beijing will anoint a hard-line successor, possibly less ethically honourable. Still, if she has to go as a sacrificial lamb for the extradition bill (foisted by Beijing) so be it. Individuals are dispensable on the grand vista of history. If all goes according to this script it is possible many hot-heads will cool.
But my starting hypothesis, please stay with it for a few more paragraphs, is that there is a militant core that will not cool. It will be emboldened and escalate a breakdown of public order. A reasonable demand would be universal suffrage in electing the Chief Executive, extreme and provocative would be splitting HK from China. Depending on how the militants play their hand – pro-democracy party leaders are already slaves at their feet – if they escalate beyond the concessions in the previous para it may, or it may not, mobilise a wider mass movement. You may say “It will fizzle out”; maybe, but I am less complacent. If I may give myself a pat on the back, my instinct on Sinhala-Tamil conflicts 1970-90, my certainty of an LTTE rout after Rajiv Gandhi’s murder and my prediction of collapse in Zimbabwe (I was there 1980-83), proved unerringly accurate. A showdown between a portion of the HK opposition and the HK and PRC governments leading to a collapse of law and order cannot be ruled out. Unlikely? Maybe but don’t say impossible. If you are the betting type and a bookie offers you a 2:1 wager that it won’t happen; take it!
How will such a scenario unfold? I have not an iota of doubt what will then happen. Beijing will march in and take control. There is unambiguous hostility to HK’s militants among Mainland Chinese people as news of events leaks out; PRC leaders will be applauded at home if they act. One Country Two Systems (OCTS) would then have completed its usefulness after 22 years of success. The Basic Law may be repealed or amended by the NPC (China’s parliament) though actual legislation may be stayed till after Taiwan’s elections. If Taiwan’s anti-Beijing party wins big the OCTS concept could well be buried for good. The logic of China’s hardliners will then be ascendant and irrefutable: “If it’s dead why hang on to a corpse?”. Vide how Trump has become the greatest ally of Iranian hardliners.
There are three counter arguments: (i) even bigger protests will break out in HK, (ii) HK’s status as one of the world’s greatest financial centres will be damaged and (iii) global opprobrium. Beijing can deal with the first two. The flood gates will be opened, as they have in Tibet and Xinjiang. Mainlanders will be allowed to cross the border in large numbers and settle in HK. Demographics will change and a political counterweight to break street protests will be nurtured. Clashes between rival mobs and big pro-government, pro-police rallies have commenced. In any case it’s a matter of time before Guangzhou-Shenzhen-HK emerges as a great global urban, industrial and business conurbation and a research hub. After OCTS this is where HK’s future lies; its people need to mentally and emotionally position themselves to take advantage of the post-2047 era. They must not be foolish and bring forward that date.
Regarding item (ii), yes there will be a setback for five years. Shanghai and Shenzhen are already international banking and financial powerhouses, so it will take the Chinese Communists little effort to bribe global finance-capital with juicy deals to resuscitate Hong Kong capitalism as another oxymoronic ‘Socialist Market Economy’. Where there is money capitalism will gladly go, even if it has to sell its liberal-democratic mother into whoredom. The point in these two paragraphs is that the bullets are all loaded in Beijing’s favour in any fight to the death. The Biblical story needs rewriting: This time, short-term and long-term, ‘David ain’t got no chance against Goliath’. It’s in HK’s interest to extract the most it can from the current scenario, but to stop short of a hard showdown.
I have kept quite a bit of the bargain I made at the beginning; dealt with the different ways the dynamics implied in my hypothesis may unfold, and explained the worst-case (Beijing takeover) and the best-case (cut a deal) endpoints. Actuality will be in-between. I have still to do the blame-game about who should be held responsible that things have come to this sorry pass and to comment on the ‘ideology’ of the militants. Both can be disposed of quickly. After that I will serve an intriguing speculation garnished dessert. Looking back over 22 years the culpability for people’s loss of trust in HK Government (HKG) and the Communist Party (CCP) must be placed squarely at the door of the CCP and HKG. Attempts to smuggle in unpopular legislation has been tried too many times at the behest of Beijing with HKG serving as a transmitter. HKG has not stood up as a representative of HK people arguing for their rights with the Centre, but been a one-way transmission belt for instructions from the top. HK has been betrayed on the universal suffrage promise, there have been three (?) abductions of political opponents to China, and so on.
The same can be said of the Democratic Action for Betterment of HK (DAB) party, the main pro-Beijing and working-class party and the nearest to a communist party in HK. It is silent, unable to go on the streets or provide leadership and guidance to the mass movement. The reason is the same; it never used its influence to wrestle Beijing for Hong Kong’s sake; it has not engendered trust in the minds of people. Contrast with Lenin in July 1917 when millions in Petrograd flooded the streets in a premature and unwise challenge to the government. Unable to restrain the movement, he threw the Bolsheviks onto the streets, took leadership and control of the near uprising and avoided confrontation with an army which was not ready to revolt. Why could Lenin do it? Because for decades Bolsheviks had been the stoutest opponents of autocracy; they unlike the DAB had credibility.
The militants, thousands in total, have no coherent ideology, just banality. On the rampage they are like football hooligans or riotous youthful revellers enjoying a weekly adrenalin rush every Sunday. They are not Anarchists (most have not heard of Proudhon or Bakunin) but a rebel minority engages in anarchic rioting. (It is too early to comment on powerful bomb making material and arms uncovered at a protest group’s Tsuen Wan go-down). South China Morning Post News Editor Yonden Lhatoo laments “criminal elements and juvenile delinquents have ruined the protest movement”. Readers familiar with JVP history in the run up to 1971 will spot the stark contrast. Balmy or not the JVP had a world view and a theory; there was a conceptual hard rock, a core system in which thousands of its cadre were schooled. HK’s militants in contrast are tabula rasa. Democracy they chime, down with Carry Lam and Beijing they chant but a coherent economic and political frame they lack. This has its rewards and downside; like a cheering football throng a crowd has a place for everyone; but if issues of “Where are we going and why” surface, it will fracture and crumble. The 50 who have hightailed it to Taiwan, imagined victims of hoped for torture (sic!), are barefaced seekers after greener pasture. Being more intelligent than Gota, HKG is glad to let them go. A wag suggested that HKG offer subsidised one-way air-tickets to all who desire to decamp!
And here’s your ice cream sundae. The magazine Foreign Affairs of 16 July 2019 has an intriguing piece by Melinda Liu titled “Ich Bin Ein Hong Konger”. Remember Kennedy’s speech in West Berlin at the height of the Cold War? “I am a Berliner!” Ms Liu rejoices that West Berlin was a dagger spiked deep into the heart of the Soviet Block. She speculates that Hong Kong may serve likewise in slaying the Chinese Dragon. American flags and a big banner “President Trump please liberate Hong Kong” were prominent on the 21 July rally. Ms Liu’s hopes may be the fanciful musing of Newsweek’s bureau chief in Beijing, or unwittingly or knowingly she may be articulating thoughts that cannot be far from the minds of Western strategists. I have wondered why Western money and media encourage the militants; they know that wresting HK from China (independence) is fantasy. But eureka, this alternative makes sense. China unlike the USSR is economically far too strong to be overthrown, but damaging it using HK as a springboard will be swell in the minds of Bolton, Pompeo and CIA strategists.