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Hong Kong: Countdown to 2047

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Protests have been drawing attention to Hong Kong in recent weeks following the introduction of a new proposed law easing extradition from the territory (and presumably to mainland China, whose justice system is considered less fair than Hong Kong’s). The resulting victory as symbolized by the postponement and probable withdrawal of the controversial bill was somewhat surprising and is considered to be a political setback for Beijing, which had been consistently enhancing integration between itself and Hong Kong, an autonomous territory under the Chinese security umbrella.

This post seeks to delve into the political situation at the heart of these recent protests in order to draw out some meaningful trends. Upon further analysis, I still believe that the gains made by Hong Kongers may be short term and fleeting given the power held by Beijing in directing the territory over the long term. For its part, however, China has been given a direct message that its current policy path may be too aggressive and ineffectual for managing its periphery, a reality that is sure to hurt hard liners in Beijing.

Overview of the Recent Protests

In a word, the manifestations against the pro-China extradition law were massive. It is estimated that over one in every seven residents of Hong Kong demonstrated against the government. While these protests were ultimately peaceful, they symbolize the potential for organized political violence, a nightmare scenario for any leadership but one that especially haunts Beijing. China rightly fears that the success of such mass demonstrations might spread onto the mainland, where tighter controls on political freedom exist; this is an especially pressing priority given that Hong Kongers appear to have learned valuable lessons from the 2014 Occupy Central protests about how to advocate effectively in the information age. Not surprisingly, therefore, Chinese censors have expanded their reach online in order to get out ahead of the story and frame the protests through a pro-Beijing lens.

Why Did the Protests Succeed?

Based on previous history - namely Occupy Central - it appeared unlikely that protests in Hong Kong could actually change policy. So what happened this time that made a difference? There is a confluence of critical factors that contributed to the movement’s political success, including:

  1. The extradition law represented a direct challenge to a legal system that is internationally respected and trusted. This put the continued business of major multinational corporations in Hong Kong in jeopardy as they feared there would be a loss of transparency and stability if the legal system were to be delegitimized.

  2. The size and scope of the protests brought greater international attention towards Hong Kong, building on the foundation of media exposure built years earlier with Occupy Central.

  3. Hong Kong is a territory of special status in the world. Currently operating like a near city-state, it was a British colonial possession before being handed over to China in 1997. Under the terms of the handover agreement, Hong Kong is to remain autonomous for at least a 50-year period ending in 2047. These political terms have consequently created a unique culture in the territory that is distinct from its mainland Chinese partner provinces. In this way, much of the vehemence towards Beijing interference is rooted in the distinct identity of Hong Kongers developed over the past few centuries.

China: Playing the Long Game

The finer points of the UK-China handover agreement of Hong Kong set the terms and mindset viewed by Beijing in its strategy towards the territory. In short, China has significant power in playing the long game with Hong Kong, using the 2047 expiration date on treaty-mandated autonomy for the territory as a pretext for greater involvement and integration into the Chinese state. China has already made subtle moves in this area, such as closer hierarchical relationships with the Chief Executive of Hong Kong, who now de facto reports to Beijing. From this view, the push for an expanded extradition law appears to be less of a failure to bring Hong Kong into the mainland Chinese fold but rather an overaggressive gesture that was ill-timed. This reality therefore points to further attempts by China to control Hong Kong but perhaps with greater subtlety and sensitivity to local concerns (and the international economic import the city carries).

Forecast

Based on this analysis, I see the achievement earned by the Hong Kong protesters as significant, impressive, and unfortunately short lived. China will return with more innovative policies designed to greater integrate Hong Kong into Chinese territory and will double down on protest preparation. These lessons learned may take time, but time is something that benefits Beijing in this situation as it is in many ways waiting until the 2047 deadline to take full control of Hong Kong in a way that stimulates the Chinese economy without unnecessary “brain drain.” This would require an important admission that Hong Kong is not like the rest of China and is therefore unable to respond to traditional political overtures for Chinese national unity.

In this way, one policymaking area where China might want to revisit and renew is the “one country, two systems” approach. This is nominally the current policy towards Hong Kong and it justifies the territory’s existence as a free and transparent society within the tightly controlled People’s Republic of China (PRC) umbrella. In previous governments, China has used such contradictions in its policymaking to expand its economy and become a major world power. By doubling down on an effective strategy - Hong Kong has benefitted as a major business and financial center in Asia under the policy - economic growth can continue in the region and the major conflict represented by over one million protesters can be ameliorated.

In addition, the cultural autonomy of Hong Kong also makes adherence to foreign policy principles an effective strategy for Beijing in developing the territory and the country. Here, China’s insistence on non-interference in the affairs of other states can and has been applied to Hong Kong with success. Continuing this model would therefore be both beneficial to Hong Kongers and consistent with longstanding Chinese policy. It would also save face for a Beijing government currently reeling from a protest-driven defeat.

That said, Beijing has many policy options in responding to the Hong Kong crisis. While some of these options could maintain a favorable status quo, a nationalist-driven leadership in China will most likely seek paths to expand control over all of the PRC’s territories, especially the large city of Hong Kong. With time on their side, the Chinese can afford to absorb this defeat at the hands of protestors provided that its effects do not spread too widely in the mainland. This makes for a waiting game that appears inevitable, with Hong Kong effectively ceded to the mainland in a matter of decades.

William VogtComment