Commentary: The Hong Kong protests seem to be escalating instead of fading away

Commentary: The Hong Kong protests seem to be escalating instead of fading away

The protests have now spiralled into broader complaints and become more violent and unruly, says the Financial Times' Gideon Rachman.

Protesters block Hong Kong MTR train door
Anti-extradition Bill demonstrators block an MTR train in Hong Kong. (Photo: REUTERS/Tyrone Siu)

HONG KONG: Hong Kong has played a central role in the two great stories of our era — the rise of China and the globalisation of the world economy.

More than 30 years ago, China’s emergence as the workshop of the world began just across the border from Hong Kong, powered by the territory’s money, expertise and international connections.

Today, Hong Kong continues to serve as a crucial gateway between China and the west.

But the world is now entering a post-globalisation era characterised by populist unrest and rising tensions between the US and China. And once again Hong Kong is central to the story.

READ: Protesters disrupt Hong Kong's MTR services during morning rush hour

A WAVE OF DEMONSTRATIONS

For almost two months, the territory of 7.4 million people has been hit by a wave of demonstrations. This began as a protest against a proposal to allow suspects to be extradited to mainland China.

But it has now spiralled into broader complaints against police violence and demands for fully democratic elections.

Those protests are still going and becoming more violent and unruly. On Sunday night, I had to wear a gas mask in the area around the Financial Times office in central Hong Kong because the streets were so full of tear gas.

READ: How did Hong Kong, my home, turn into a war zone? A commentary

En route, I passed street fires, makeshift barricades, charging riot police and piles of rubble assembled by protesters to use as missiles.

Hong Kong police fire tear gas at protesters Jul 28
Police fire tear gas on protesters taking part in a demonstration against what activists say is police violence in Hong Kong, Jul 28, 2019. (Photo: AFP/Anthony Wallace)

Watching another chaotic and occasionally violent protest the previous day, I was struck that a number of demonstrators were carrying the US flag — something that China will certainly seize upon to support its contention that America’s “black hand” is manipulating the protests.

SEEKING HELP FROM THE US

Speaking to a group of protesters gathered under the Stars and Stripes, I found them eager to see the US Congress press ahead with a proposed Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which threatens to take away Hong Kong’s trade privileges with the US, affecting tariffs and technology transfer, that are not enjoyed by mainland China.

This would happen if the territory’s autonomy is threatened by Beijing.

The demonstrators, who were office workers and students, issued a plea to US President Donald Trump, who is admired by many in the Hong Kong democracy movement because of his willingness to impose sanctions on China.

Mr Trump’s capriciousness should make the Hong Kong demonstrators wary. But the anti-China sentiment in Washington is now bipartisan and influential figures in Congress, including Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic speaker of the House of Representatives, and Republican Senator Marco Rubio, have taken up the cause of Hong Kong.

READ: The noose around Hong Kong is tightening, a commentary

Even without US sanctions, heavy-handed Chinese intervention — for example, the deployment of the People’s Liberation Army on the streets of Hong Kong — would provoke a spontaneous loss of confidence, prompting international businesses to pull out of the territory.

Hong Kong MTR passenger crowd in a station as protesters block train doors
Anti-extradition bill demonstrators block an MTR train in Hong Kong. (Photo: REUTERS/Tyrone Siu)

RADICAL SENTIMENTS

Some argue that Beijing no longer needs Hong Kong to act as a gateway to the west. But although China is now unrecognisably richer than it was 30 years ago, there are certain crucial functions that the territory still performs for the mainland.

Chinese companies that want to float their shares on the international markets need Hong Kong, which is the world’s fifth largest stock exchange. The territory also acts as a crucial centre for legal services and insurance.

Many wealthy Chinese families have investments and bank accounts in Hong Kong, and will be reluctant to jeopardise their nest-eggs.

Knowing all that, Hong Kong demonstrators hope that the threat of US sanctions will force China to make concessions to their demands. Some even seem eager to see America withdraw Hong Kong’s special privileges, despite the economic damage that would do.

They quote a proverb — “Better to die now, in order to be reborn later” — to justify their call for international pressure.

LISTEN: The Pulse: The Hong Kong protests - what next?

That kind of radical sentiment should alarm Beijing — as should a chant heard on the streets, “Defend Hong Kong, time of revolution”. The slogan was invented by Edward Leung, an activist linked to the Hong Kong independence movement, who is serving a jail sentence.

WAITING OUT THE DEMONSTRATIONS

The need to maintain political control in Hong Kong is likely to be paramount for Beijing. So if the Chinese government thought it would work, it would not hesitate to deploy troops.

Yang Guang China's Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office (HKMAO) of the State Council
Yang Guang, spokesperson for China's Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office (HKMAO) of the State Council, answers questions concerning protests in Hong Kong, at a press conference in Beijing on Jul 29, 2019. (Photo: AFP)

But the dangers of sending in the PLA are understood in Beijing. Even the Global Times recently ran an opinion piece counselling against PLA intervention on the grounds that it would run into local resistance, making it hard to consolidate control.

For the moment, then, it seems most likely that China will try to wait out the demonstrations, hoping that they will lose momentum, as summer turns into autumn and students return to school and university.

But the protest movement seems to be escalating, rather than fading away.

In the boom years of globalisation, Hong Kong was always said to be the epitome of a commercial city whose citizens cared little for politics, as long as they could buy, sell and shop.

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

But, across the world, the period when economic concerns always seemed to override politics is over. Once again, Hong Kong is at the forefront of a new era.

Source: Financial Times/sl

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