Hong Kong protests and the challenge China faces

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Rustam Shah Mehmand

SHAFAQNA (Shia International News Association)

These are difficult times for the leaders of Hong Kong and China. The financial behemoth, Hong Kong, is in the grip of a severe protest movement and the ‘one country, two systems’ recipe is facing its most serious test. These demonstrations were long in the making. The demand for genuine universal suffrage in Hong Kong is nothing new. And although it was conceded in the 1997 arrangements when the territory was being transferred to Chinese control by the UK, there are lingering suspicions about whether the 7.2 million people of Hong Kong would have the right to choose their representatives and chief executive. The Chinese decision to weed out candidates for the council election and that of the chief executive has spurred pro-democracy activists into showing their anger and demonstrate their resolve to oppose such remote-controlled directions, which impinge on their liberty to elect their representatives.

The movement is being spearheaded by students, but people from all walks of life have joined the sit-ins and road blockades in the heart of the financial district. Although there are two immediate demands of the protesters — the removal of CY Leung, the chief executive, and guarantees that the 2017 election for the office of the chief executive would not be encumbered by any ‘weeding’ process engineered from Beijing — the demonstrations epitomise a wider yearning for full autonomy and unfettered democracy. That may be a distant dream, but some concessions would have to be extended without the authorities backing down on principles.

The protesters have dug in their heels. The authorities cannot use force that results in the killing of people. China is now a transformed country. It is the second biggest economy in the world and is forging ahead. It has made investments in Latin America, Africa, Eastern Europe and recently, in India. As a world power, it will think twice before unleashing its military machine on peaceful protesters. But there is a flip side to this argument. Chinese leaders are mindful of the implications if the pro- democracy movement would cross the territorial threshold and touch other parts of mainland China — particularly cities of east China, which are almost structured on market economy. That possibility certainly exists and Beijing will act decisively not to let that happen. For China, no price would be too great to pay for the preservation of the ‘system’ — the bedrock on which Chinese government and its way of life is founded.

Fortunately, the people of Hong Kong do not want either a sustained, violent confrontation or a debilitating movement that could plunge the territory into instability, leading to administrative chaos and economic collapse. The territory has one of the highest per capita incomes in the world. It is known for its prosperity and its buoyant economy. Its inhabitants would not like that status to flounder. On the two previous occasions when there were mass demonstrations, the government simply gave in after some face-saving adjustments. This time round, the authorities would try to strike a similar arrangement as Hong Kong is not the only complex issue that China faces.

There is a strong and robust movement for autonomy in west China’s Xinjiang province. The Uighur Muslim minority has been demanding more freedom and has been attacking government forces and its installations for more than two decades now. The use of force and detentions have kept the region quiet, but there are frequent eruptions of violence, which are worrying for the authorities. There is also the more potentially dangerous issue of the many disputes in the South China Sea where the country is confronting the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, Cambodia and Japan. The disputes with Japan and Vietnam have the potential of escalating into armed confrontations if not resolved through negotiations.

The overarching problem of more strategic importance is the US pivot to east that would require a large American military presence in the Pacific Ocean countries as part of its ‘containment’ policy. Encirclement and containment of China is part of the US’ hegemonistic mindset. This mindset derives sustenance from powerful lobbies, influential exporters of weapons and heavyweight politicians belonging to the corporate sector. Such powerful groups and individuals would always find grounds for mounting military interventions in pursuit of goals and objectives that have very little to do with objective realities, but are carefully choreographed to deceive a gullible public. That, then, is the problem that China faces — the US policy of no-holds-barred hegemony.

But given China’s record of engagement with the world and the wisdom of the ages it brings to its policy formulation on vital issues, the current agitation in Hong Kong may be resolved soon unless something dramatic happens. It is the long-term impact of the sit-in that must be causing anguish in Beijing. Any move that the authorities make would have to be carefully calibrated and would be designed so as not to cause consequences in either mainland China or Taiwan, or produce other unintended implications that could negatively impinge on China’s stability, systems and its economic consolidation. The Chinese leadership is all too aware of the fact that for systems to work and produce results, they need to have a built-in flexibility. Systems that do not correspond to human aspirations or are in some ways in conflict with human nature cannot last. The wide-ranging reforms introduced in 1978 were meant to bring in a degree of pragmatism and realism to economic policies — changes which have radically altered the role of private entrepreneurs in China’s evolution and growth. The down-to-earth and practical approach to policy formulation that was initiated in 1978 has guided the Chinese leadership and has helped in producing an economic revolution. In handling the protests in Hong Kong, the leadership will be expected to show the same farsightedness and sagacity as was shown by Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s.

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