By Kumar David –
Reckless militants and concealed influences threaten HK’s autonomy: Protecting freedom in Hong Kong
Canton (or Guangzhou; I use the names interchangeably as contextually appropriate) is the cradle of the Chinese democratic revolution, the place where the 1898 anti-feudal movement against warlords originated and the centre of the Guangzhou failed 29 March (new style 27 April) 1911 Second-Uprising which sparked off a wave that by December overthrew the Qing Dynasty (1636-1911) to create a republic that struggled and survived till the communist victory in October 1949. Canton Province (Guangdong) was the birthplace of Kang Youwei (1858-1927) a constitutional monarchist who inspired the reform movement, of Dr Sun Yat Sen (1866-1925) called the “Father of the Nation” even in Communist China and other notables. Sun’s three principles; nationalism (no foreign domination), people’s rights (democracy) and livelihood (economic justice) is the high-point of what in the jargon is called the bourgeois-democratic revolution.
The previous First-Uprising of 1895 was planned in Hong Kong. Yeung Ku-wan (1861-1901), an early Chinese revolutionary, formed the Furen Literary Society to establish a republic in China and plotted with Dr Sun to launch an uprising in Guangzhou. The purpose of these few initial words (my ever faithful Hong Kong team produced reams but I could select only a little) is to press home the point that although Guangzhou, Guangdong Province and Hong Kong at the province’s tip played only a limited role (e.g. Peasants and Workers Soviet of 1927) in the communist revolution, Canton was the intellectual epicentre and all three were organising foci of the forerunner democratic revolution in China. This is not to minimise the importance of other numerous widely distributed revolutionary centres and activities in China.
It is germane to ponder why Canton was the cradle of China’s democratic, anti-feudal and anti-warlord movement and the home of the aspiration to unify new-China on republican foundations. The eastern seaboard was occupied and fortified by colonial occupiers who would have brooked no challenge. The centre and north of the country were in the grip of an intolerant Empire or partitioned between warlords; modernism, political radicalism or republicanism would have meant harsh penalty. The far south was at arm’s length, adjacent Hong Kong was a window into the world and to Tokyo where much coordination was done. The people of Guangdong (Cantonese) though Han Chinese are a bit different from the rest. Canton via Hong Kong was the avenue to modernism that republican and revolutionary leaders trod. Sun himself was educated at HK University’s medical school. The tree of openness flourished here, green in the midst of a then barren savanna of Chinese deadwood. Its frank and uninhibited pursuit of extreme laissez-faire capitalism watered that tree for a century and a half.
There is also good reason why I chose ‘freedom’ and not ‘democracy’ for my title. It starts with a little story. At the time I came to HK I had two job offers; one from the National University of Singapore and another from the then HK Polytechnic, now Polytechnic University. But I was declared a prohibited immigrant by the sovereign Government of Singapore and ended up in the Crown Colony. The first thing friends who knew my political proclivities said was: “Kumar you are damn lucky, had you gone to Singapore you would have been in the lockup or deported within a month. In Singapore they have democracy” they added “but no freedom; in Hong Kong we have freedom, but not formal democracy”. Those who know both places will appreciate the point.
The protest rallies in HK in recent weeks, estimated by organisers at over one million (but much smaller) do not seek independence; secession is not their goal, Taiwan not their model. The demand is preservation of HK’s freedoms as promised at the handover in 1997 in the ‘One country two systems’ motto, and formalised in the Basic Law (HK’s mini constitution). People want to stop Beijing’s creeping encroachment. There is unease that Beijing undermined a promise of universal suffrage to elect their own leaders that most assumed had been given. There have been four or five abductions of critics of the PRC. The Hong Kongers among them returned a few weeks later duly chastened and lips sealed. Fifteen years ago the Hong Kong Government (HKG) attempted to ram through “Article 23”, a strong anti-sedition law, but was beaten back by mass protests like the present wave. People discern a systematic attempt at encroachment of freedoms and rights; they are not willing to surrender and are fighting back.
The peril of the proposed extradition bill is that people accused of serious crimes in China can be extradited to stand trial there. But HK people have no confidence in China’s courts and its legal system. There is anxiety of extradition for criticising PRC leaders. Despite three decades of stellar economic performance like nowhere else in the world, the control freaks in Beijing are paranoid about free elections and democracy. Anywhere else in the world with such an economic report-card a government would be cruising to landslide election victory time after time. Why then are these leaders fearful of their own shadow? Because totalitarianism ensures a safe haven for individual leaders while the paraphernalia of democracy protects a system if it is delivering the goods, but individual leaders are dispensable. Totalitarianism’s task in China is not to safeguard the “socialist market economy” but rather to protect the top echelon and ensure its longevity in power. Xi Jinping has gone so far as to lift the two-term limit, as Mahinda Rajapaksa did, and his intentions are all too familiar.
The downside of the protest movement is that mobs, not all students, rioted, broke into the Legco Chamber on the night of 1-2 July, trashed furniture, vandalised computers, defaced the Hong Kong logo above the Speaker’s Podium and unfurled the Union Jack to show their mind-set. Hereafter, I will refer to this two thousand strong mob, almost all in their twenties as ‘militants’. It is no secret that there were triad (gang or mob) affiliates among the rioters. The next day (3 July) I went across the border to Guangzhou to visit museums and sites of the early democratic revolutionary movement. I have been aware of the importance of the city in the democratic revolution but what had happened the night before lent perspective.
The shame of it was that the huge rallies of previous weeks demanding withdrawal of the extradition bill had worked. Anger was intense and Chief Executive Carrie Lam had been forced to suspend the bill and promise to let it die at the end of the current legislative term. But the militants’ violence drew local and global attention away from the fruitfulness of disciplined mass protest and focussed it on rowdiness. The government delayed using tear-gas to disperse the mob on July 1-2 night quoting previous allegations that police intervention had been too harsh. It allowed all the world’s TV cameras to show what kind of people the militants were.
The fallout of public opinion has been complex. Everyone voices opposition to violence but there is a strong current of sympathy if not support in some social classes for the militants. HK’s pro-democracy movement is divided. Some say vandalism has damaged their cause; others bend over with defences such as “peaceful protests were getting nowhere” and “only violence will force Carrie Lam out, avert prosecution of militants and get the bill withdrawn”. Good and bad in parts like a curate’s egg! These demands have little to do with real motives. If the militants win these demands they will think up others. Last week Carrie Lam pronounced “the extradition bill dead”, so the protesters are now quibbling about pedantic semantics. We want “withdraw”, it is better than “dead”! Militants have made a strategic decision to confront HKG and Beijing and to precipitate a prolonged stand-off.
On Friday (5 July) hundreds of “mothers” of militants demonstrated in support of their “sons and daughters”. Nobody is sure who these ladies are; it is suspicious how they came to be organised. Some protests seem to be coordinated in ways that are not readily visible. It is alleged that there is foreign money lubricating some activities. Well-known newspapers in the West carried large adverts in support of the 1 July rally prior to the event – who paid? Foreign money and logistical advice have rolled in; the militants seem well resourced.
Throughout that fateful night I followed Al Jazeera, BBC and CNN and it was obvious that they and all their HK based anchors were minimising and justifying violence. To imagine that Hong Kong can be wrested away from China is crackpot; so meddlesome foreign influences must be seeking to embarrass Beijing in the new cold-war and international media is egging them on. The truth about foreign incitement and money is murky; the truth may never come out in full. What is sure is that Hong Kong society is divided as I have never seen before. As a perceptive friend put it “HK traditionally has had a high threshold against violence; that barrier has collapsed”.
The organisational skill displayed by the militants in using technology and adapting social media on a mass scale for rapid deployment and redirection of manpower was impressive. This has been analysed at length in the local and international media. Their strategy kept leaders, committees and command structures out of view making it difficult for the police to arrest and prosecute ring-leaders. From my background in left-party political organisations I am certain this is not a leaderless mass spontaneous outburst; on the contrary it was well coordinated, organised and executed. Even the retreat when the police eventually moved in at midnight July 1-2 was precision coordinated by mobile communications.
I have visited all the continents of the world, lived in four of them, in seven places spread far apart. My affection for the freedoms and openness of Hong Kong has grown. It can boast the best public transport system in the world, its restaurants serve excellent fare, and its duty-free imports glory in access to the finest old-world and new-world wines. The anxiety experienced by Hong Kong people is justified; its freedoms must be protected from intrusion by the control freaks in Beijing; its openness must be defended against concealed influences and reckless militants.