SYDNEY: “To catch crabs on a hill” is a Cantonese expression meaning that something is almost impossible.
Hong Kong’s prospects are this bleak. But it would be a mistake to write them off. There is a dynamism in Hong Kong’s local culture — reflected in its pithy proverbs — that may yet save the day.
Events in Hong Kong during 2020 cannot be understood without recapping the history of 2019.
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Its people rejected a proposed extradition treaty, fearing that anyone found guilty of an offence could be deported to mainland China and sentenced under mainland law if it were passed. Hundreds of thousands marched.
When a small group ransacked the Legislative Council and the representative office of the national government, the protests moved beyond local concern.
China’s sovereignty was called into question, but for a while Beijing relied on Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam to resolve matters.
BEYOND THE EXTRADITION TREATY
The withdrawal of the extradition treaty did not satisfy the protestors.
They escalated their demands to include an independent investigation into police brutality, amnesty for all arrested, retraction of the characterisation of the protests as “riots” and Carrie Lam’s resignation.
Protests expanded. District elections in November 2019 showed a deep rift between pro- and anti-government forces with opposition candidates winning 392 out of 452 seats.
Some groups called for independence or the restoration of British rule, neither of which has ever been an option. Hong Kong’s Basic Law opens with “the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region is an inalienable part of the People’s Republic of China”.
Protesters have also called for democracy and won sympathetic support from local and international media. Genuine democracy has never been realised in Hong Kong, despite outgoing British Governor Chris Patten’s efforts.
But the demand for “democracy” by young leaders is vague. It reflects multiple reasons for dissent and popular distrust of government, including attacks on local language and culture, and resentment of mainland people moving to live and work in Hong Kong.
CAN ANYTHING BE DONE?
The Legislative Council — which should be responsive to popular opinion — is proving incapable of passing any reforms or finding a middle ground, and Carrie Lam is constrained by Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Appointed by a Beijing-backed committee, to quote another cogent Cantonese expression, she is a “two-headed snake”, serving two masters. The Liaison Office of China’s central government coordinates pro-Beijing groups and political leaders and mobilises patriotic rallies.
COVID-19 overwhelmed China, Hong Kong and then the rest of the world early in 2020 and Hong Kong police banned protests and enforced social distancing rules. Protests died down but did not disappear.
Despite official bans, thousands gathered to observe the anniversary of the Jun 4, 1989 massacre during the Tiananmen Square protests.
The day before the 23rd anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese sovereignty, Beijing passed a national security law for Hong Kong. The law bans acts of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces.
Under the terms of this law, a central government office has jurisdiction over security cases when referred by the Hong Kong government. Protestors, fearing the worst, called on the United States and the United Kingdom to take action.
THE ECONOMIC IMPACT ON HONG KONG
The United States condemned China and announced sanctions on Hong Kong leaders.
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Many businesses are closing because of the protests and COVID-19 restrictions. Hong Kong’s role as a major transport and finance hub is being affected.
Real GDP growth for 2020 is forecast to sink to negative 6.1 per cent.
Looking ahead, the government predicts that the mainland economy will continue to grow strongly while Hong Kong exports to other markets are likely to be affected by the international COVID-19 situation, China–US relations and other geopolitical tensions.
Locally, unemployment has stabilised at 6.4 per cent — cushioned to some degree by government relief measures.
On Nov 11, China’s National People’s Congress passed a resolution making it possible for Hong Kong to remove lawmakers seen as endangering national security.
Beijing disqualified four opposition legislators immediately and the remaining 15 opposition members resigned.
DANGLING THE DEVELOPMENT CARROT
Addressing a Legislative Council without any opposition representation, Carrie Lam’s policy address on Nov 25 assured residents that Beijing is committed to reviving the ailing economy.
She listed 200 projects ranging from car parks and dental services to new roles for the Territory in the Greater Bay Area development plan for the Pearl River Delta.
Cooperation with the mainland would deepen through new joint trading schemes between stock exchanges, mainland investment in local technology firms and Hong Kong investment in the Zhuhai Airport.
Lam failed to address the need to mend political rifts in the community and rebuild relations between the government and the opposition.
These budget measures alone cannot achieve Lam’s announced goal of “restoring people’s confidence”. The Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute’s latest survey reveals the Chief Executive’s popularity rating is 33.5 per cent and the satisfaction rating of all main government policies is negative.
Popular protests will continue and evolve in the face of increasingly heavy-handed government action.
While there may be no sympathetic leadership nor popular parliamentary representation in Hong Kong, people’s spirits remain high.
As the local saying goes: “When the horse dies, you get off and walk”.
Jocelyn Chey is Visiting Professor at the University of Sydney. She was formerly Australia’s Consul-General to Hong Kong. This commentary first appeared on East Asia Forum. Read it here. This article is part of an EAF special feature series on 2020 in review and the year ahead.