Hong Kong’s Quagmire: One Country, Two Systems, No Answers

Politics World

In Hong Kong this summer, mass protests over an extradition bill have escalated into a full-scale anti-government movement. Political scientist Kurata Tōru examines the reasons for the impasse and the implications for the territory and China as a whole.

Hong Kong’s anti-government protests show no signs of abating. More than two months after citizens took to the streets to protest legislation that would have allowed extradition from Hong Kong to mainland China, clashes with police have become commonplace, and acts of vandalism are on the rise. The protesters’ demands have escalated as well, as their focus has broadened from the extradition bill itself (already declared dead) to the goal of free and open elections for the chief executive with universal suffrage—a battle already fought and lost in 2014. Many young protesters are even calling for a revolution.

Surely the Hong Kong authorities could have averted such an escalation by making reasonable concessions early on. Why allow protests over a single piece of legislation to develop into a political crisis of this magnitude?

At the heart of the problem is the “one country, two systems” arrangement adopted at the time of the territory’s handover from Britain to China in 1997. It is this unique system that makes it so difficult for the government of Hong Kong to deal with dissent and public unrest.

No Exit for Lam

Public support for Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam dropped sharply in reaction to her government’s push for legislation that would have opened the door to extradition to mainland China. In a July survey by the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute, Lam received an average score of 30.1 points out of a possible 100—the lowest rating ever recorded for any of Hong Kong’s four post-handover chief executives.

In most democratic countries, such a debacle would lead to a major personnel shakeup, beginning at the top. Certainly this has been the case in Britain (Hong Kong’s former overlord), where the Brexit issue has forced two successive prime ministers to step down. The reason Lam remains in office despite her low approval rating is that she cannot resign. According to a July 14 report in the Financial Times, she has offered to step down on several occasions since the mass protests broke out, but Beijing will not hear of it.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam. (© Jiji)
Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam. (© Jiji)

Under President Xi Jinping, the Chinese government has systematically suppressed dissent, clamping down hard on civil rights and social movements, as well as ethnic and religious minorities. Although Hong Kong enjoys a considerable degree of autonomy compared with other provinces and regions, only the central government in Beijing has the authority to appoint or remove the chief executive. As the Xi regime sees it, giving in to the demands of protesters—including the demand for Lam’s resignation—would set a dangerous precedent that could seriously undermine government authority. Thus, a July 2 editorial in the state-controlled Global Times called for a “zero-tolerance policy” as “the only remedy for [the] destructive behavior” demonstrated by protesters in Hong Kong, arguing that any other policy would open the floodgates to social instability (a “Pandora’s box”).

There is actually a precedent for the resignation of Hong Kong’s chief executive. Tung Chee-hua, the first chief executive following the handover, was targeted by mass protests in 2003 and resigned for “reasons of health” in March 2005. But the situation in Beijing was very different then. Tung Chee-hua was appointed with the backing of Chinese President Jiang Zemin, but he lost that protection after Hu Yaobang succeeded Jiang in 2003. Even then, Tung could not be seen as yielding to the demands of protesters. It took him a year and a half to respond, and he cited health as the reason for his resignation.

It would be no small matter for Xi Jinping to permit the resignation of someone appointed under his watch. As late as July 29, the central government was expressing strong support for Carrie Lam, and not a single Hong Kong government official had resigned to take responsibility for the extradition bill or its fallout. Unable to wipe the slate clean with a personnel shakeup, the Hong Kong government’s options for restoring order are severely limited.

Politically Isolated

Unable to resign, Chief Executive Lam has no option but to take strong action. This was doubtless what Beijing had it mind when it ordered her to stay to “clean up the mess she created” (as reported by the Financial Times). Unfortunately, Lam no longer has the political support she needs to take decisive policy measures.

The political system of Hong Kong is unique in its design. The chief executive is not permitted to belong to any party. (This ensures that the territory will not be ruled by any party other than the Communist Party of China, which does not officially exist in Hong Kong). On the other hand, the Legislative Council, or LegCo, does have political parties. None of them is technically the government party, since the chief executive cannot belong to any of them, but Hong Kong’s electoral system tends to pack LegCo with politicians from pro-business and pro-Beijing parties friendly to the administration.

The extradition bill fractured this alliance. Hong Kong’s cosmopolitan business community strongly opposed the bill, alarmed about the threat to its own members. This put LegCo’s pro-business politicians in an awkward position. Under strong pressure from the Hong Kong and Chinese governments to support the legislation, they took on the thankless job of reassuring and placating business groups. Having gone out on a limb for the government, they felt betrayed when Lam reversed herself and shelved the legislation. According to news reports, some of them hurled invective at Lam when she explained her decision to suspend deliberations on June 15, reducing the chief executive to tears.

Meanwhile, weekly demonstrations have continued to disrupt life and business in Hong Kong, and citizens are losing confidence in their government day by day. Public employees have begun holding rallies and threatening to strike. Many of the city’s elite career civil servants have even taken a public stand (in violation of their code of conduct), endorsing a letter calling for an independent investigation into the government’s response to the protests.

Moreover, as Hong Kong enters election season—with district council elections coming up in November this year and LegCo elections scheduled for the fall of 2020—the political parties will have more reason than ever to distance themselves from an unpopular administration. The legislature has not even convened since July 1, when protesters stormed and vandalized the LegCo building, but even if it does, it is unlikely to accomplish anything constructive in the current atmosphere of dissent and division.

This situation has rendered the Lam administration incapable of taking legislative action to resolve the crisis. Less than halfway through her five-year term, she is already being labeled a lame duck.

Socially Constrained

With no possibility for resolving the situation through a change in leadership or legislative action, the only option left is to impose order through force.

From the viewpoint of an authoritarian government, a protest movement on this scale should never be permitted to develop in the first place. Thirty years ago, the Chinese government put an end to a burgeoning student-led pro-democracy movement by sending armed troops and tanks into Tiananmen Square, with tragic consequences. Similar action by the Chinese forces stationed in Hong Kong would doubtless stop the protesters in their tracks. But such a scenario is unlikely.

According to a July 9 report by Reuters, Major General Chen Daoxiang, commander of the People’s Liberation Army garrison in Hong Kong, met with a senior Pentagon official on June 13—just one day after a violent clash between protesters and police outside the LegCo building—and assured him that Chinese troops would not interfere in the city’s affairs. Military intervention by Beijing would trigger a huge international backlash. China would face devastating sanctions and international isolation. The costs would greatly outweigh the benefits.

The only remaining answer, it would seem, is for the Hong Kong government itself to subdue protesters through police force and suppress the movement through intimidation. But in a society like Hong Kong’s, which still enjoys freedom of assembly and the press, there are major constraints on the government’s use of force and intimidation against its own citizens. Thus far, the police have used a variety of nonlethal means—from tear gas and rubber bullets to such exotic weapons as “bean bag rounds” and “sponge guns”—to disperse protesters. Each new approach, reported in graphic detail by the media, has provoked howls of outrage over police brutality without deterring the protesters.

The July 21 attack by a mob of masked, white-garbed men armed with sticks was certainly intimidating. But this, too, backfired. The indiscriminate violence of the thugs, who beat bystanders and journalists as well as demonstrators, eclipsed the lawlessness of the protesters who vandalized China’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office and defaced the national emblem that same day. Meanwhile, dozens of cellphones captured images of the “mystery men” (some of whom have since been linked with Hong Kong’s triad gangs) chumming around with police and pro-government politicians, fueling speculation about collusion between the government and the Chinese mafia.

Not Just Hong Kong’s Problem

In short, the government of Hong Kong finds itself between a rock and a hard place. Abandoned by its erstwhile friends, it must restore order while being denied the means (whether forceful or conciliatory) for achieving that end. Small wonder the protests have dragged on through the summer.

This is not unlike the situation that prevailed during the Umbrella Movement of 2014. On that occasion as well, Beijing took a “no compromise, no bloodshed” stand, and the demonstrations dragged on for 79 days, greatly inconveniencing the city’s residents and businesses. The cost to Beijing, meanwhile, was minimal. This exemplifies Beijing’s “white glove” approach, ruling Hong Kong by remote control, without getting its hands dirty.

But it may not be that simple this time around. Even if the protests subside, they will leave in their wake a government that lacks popular support and the ability to enforce policy and maintain order. This is bound to undermine the world’s confidence in Hong Kong as a center of international finance, which will diminish the territory’s capacity to serve as a financial pipeline between China and the rest of the world. And this comes at a time when the US-China trade war is already posing a serious economic threat. Chaos in Hong Kong could also bolster the reelection chances of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, a thorn in Beijing’s side.

This time, Hong Kong will not be the only loser.

(Originally published in Japanese on August 6, 2019. Banner photo: Demonstrators march through downtown Hong Kong on June 9, 2019, to protest against a government bill that would have allowed local authorities to detain and extradite people wanted for crimes in mainland China. © Jiji.)

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