Hong Kong rocks the boat

Mahir Ali

SHAFAQNA (Shia International News Association)

Mahir Ali
IN the run-up to last month’s referendum on Scottish independence, Singapore was occasionally mentioned, however inappropriately, as a possible model. Intriguingly, the city-state has been off the radar for commentators during the previous week’s mobilisations in Hong Kong. After all, as a much-ballyhooed Asian success story, one would have thought it might have crossed a few minds as a possible template for an eventually sovereign Hong Kong.
It is, of course, not hard to understand why the authoritarian paternalism that Singapore represents might seem unattractive to democrats. But, surely, its relatively thriving economy could be cited as the basis for a reasonable expectation that, if push came to shove, Hong Kong could quite conceivably make it on its own. But ah, there’s the rub. The possibility of such an outcome is so remote that it’s effectively an option hardly anyone dares openly to articulate. After all, 65 years after its own October revolution, China still refuses to let go of Taiwan, which is not just a sovereign state in every meaningful sense but one whose relations with the People’s Republic are fairly congenial at the trade and tourism level. On the political plane, though, it is still officially construed as a recalcitrant province that will eventually revert to the mainland’s fold.
The extent to which the absurdity of this proposition is recognised in Beijing is unclear. The Communist Party’s official hymn sheet offers no clues. And quite a few western analysts continue to contemplate the possibility of Taiwan eventually serving as the epicentre of an epic confrontation between China and the US. It must naturally be hoped that they are gravely mistaken. Apart from everything else, the economic relationship between the two powers severely restricts the likelihood of open hostilities, even if it may not entirely preclude the possibility. Besides, Beijing is no stranger to pragmatism.
But it certainly has its limits — which evidently exclude any chances of a full-fledged democracy in Hong Kong. The handover to China of what was until 1997 a British colony was based on Beijing’s concession of “one country, two systems”, whereby Beijing agreed to a vote based on universal adult franchise as the means of choosing the territory’s authorities 20 years thereafter. Last week’s protests were essentially a response to China’s clarification that whereas it would indeed allow a free vote in 2017, a committee beholden to Beijing would decide who qualified as a candidate for the position of chief executive.
It could legitimately be argued that this is hardly altogether novel. Even in supposedly established democracies, it is not uncommon for undemocratic cliques to have the final say in who qualifies for candidature. Wall Street’s input is crucial in determining who can be a serious contender for the US presidency — which has clear parallels, usually ignored, with the Council of Guardians assessing the suitability of political aspirants in Iran. A primary difference lies in the levels of opacity. The Council of Guardians does not generally explain its decisions, but their source is rarely in doubt. Wall Street, on the other hand, gets away with pretending it has no say in the matter. Extrapolating from instances such as these, could it be said that Beijing’s cardinal error lay not in its conviction that no potential adversary could be permitted to take charge of Hong Kong, but in clarifying that the issue would be settled by a committee?
Either way, it is not difficult to empathise with the idealistic aspirations of mainly young people — most of them unfamiliar with the pre-1997 colonial regime — who took to the streets demanding a greater say in Hong Kong’s future. The authorities under Leung Chun-ying were uncertain about how to react. Resort by the police to teargas and pepper spray only served to spontaneously swell the ranks of protesters. The figures of authority retreated, and the violence that erupted late last week has largely been blamed on unsavoury elements such as Triad members roughing up some of the demonstrators.
Whether or not this tactic was instigated by Leung and co, it is instructive to note how the “two systems” arrangement allows for the Triads — essentially criminal syndicates that have few qualms about resorting to violence — but finds the concept of greater freedom intolerable. By the beginning of this week, the ranks of protesters had dwindled sufficiently for the resumption of business as usual. There were innumerable references last week to Tiananmen Square, although it was never likely that Beijing would resort to anything resembling a massacre — if only because it would have been a monumental own goal in PR terms.
How exactly it would have proceeded in the face of open-ended mass mobilisations is unclear. Under Xi Jinping it remains characteristically intolerant towards expressions of political dissent on the mainland, while pursuing campaigns against corruption. At the same time, it is engaged in efforts to stamp out separatist inclinations among the Uighurs in Xinjiang, and there is cause to suspect that its repressive tendencies are at least partially responsible for provoking retaliatory acts of brutal violence.
In this respect, the parallels with Hong Kong are very few, and likely to remain that way, notwithstanding the likelihood of further protests, organised or otherwise, in the run-up to 2017 — unless, of course, Beijing relents. That is not out of the question, but its likelihood is small. And in some respects China’s attitude is not all that hard to understand. After all, notwithstanding the apparently resolute of “democracy and free markets” by the US and its acolytes, it is often blatantly obvious that “free markets” — invariably a euphemism for unrestricted exploitation — matter more than what ought to be considered democratic norms.
Beijing’s one-party rule may seem reprehensible (even though its Communist nomenclature is little more than an anachronism), but is drastically different in most ways from multi-party systems where every major party prostates itself before the neo-liberal Mammon?


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