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Commentary: Why China doesn’t understand what the Hong Kong protesters want

There is a deeper problem underpinning the Hong Kong protests – the difference in how China and Hong Kong believe the city should be governed, says CUHK’s Wilson Wong.

Commentary: Why China doesn’t understand what the Hong Kong protesters want

Protesters react after police fired tear gas outside the government headquarters in Hong Kong on Sep 15, 2019. (Photo: AFP/Nicolas Asfouri)

HONG KONG: It is now abundantly clear China doesn’t understand what the Hong Kong protesters want.

Even before Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s formal withdrawal of the Extradition Bill, Hong Kong residents’ main concern has already shifted from the bill to alleged police brutality, according to public opinion polls, but this pressing issue was left unaddressed.

READ: Commentary: All this fury but Hong Kong’s symbols of wealth have been untouched

Although diehard protesters have requested all five demands be met, and more supporters have expressed support for radical tactics, remaining moderates may be willing to start a dialogue with the Hong Kong government if their central concern to look into excessive use of force by the police can be addressed.

Nearly half of residents polled in late-August say they agree both protesters and the government should make concessions to seek common ground, according to a survey by the Chinese University’s Hong Kong Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies.

Setting up an independent commission to investigate police actions could soften the moderates’ stance and is a necessary condition to persuade moderates to change their minds about continuing the protests. 

Although Lam has stated that the current Independent Police Complaints Council already provides a suitable mechanism to carry out an independent probe and assured people the Hong Kong government would follow-up with any suggested recommendations, critics have pointed out the huge representation of current and former Hong Kong government officials in the council calls into question its neutrality.

Yet, Lam’s stance on this issue remains uncompromising, a stance no doubt supported by Beijing.

The fact that leaders in Beijing are unwilling to acknowledge these differences and took so long to agree to Lam’s initial proposal to withdraw the bill point to a deeper problem - the belief that these solutions are inimical to China’s interests and therefore zero-sum.

Hong Kong's Chief Executive Carrie Lam addresses a news conference in Hong Kong, China September 5, 2019. (File photo: REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach)


The first problem is ideological. China, as a communist country, has a systemic bias of solving problems by command and control, and the imposition of rules and regulations to shape behaviour, whereas Hong Kong has been used to a system of political consultation to resolve difficult issues.

The Chinese government has demonstrated an exercise of tight control over Hong Kong through micromanagement.

In the days after the protests erupted, the close interaction between Lam, the Chinese government and its delegates in Hong Kong, often behind closed doors, point to a closely-guarded and tightly managed approach to resolving conflict.

Lam’s leaked admission of her limited manoeuvring space and tied hands, as well as reports from sources suggesting that the central government had rejected Lam’s much earlier proposal to withdraw the bill in August suggest Beijing is and very much wants to remain in full control.

READ: Commentary: Could 'black hands' be behind the Hong Kong protests?

READ: Commentary: The fight behind closed doors at home in Hong Kong

Second, political reforms over the last decade have fuelled fears of what Hong Kong residents say is the tightening noose of control by the Chinese Government over its political system.

Despite promises of universal suffrage made in the lead-up to the 1997 handover, the Chief Executive today is elected by an election committee of 1,200 people indirectly selected among big business leaders, professionals and elites, many of whom have huge dealings with China and are pro-Beijing.

Further, while the Chief Executive can nominate principal officials, political appointees who oversee key government bureaus, their appointments have to be approved by the Chinese Government, in accordance with the Basic Law.

With a government designed to be accountable to interests in the election committee, rather than to the people of Hong Kong, it is no surprise crisis erupts whenever there are tensions between the two.

READ: War at the dinner table: Hong Kong families divided over protests

A protester throws a projectile outside the government headquarters in Hong Kong on Sep 15, 2019. (Photo: AFP/Isaac LAWRENCE)

While this was thought to be procedural, in fulfilling Article 23 of the Basic Law to enact legislation that provides sweeping powers for the Hong Kong Government in cases where national security is at stake, the bill was perceived widely by Hong Kong residents as a threat to their freedom and rights, and viewed with even greater suspicion especially after Qian Qichen, Vice Premier of the State Council, expressed Beijing’s hope that the law will be passed expeditiously.

In other words, Hong Kong residents already had little faith the actions of their government is free from the influence of Beijing.

The desync in these three cases arises because of differences in the interpretation of the true spirit of the “One Country, Two Systems” principle that underpins China-Hong Kong relations. 

Hong Kong emphasises “two systems” and wants to be given autonomy in its affairs but Beijing prioritises “one country”, worried that autonomy will breed separation, when sovereignty has been a red line for China.

The protests have fuelled reluctance on China’s part to make concessions in Hong Kong, because they fear compromise makes them look weak.

And yet, the imposition of a governance approach from the mainland, which emphasises order and control, including the use of riot police forces to eliminate dissent, has brought disastrous results, whereas successfully governing a global city like Hong Kong with its diverse interests involves the practice of politics employing the art of give-and-take. 


The growing administrative and advisory apparatus of the central government in Hong Kong is a second major reason for the desync between how China and Hong Kong understand the protests.

READ: Commentary: Why Hong Kong protesters have tolerated the use of radical tactics

Police officers escort a woman near Amoy Plaza shopping mall in Kowloon Bay, Hong Kong, China, September 14, 2019. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha READ: Commentary: Out of reach? The unaffordability of housing fuelling the Hong Kong protests It has been widely acknowledged that the 2003 protests against the National Security Bill, which were largely unforeseen by the Chinese establishment, was a result of a poor understanding of Hong Kong public sentiments.

After the protests subsided, however, instead of penalising the Liaison Office in Hong Kong for its poor mismanagement, the Chinese government empowered the Liaison Office with more resources.

Not only has the Liaison Office’s headcount expanded over the years, its growing influence has also raised fresh concerns of its overstepping of responsibilities in the city.

Hong Kong lawmakers say they have occasionally received phonecalls from the Liaison Office, lobbying them to support certain initiatives. Former Liaison Office officials have also reportedly helped raise funds for certain political parties in Hong Kong.

These developments have led many Hong Kongers today to think the city is governed by Sai Wan, the district where the headquarters of the Liaison Office is located, rather than Lam’s administration.

READ: Commentary: Behind Hong Kong’s extradition bill protests – a looming divide, growing pessimism about the future

The incentives are also skewed when the Liaison Office’s value to Beijing rests on their usefulness, best illustrated during a time of chaos.  

Yet, when information about Hong Kong is channeled through such a narrow group of people with vested interests in remaining valuable, instead of Chinese leaders meeting and developing a relationship with Hong Kong legislators, what might be transmitted could be biased and misguided advice.

Members from the pro-democracy Civic Party carry a portrait of Gui Minhai (L) and Lee Bo during a protest outside the Chinese Liaison Office in Hong Kong, China January 19, 2016. (Photo: REUTERS/Bobby Yip/Files)

If the Liaison Office was serious about getting to know Hong Kong, its attitudes and public opinion, it would engage and consult scholars studying Hong Kong politics and public policy but it rarely does.

Take for example interpretations of the slogans used by the protesters this time around - “Liberate Hong Kong, the Revolution of Our Times”.

In the minds of the protesters, to “liberate Hong Kong” simply means saving Hong Kong from the decay witnessed, to stem the decline in the rule of law and social equality, and recover the city’s core values of Hong Kong. Yet the phrase is viewed suspiciously and erroneously by Chinese commentators as a call for some form of separation from China. This is wrong.

Protesters also used the phrase “revolution of our times” to call for a revival of a cultural movement to build a brighter future for Hong Kong. Yet this phrase has been incorrectly interpreted by Chinese analysts to mean that protesters are urging for an overthrowing of the Hong Kong government. 

It is worth keeping in mind that no slogans against the Chinse Communist Party has gained traction throughout these protests, and the protests are by no means a call for independence. 

One hopes the Liaison Office factors these in when reporting on public sentiments to Beijing, instead of stoking fears in Beijing.

Riot police officers are seen near Causeway Bay station in Hong Kong, China, September 15, 2019. (Photo: REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh)


The final reason why the Chinese government does not understand what the Hong Kong protesters want is distracting factional politics.

Although President Xi Jinping has consolidated power and China has lifted term limits for the presidency, Mr Xi has his fair share of challengers, including hawks in the Chinese policy establishment who want nothing short of a hard-handed return of Hong Kong, and opponents in the other big factions in the CCP who see this as a chance to set a trap for Mr Xi.

But Mr Xi must know that a bloody military crackdown is a trap. It will damage trust in Hong Kong, which is not in China’s interests. Any violent move would be a serious mistake that could invite international backlash and challenge his authority, which will be unhelpful to a China facing a trade war with the US.

MORE: Our coverage of the Hong Kong protests

For now, as admitted by Lam in a leaked recording, the protests have taken a security angle and elevated to the national level, so there is little room for her to manoeuvre.

What is needed, however, is for China and Hong Kong decision-makers to come to a common understanding of how to view the Hong Kong protests for a start, instead of seeing shadows and letting fear guide action.

Professor Wilson Wong is Associate Professor at the Department of Government and Public Administration at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

READ: Our coverage of the Hong Kong protests

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Source: CNA/sl


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