The battle for Hong Kong's soul
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The battle for Hong Kong's soul

This is not just about a law. It is the identity of an exceptional city that is at stake.

Originally published in the Australian Financial Review.

Politicians around the world routinely bemoan the apathy of Millennials and Generation Z. By contrast, Hong Kong is one of the few places where the elite begs young people to be less interested in politics.

This week, we saw why. Once again, tens of thousands of young Hong Kongers, many of them high school and university students, put themselves on the front line of the battle to maintain the freedoms and autonomy that China promised to the city when it took back control from the UK in 1997.

Their fight for democracy is a real and scary one. These young Hong Kongers are making big sacrifices for their ideals. As they occupied the streets outside Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, they faced tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets and determined baton charges by riot police. More than 70 people were hospitalised. If arrested, charged and convicted for rioting or other public order offences, they could face years in jail.

The protests were sparked by government plans to allow the extradition of criminal suspects to mainland China, where the Communist Party controls the capricious and repressive justice system. Such a move would severely undermine Hong Kong’s independent legal regime, which is the foundation for the semi-autonomous Chinese territory’s prosperity as a global business hub.

The large scale of the protests, with several hundred thousand joining an initial march last Sunday, reflects pent-up anger over the way in which Beijing, assisted by the Hong Kong government it controls, has been systematically eroding the city’s freedoms and autonomy over the last few years.

But the depth of feeling is driven by something more visceral than concerns about technical changes to the system of governance and the impact on Hong Kong’s attractiveness as an investment destination.

This is ultimately a struggle over identity, as well as freedom, democracy and economic equity. The generation that has come of age since the handover in 1997 – which I have call “Generation HK” in my eponymous book – see themselves, first and foremost, as Hong Kongers, not Chinese citizens or by-products of the old British colonial system.

The student-led Occupy protests of 2014, when hundreds of thousands took to the streets to demand the right to elect their leader, helped to awaken this generation to politics and bind them with a sense of collective action.

As one high-school student told the Hong Kong Free Press this week, when asked why she had joined the protests: “We are not Chinese, we are not British, we are Hong Kongers.”

The extradition bill, and other moves to chip away at the city’s autonomy, undermine the rule of law in Hong Kong. But they also threaten the resurgent Hong Kong identity that many young people have embraced.

The political roots of the conflict lie in the contradictions inherent in the One Country, Two Systems arrangement under which Beijing promised Hong Kongers a “high degree of autonomy”, democratic elections, freedom of speech and other human rights for 50 years after 1997. On the one hand, the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini constitution, enshrines liberal democratic values. However, it also calls for the passing of a law to prevent subversion against Beijing, requires Hong Kong’s leader to follow directives from the Communist Party and gives Beijing the ultimate power to amend Hong Kong’s laws.

These contradictions could be papered over in the first decade or so after 1997, when China’s leadership was less strident than under Xi Jinping today and Hong Kong’s economy was much more important to China.

Now, Chinese officials say they are not willing to let Two Systems be used to undermine One Country, especially at a time when China and the West are entering a dangerous period of renewed strategic and ideological rivalry.

Many young Hong Kongers see it the other way around. They are willing to risk their personal freedom and welfare to defend Two Systems from incursions by One Country.

Hong Kong appears to have entered a dangerous spiral toward more conflict. Beijing’s suggestion that “foreign forces” are orchestrating the resistance in Hong Kong is not convincing, not least because many of the local democracy leaders who it attacks as US puppets are currently serving jail time for their activism.

But the Communist Party most certainly sees the resistance in Hong Kong as a national security threat, which makes it unlikely to back off.

By cracking down ever harder on Hong Kong, Beijing is making life difficult for its opponents in the city. Yet it is also reinforcing the sense of separateness that many Hong Kongers, not just the young, feel.

The heavy-handed tactics might be effective in briefly clearing the streets, and in making activists, journalists and others fear paying a higher price for their opposition to Beijing’s rule.

At the same time, however, the authorities are deepening the shared cultural memory of resistance and defiance among Hong Kongers. Just as Parisians did not easily forget how to build barricades after the French Revolution in 1789, so Hong Kongers are developing their own spirit of protest.

Without clear leadership on the streets this week, young people worked together to build protective barriers between themselves and the police, treat those injured by tear gas and pepper spray and co-ordinate when to advance and when to disperse.

This unity came from the fact that they were not just fighting against an extradition law but for the very identity of their homeland.

So even if the extradition bill is somehow withdrawn or delayed, the existential struggle for the future of Hong Kong will continue.

Areas of expertise: Southeast Asian politics and foreign policy; South China Sea; regional economic trends; China-ASEAN relations; Indonesia; Malaysia; Vietnam; Hong Kong