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The Fragility of Democracy: Hong Kong, China and the Extradition Bill

Binoy Kampmark

It has been a history of turns and the occasional betrayal, but Hong Kong’s experiment with democracy, incubated within the Special Administrative Region, was always going to be contingent on some level.

Its colonial past is a poke, a reminder of British bullying, the corruptions of opium and a time when Qing China was torn and a compulsive signer of unequal treaties.

The 99-year lease over the New Territories, along with some 235 islands arose from the second Convention of Peking, signed on June 9, 1898 by Li Hung-chang under the official gaze of British interests. It was never recognised either by the Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek nor Mao Zedong’s victorious communists.

In 1993, former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher revealed how China’s reformist Deng Xiaoping had been more than forthcoming about threats regarding Hong Kong in their September 1982 meeting in the Great Hall of the People.

In The Downing Street Years, Thatcher recalls how an “obdurate” Deng “said that the Chinese could walk in and take Hong Kong back later today if they wanted to.”

Thatcher’s retort was one of admission and promise: the British would not be able to stop them but “this would bring about Hong Kong’s collapse. The world would then see what followed a change from British to Chinese rule.”

Deng, despite this threatening account from Thatcher, was happy to entertain an idea that would become the basis of arrangements after 1997, namely, the principle of one country, two systems.

The official Chinese account of the meeting is naturally more tepid, with Deng merely suggesting that Beijing might “reconsider the timing and manner of the takeover” should the road leading to the takeover prove rocky.

Thatcher never quite understood the reality that Hong Kong’s continued existence under British rule till the handover date was very much, as the veteran journalist Murray Sayle noted, a case of approval from Beijing precisely because it was in its interests. Mainland China and Hong Kong were entwined in a way the mainland and Taiwan were not.

The subsequent Joint Declaration in 1984 between the PRC and Britain came with the proviso that China’s takeover of Hong Kong in 1997 would abide by certain conditions, including the retention of certain democratic structures and an independent judiciary. The expiry of those arrangements is set for 2047.

Hong Kong’s fragile independence has had prodding reminders from Beijing’s ever suspicious functionaries. In 2015, Chinese security agents whisked off five men involved with the Causeway Bay Books store. Its name had been made on the sales of books describing the risqué private lives of Communist Party officials.

Each of the abductees duly appeared on Chinese television to confess to a range of crimes, the usual potpourri of violations expected from a repressive apparatus. A statement had been made, though the owner and manager of Causeway Bay Books, Lam Wing-kee, continues to play the game of smuggling everything from smut to history, hoping that officials on the mainland will be able to turn a blind eye when needed.

And a large eye it has to be, given the range of items deemed contraband by the Communist Party’s Central Leading Group for Propaganda and Ideology.

None of this is to say that mass protest has not had its gains, though suggesting that Hong Kong has a history of obstreperous civil dissent is pushing it a bit far. The attempt to implement a national security law in 2003 by then Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa promising life sentences for treason, secession, subversion and sedition resulted in its indefinite suspension after half-a-million protesters turned out to vent their anger.

This was despite the troubling existence of Article 23 in Hong Kong’s Basic Law which expressly authorises the Special Administrative Region to pass laws prohibiting treason, secession, sedition and subversion. Subsequent Chief Executives Donald Tsang Yam-kuen and Leung Chung-ying had little stomach to push through legislation under the section. Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor is biding her time, waiting for a “suitable climate”.

The latest round of mass protests have suggested that the climate in question is some way off in forming, though it is fearful of the authoritarian winds coming from President Xi’s mainland. Xi’s speech on his 2017 visit for Lam’s swearing-in was prickly and threatening:

Any attempt to endanger China’s sovereignty and security, challenge the power of the central government… or use Hong Kong to carry out infiltration and sabotage activities against the mainland is an act that crosses the red line and is absolutely impermissible.”

The current crop of protests have a fundamental object: taking the Extradition Bill off the books. The bill, should it become law, would see local and foreign criminal suspects make their way into the labyrinth of mainland justice, puncturing the one nation, two systems principle.

The protesters, numbering some 2 million over the weekend, did witness the unusual spectacle of Chief Executive Lam issuing an apology, though the bill remains suspended. Nothing less than her resignation is demanded, though she retains the backing of the power that counts.

The democratic movement in Hong Kong has, in short, been one of fits and starts, often discouraged, an erratic example of changing attitudes both in Britain and the PRC. British officials have not always been allies to the democratic cause, preferring to smother it at points before the liberal incarnation encouraged by the last governor, Christopher Patten.

Even then, Hong Kong still had more in common with the governing commercial structure of the Italian city state of Venice than Westminster.

Mainland China, taking a view to the horizon, continues to gnaw and nibble at existing protections, as is to be expected.

Thatcher’s prognostication that China could not continue to reap “the benefits of a liberal economic system […] without a liberal political system” proved, like certain assessments by the Iron Lady, off the mark, if not off the park. This leaves the protesters with much to do.

Beijing, in the meantime, simply waits, and those with elephantine memories will recall Thatcher’s tripping on the stairs leaving the Great Hall of the People in 1982.

“Bobbling her handbag,” writes Paul Theroux of this episode in his pungent Letter from Hong Kong, “her pearls swinging, and with her arse in the air and her face flushed with fear, the prime minister of Great Britain appeared to be kowtowing to Mao in his nearby mausoleum.”

Such is the cunning, if vulgar turn, of history.

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: [email protected]
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Steve Hayes

Speaking of Hong Kong’s experiment on democracy, I am wondering why you failed to mention the activities of the US National Endowment for Democracy, an extension of the CIA.

peon d. rich
peon d. rich

when millions marched world-wide in protest (and over 1 million in NYC and 250,000 in San Francisco), the UK and the US did not stand down from the Iraq invasion. What frickin’ democracy?

Protesting extradition law? Such a pathetic lack of context – where is the critical lens? If you don’t immediately start looking for western imperial NGO or state/intelligence meddling when reporting about protests in or about rival countries or neo-colonial regions and nations (remember Libya, Ukraine, Lebanon, Nicaragua, Brazil, Venezuela, etc.) your naivete makes you either wittingly or unwittingly a tool for empire.

It is extremely regrettable that the hundreds of billions of dollars that have been, are now, and will be spent trying to control populations using ‘democratic’ (in the worse sense) discontent throws real popular spontaneity into doubt. Sorry, but without greater circumspection informed by the history of Western meddling, your point becomes worse than rubbish.

padre
padre

Interesting, author admits all the atrocities of the British empire, and still blubbers about democracy!

UreKismet
UreKismet

English billionaire banksters need a Hongkong that interfaces with Beijing a lot more than Beijing does.

That said I feel the pain of any human living in a society whose political structure services a huge population. IMO there is no way any such political structure can comprehend the needs of the citizens much less meet those needs.
A post brexit break up of the english colonial political structure will be good for normal english as well as for Scots, Welsh and Ulsterites.

It is futile to do more than chuckle at the continuing english imperial mindset which tries to skewer PRC pols even as it ignores the dastardly deeds that england committed in Honkers and the new territories when the boot was on the other foot.
Wasting revenue on crony constructed white elephants in the lead up to 1997 plus a refusal to grant Hongkong citizens brit passports are the two most egregious which quickly come to mind.

However chuckling at the people of Hongkong isn’t a go IMO.
I’m no big fan of Xi, a man who is entirely too invested in self-regard, he will never be considered to be one of China’s great leaders. Not a Mao Zedong nor a Genghis Khan, although it must be recognised that there was always going to come a time when China’s leader had to stand up to the resulting pushback caused by western politicians’ shift from ignoring the problems caused by the mass migration of manufacturing to China, to exploiting the fear and anger of a citizenry now devoid of adequate employment.

Maybe Xi is the leader China needs for this moment, but I cannot help but feel a leader less eager to stand away from China’s ordinary, normal people would be more effective inside and outside his nation.

Tutisicecream

As with Luke Harding writing on MH-17 at the Guardian Natalie Nougayrède’s writing on Hong Kong tells us all we need to know.

“Hong Kong’s struggle is ours too. It’s a wake-up call to defend all basic human rights” she squawks.

As only a month or two ago she opined ” Zelenskiy’s election proves Ukraine is a healthy democracy. Putin hates that”

Where as back last year she warned, “Macron’s crisis in France is a danger to all of Europe”. And that extreme forces are rejoicing over the president’s predicament. Their ultimate goal is a political takeover of the continent. Where she tries to link the Gilet Jaunes to the right wing.

We see where this sort of stuff is going at the Fraudian. The usual misdirection. The Gilet Jaunes demonstrations are “Macron’s predicament” The Hong Kong demonstrations are “a wake-up call to defend all basic human rights”

Francis Lee
Francis Lee

” Zelenskiy’s election proves Ukraine is a healthy democracy…”

And elections in the Donbass and Crimea were ‘Russsian invasions’. But of course! There ladies and gentlemen you have the perfect example of double-think. The most absurd statements can be uttered by the apologists for empire and no-one in the ruling circles bats an eyelid. Here you have a failed state ruled over by an unstable coalition of oligarchs and neo-nazi militias and it is described as a ‘healthy democracy’

This is what to expect from the bought and paid for liberal class. The media in particular is in the vanguard of utter and complete reaction, embedded and under the control of the deep-state and intelligence services.

Jen
Jen

Odd then that Nougayrede got booted from the top job at Le Monde by her own staff some years ago because of what they called her “Putinesque” proclivities.

STR
STR

STR

Support to Resistance is an American foreign policy where indigenous resistance, anywhere in the world, is supported financially and pseudo-ideologically and usually progresses to receive military support/backing. The military support is associated with the transfer of aid (to resistance groups) provided by the US State Department to be provided by the Pentagon.

The Tibetans thought the Americans were there to help them achieve freedom, independence and prosperity. The reality was, the only goal the US had in mind is to create chaos for the Chinese government and to bleed/overwhelm them financially and logistically in addition to deaths and misery on both sides (Tibetans and Government)

In essence, Hong Kong could not be much different. The Propaganda nowadays can reach farther and made cheaper by the preponderance of mobile phones.

The Propaganda is made even more easier by the level of Testosterone-laden youth in Hong Kong.

Antonym
Antonym

China’s history is a long story of centralized forces conquering any dissident and as such Xi’s line is not much different. It is good though to realize that there are many more Chinese at the receiving end of this authoritarianism. 1984 happened first in China: present mobile phone culture might one day dismantle it, as minds get used to not concurring.

mark
mark

An assortment of bleeding heart hypocrites in Westminster were bemoaning the supposed threat to democracy in Hong Kong over the past few days. When Hong Kong was a British colony, it was ruled over by a colonial governor in a plumed pith helmet who expected the silly little natives to do as they were told. No need for any of that democracy malarkey then. When the hand over was looming, the British side suddenly and belatedly became ever so interested in the democratic institutions for Hong Kong that had been absent for the previous 100 years.

Since then, the westernised elite in Hong Kong have been targeted for Maidan type subversion with millions of dollars from the CIA Front NED and similar organisations. Now and in the past, unrest has been orchestrated from Washington, who came up with the gimmick of umbrellas for another colour/ umbrella revolution.

The aim is simply to weaken and destabilise China, under a threadbare fig leaf of concern for human rights and “democracy.” It is linked to similar propaganda and disinformation campaigns about “Uighur concentration camps” and Trump’s economic war against China. This from a country that props up the dictatorship in Shady Wahabia (“they wouldn’t last a fortnight without our support.”)

The “extradition” law, sending wanted Chinese criminals from one part of China to another, was apparently considered outrageous. No such problems exist in extraditing Julian Assange from Britain to a US kangaroo court, torture and 170 years in prison on trumped up charges.

There have been cases where criminals have sought a form of latter day sanctuary in Hong Kong. A Chinese man murdered his partner in Taiwan, and fled to HK to evade justice.

Seamus Padraig
Seamus Padraig

All true, Mark. You nailed it.

Now and in the past, unrest has been orchestrated from Washington, who came up with the gimmick of umbrellas for another colour/ umbrella revolution.

I remember that. It was back in 2014, and it was called ‘Occupy Central’.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2014_Hong_Kong_protests

They were blatantly trying to rip-off the Occupy Wall Street protests of 2011. The movement failed though.

mark
mark

That’s not to deny that there are real issues of corruption, inequality, and human rights in China. There are literally thousands or tens of thousands of ORGANIC demonstrations, protests, strikes and petitions about real grievances every year. These are just seen as things to be exploited by Washington, like the Uighur/ Islamic terror issue, which has no problem whatever with Saudi Arabia beheading 50 people in a single day, or crucifying teenagers. Or the IDF kiddie killers gunning down thousands of demonstrators in Gaza with British supplied sniper rifles and dum dum bullets.

The Chinese government seems to recognise these problems, with things like anti corruption campaigns. If I was Chinese, I’d probably give it qualified support for its economic and development achievements over the past 30 years, avoiding the chaos and collapse experienced in 1990S Russia. When China has lacked a strong central government, it has always fallen prey to rapacious imperial powers, and the results have been disastrous. The European colonial invasions, the warlord period, the Japanese invasion (with 20 million dead? nobody really knows how many), the Civil War. Similar weakness in the future would suit Washington just fine.

China could have just fully reintegrated Hong Kong with the rest of the country when the colonial “lease” ended and it regained sovereignty. Instead, it adopted a sensible and pragmatic approach, giving it a special autonomous status.

Jen
Jen

Indeed US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with HK pro-democracy activists while passing through the territory in May 2019.

Greg Schofield
Greg Schofield

Hong Kong has been a playground of spooks and external destablisers of China. Students recruited in the west by intelligence operatives posing as academics, especially in Australia.

The latest protest is based on the National government being able to extradite criminals hiding in the enclave; Hong Kong had, and I suspect still has extradition treaties with foreign countries, but not its own country.

China should fully reclaim Hong Kong, and deal with the fifth column within its national territory. Its autonomy should be subject to legitimate national bounds of security, defense, and criminal acts, it should dispose of the the right to determine its own immigration policy allowing, but retain the right to have resident visitors of its own choosing on long term visas.

Why is Hong Kong an exception to every other autonomous region in the world? I am not saying that China should hamfistedly subject Hong Kong to national rule, I am saying that Hong Kong should not have extra-territorial rights that it now enjoys that is used by foreign powers to undermine China.

The extradition law seems no way exceptional, unlike the extradition non-law being applied to Julian Assange in UK and US, and the US-Canadian kidnap of Meng Wanzhou.

If democracy is at issue, and China’s sovereignty over Hong Kong is not, then it is the fifth column of western power that is putting it at risk, the author seems to a have a very limited understanding of the topic, and no notion of the role of NED Australian ‘academia’ in this fifth column which is an action that is against international law.

BigB
BigB

Hong Kong is literally and figuratively “offshore” for tax purposes. So it is both an entry and exit vector …one that suits many Chinese bourgeois elites. It is from there they can launder excess yuan capital – by the phenomena known as “round-tripping” – making it look as though it originated “elsewhere” for tax and capital control purposes.

HK is also where the government can float former SOEs – now in “mixed ownership” (privatization with Chinese characteristics) – which is much more stable than their onshore asset bubble exchanges. As such, along with the Virgin Isles …it is a major source of FDI into and out of the mainland. The benefits of which are negated by formal annexation …before suitable alternative arrangements can be made. The main benefit being an access point to the unregulated offshore “eurodollar” markets.

All in all: HK is an asset …not a libility …as far as China’s bourgeoisie is concerned. I believe there is around $1tn stocks held there – and god knows how much private equity flows through its secrecy jurisdiction. To which HSBC is heavily exposed, BTW. I would expect HK to stay “autonomous” for the full term – as it is a bi-directional financial portal …not just an entry vector.

Seamus Padraig
Seamus Padraig

The extradition law seems no way exceptional, unlike the extradition non-law being applied to Julian Assange in UK and US, and the US-Canadian kidnap of Meng Wanzhou.

No joke! When you stop and think what this is really all about–China’s right to try its own citizens in its own country–and compare it with, for example, the case of Julian Assange, then you begin to realize how completely devious and disingenuous the Western MSM are being here. (BYW, whenever Natalie Nougayrède is in favor of something, that’s my cue to be against it.)

Ben Trovata
Ben Trovata

In the photo,the number of people in the streets…whew!(It awed me.)

Jen
Jen

Photoshopping can be quite impressive.

William HBonney
William HBonney

Carrie Lam would not have backed down in the face of a photosshopped picture.

HK Belonger
HK Belonger

I suggest it’s better not to be so casually dismissive without some knowledge of the facts. The photo is not of a square, it shows a section of Hennessy Rd in Wanchai, the tram stop roofs are visible in the centre of the road. The road averages about 25 meters wide from pavement to pavement and the march route, from Victoria Park in Causeway Bay to the Legco Building in Admiralty, is almost 3kms.

The marchers started at around 2:30pm and were still arriving in Wanchai 7 hours later at 9:30pm. In fact this route was so densely packed the police had to close two parallel roads to traffic to re-direct thousands of marchers and relieve the pressure.

The photo shown here has been nowhere near Photoshop, the crowd was as dense as this along the entire route. I know, because I took part in the march of 16 June. It’s the largest assembly of humanity I have ever witnessed and the event was a credit to the people of Hong Kong who clearly expressed their political sentiments in a calm, peaceful and well mannered way, using the persuasive power of sheer numbers.

vexarb
vexarb

@Hong Kong Belong: “the largest assembly of humanity I have ever witnessed and the event was a credit to the people of Hong Kong”

Thank you for supplying some facts about the street. Now I can better estimate that awesomely creditable number of people on the streets. Let me err on the side of generosity by doubling my initial estimate of 2,500 to make 5,000 as the number of people crammed into what we now know is a 25*25 metre square of street. Multiply by 120 to fill the 3km, that makes 600,000. Not especially awesome nor even highly creditable for a city with the population of Hong Kong in a nation the size of China.

TTOYBAM
TTOYBAM

@vexarb you forgot that the people are moving. Even if they only ever went at the slowest speed of 3km/7h, you could at least double your estimate, and then you’ve entered the “millions” level that can be easily confirmed by drone footage. Considering the population of Hong Kong, and that it’s unreasonable to expect large chunks of it from being able to attend such a protest even if they wanted to, the numbers are likely approaching a majority of everyone who even /could/ protest. (And if you think citizens of the rest of China could feasibly join a protest such as this, you might consider refraining from commenting on HK/China issues until such a time as you know anything at all those issues.)

Ben Trovata
Ben Trovata

For what it’s worth,I really appreciated your post!Thanks.

vexarb
vexarb

The photo showed about 2,500 people in a square; it did not show “the number of people in the streets”?

Ben Trovata
Ben Trovata

I stand corrected!