The decision by the US House of Representatives to pass legislation tightening up the scrutiny of Hong Kong’s autonomy from mainland China could mark a significant inflection point in the continuing impasse between the protestors there and the authorities in Beijing.
The Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019, which passed through Congress on October 15, was first introduced in June. Under the law, the US State Department would be required to certify each year whether Hong Kong warrants its unique treatment by the US under various treaties. It also proposes to restrict access to the US to any deemed responsible for human rights violations in the province.
The bill looks set to obtain approval by the Senate quite swiftly and could be signed off by president Donald Trump as early as next week.
In the long run, though, what is clear from 60 years of research into conflict resolution, is that only the protagonists – in this case, in Hong Kong and Beijing – can ever achieve a satisfactory resolution to their differences, as they alone have an immediate and enduring stake there. External agents often make matters worse and never have to live with the consequences of their actions.
Outsiders may facilitate dialogue, or even cajole the various parties involved, through diplomatic, as well as economic and occasionally military means, but they invariably have quite different interests to those who must live with the situation on the ground. This is particularly true of diaspora communities – in this instance, in Canada and Australia in particular – who are often more disconnected and disgruntled.
The attention span of external agents is limited, too, as they invariably turn to more pressing concerns of their own. And, as the media circus moves on from Hong Kong, as has been seen again and again in recent years – across Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria and elsewhere – so those keen to advertise and promote their caring credentials appear to forget, or even ignore, any ensuing confusions their policies and actions may leave behind.
Scale of discontent
The scale of the protests now happening in Hong Kong have not been driven solely by the proposed introduction of a new Extradition Bill to the mainland. Nor are they merely about the competence and legitimacy (or otherwise) of the incumbent chief executive, Carrie Lam.
As with the ongoing outbreak of unrest in Chile – superficially ignited through the introduction of new metro fares – or the outbreak of looting in many urban centres across the UK in 2011, the real drivers invariably reach deeper than the specific sparks that serve as catalysts.
What ought to concern Beijing most is the breadth and depth of popular disconnection these events represent. Five years ago, when facing the so-called Umbrella Movement protests that paralysed the city centre and railed against the selection process for the future leadership of Hong Kong, the authorities were able to simply sit it out. Those involved failed to develop their agenda or build any broader base of support.
Earlier protests in Hong Kong after the handover from British rule in 1997 were even smaller and more parochial in their outlook. These complained about those driving over from mainland China to obtain infant milk formula (deemed safer in Hong Kong in the aftermath of the melamine tainted milk scandal of 2008), or investing in real estate, as well as coming to give birth to benefit from Hong Kong’s special privileges. The images these presented of truculent mainlanders polluting the province were both elitist and unedifying.
The protesters appear to have learnt from those failures. But they still need to ward against the more petty-minded elements in their midst if they are to sustain their momentum and engage a wider community.
The real challenge for all concerned is that Hong Kong is different to mainland China – not because of its former colonial connection, but because of the spirit of independence that is palpably manifest there. Beijing may not appreciate this, but it shouldn’t seek to crush Hong Kong into conformity, as it is this creative energy that China most needs if it is to continue to flourish in the period ahead.
At the same time, though, Hong Kong’s own future clearly lies in its relationship with the People’s Republic by which it is surrounded physically, and through which it is intertwined culturally. As with the special position of Catalans in the richest region of Spain, so the protestors in Hong Kong should appreciate how their secessionist tendencies could lead to a lengthy process of attrition with Beijing and economic atrophy as investors begin to look elsewhere.
Easier to blame foreign ‘meddling’
The intervention of the US Congress superficially appeals to virtue-signallers in the US keen to talk about human rights and democracy. But the real problem with the new bill is that it has played into Beijing’s hands by allowing it to complain more legitimately about foreign interference in its sovereign affairs.
While supposedly seeking to uphold the Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, the bill actually contravenes this by seeking to include a party to the text – the US government – that is not mentioned there. At the same time, protesters in Hong Kong should note that the wording of the new bill is as much about excluding Hong Kong from privileged trading status in the future as about protecting the people there.
The protesters in Hong Kong ought to be particularly wary of looking for outside help to achieve a resolution to their dispute with Beijing. Again and again in such situations, those who focus externally for solutions, rather than winning their argument and support internally, find themselves caught short where it matters most – at home.
At the same time, it is not so much the malign influence of foreign funds and agitators on the ground that Beijing ought to reflect upon. These may, or may not, be present but – as with those who obsess over Russian influence behind Trump’s election victory or blame foreigners for protests in Russia – focusing on such aspects avoids the reality of the millions of ordinary citizens whose voices will need to be engaged with for any resolution to be reached.
In this instance, China could risk becoming the one thing a confused and directionless West has been looking for for some time – a new enemy to cohere itself against.
Bill Durodie is a visiting professor at the China Executive Leadership Academy Pudong (CELAP) in Shanghai. He was formerly head of the Conflict Analysis and Management programs of Royal Roads University in Victoria, Canada.