The former British colony of Hong Kong (HK) is facing an unprecedented political crisis as violent protests against a controversial law rages into 11th week. It has now spread into a much bigger movement, demanding greater democracy and also an inquiry into the alleged police brutality during demonstrations.
At the outset the demonstrations were local, protesting against proposed legislation which would allow the extradition of residents accused of crimes to mainland China. Although the legislation has been withdrawn, the protests have continued, acquiring unprecedented scale and an anti-China flavour.
Over the past two months, the situation has become increasingly tense. The demonstrations have evolved from millions marching through the streets to groups of protesters storming government offices and shutting down the city's international airport. While the majority of protesters have been peaceful, incidents of police violence have added fuel to the fire. Till date, there is no independent investigation into police brutality that led to frustration, turning some protestors to violence.
HK belongs to China, but it has its own currency, political system, and distinct cultural identity. Many Hongkongers, as they now identify themselves, don't see themselves as Chinese. That difference goes back to several generations when the city was a British colony until 1997 when it was handed back to China.
The Hongkongers want a high degree of autonomy they believe they were promised by the “one-China, two-systems” mechanism provisions of the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984. Under the policy, Hong Kong maintains a de facto Constitution, known as the Hong Kong Basic Law that still mirrors the British model, lauding transparency and due process.
One of the tenets of the Basic Law is that Hong Kong has the right to develop its democracy, and previous Chinese
officials pledged that the central government in Beijing wouldn't interfere with that. But in recent years, Beijing has repeatedly reinterpreted saying it has "complete jurisdiction" over HK. This perceived threat to Hong Kong's rule of law has led to the regular confrontations which have seen hundreds of protesters arrested so far.
As the political turmoil continues to rage, it is surprising that it has so far been allowed to expand in scale, as China has displayed an uncharacteristic restraint so far. But there are now clear signals that its patience may be running out, and the threat of intervention by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is growing. Agencies and propaganda organs of the central government have called the protests “terrorist” activities and intensified their claims that Hong Kong’s turmoil is the result of American “black hands” seeking to create a colour revolution.
Beijing knows that military repression in HK would be even more disastrous to its international relations than the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.
The HK crisis has played into the US-China confrontation. The US-China trade war is high on the agenda, but the
worsening situation in Hong Kong have become interlinked as China is accusing the US of encouraging the protests to undermine China.
Hong Kong is key to China as a financial and banking centre closely linked to the international financial network. It is an economic entity separate from China with independent members of the WTO, and under United States-Hong Kong Policy Act of 1992, it enjoys access to US market and technology greater than what China is entitled to. The Hong Kong dollar is also pegged to the US dollar. This enables Chinese companies to evade US trade sanctions by routing exports through HK. Similarly, HK-based entities do not face the same technology-related restrictions from the US as China-based companies on the mainland do.
If the US withdraws Hong Kong’s special status, it will hit China hard as the city will become like any other city of China stripped of its international profile. China would wish to avoid it while the US should welcome this. Beijing would also never tolerate losing control over Hong Kong.
Losing control over HK would end the forlorn hope of reintegrating Taiwan in the foreseeable future. While the Chinese government sees Hong Kong as a vital commercial and economic centre, the assimilation of Taiwan is a far bigger priority. A crackdown on HK will also mean that pro-China elements in Taiwan, who are surely watching the events on a minute-to-minute basis, will lose traction and it will be difficult for the eventual and peaceful reunification with China. Taiwan’s geographic position, guarding the northern approaches to the South China Sea, is crucial for China’s long-term plan to control that body of water.
It would be unlike China and its powerful leader Xi Jinping to let this incident pass, and if in the course of re-establishing control, the one country-two-system mechanism has to be abandoned, it would be done without question. Given all this, China will probably avoid a heavy-handed troop movement into Hong Kong for as long as possible, knowing it would create an even stronger independence movement in Taiwan.
Yet, it will use force if necessary. Xi has escaped scot-free even earlier with his gulag policy in Xinjiang and his South China Sea aggression. However, this twin crisis, (US-China Trade War and Hong Kong Protest) is playing out at a time when there is growing factionalism within the Chinese Communist Party. Xi Jinping is facing a pushback within the party, and this may explain the inability to fashion a consensus and come up with a coherent policy towards the US and the failure to manage the crisis before it turns even worse.
China has been cautious in its reaction to the internal developments related to Jammu & Kashmir (J&K), yet believes that India's stand on J&K deserves severe international scrutiny. China did ask for informal closed-door consultations on Pakistan's letter to UNSC in the aftermath of Indian decision to amend Article 370.
But, if and when it has to intervene militarily in HK, it would want India to refrain from joining the chorus of condemnation that will follow. India should leverage this Chinese constraint in handling the international fallout and bring in the red hot pro-democracy HK movement crackdown and Tibet back on the table.
It is the most appropriate time, India should urge the UN to call an emergency meeting on HK like J&K. To tell the world that along with HK, Taiwan and Tibet are also disputed territory occupied by China and must be resolved peacefully under the UN Charter.
HK is no doubt at a critical juncture. If China wants to interfere in J&K, India must demand democracy in Tibet and HK. It must also expose Pakistan's atrocities in Gilgit and Baltistan and show China a mirror on Uighur province staring the bullies down. China has been interfering too much with internal affairs of India. The time now is to publicise and gather support to save HK from the mass violation of human rights.
Focusing just on trade isn't enough. India needs to gain up here and take the lead.
(The writer is a blogger and writes on international strategic and trade-related issues)