From the outside, the protests in Hong Kong which have taken place over the past few weeks seem to be an indication of a territory fighting for the continuation of their democratic freedoms. Estimates from protest organisers suggest that 2 million Hong Kongers have marched on the streets at some point in the past few weeks. Even on the more conservative estimates provided by police forces, the sheer ferocity and scale of the protests make the Umbrella Protests of 2014 look like a pleasant church congregation. The protests are nominally about the introduction of new legislation which seeks to legalise extradition from Hong Kong so that ‘justice’ can be administered abroad. In reality, they are about the increasingly obvious infractions on the principle of ‘One Country, Two Systems’.
Only a few weeks ago, I happened to be staying near Admiralty – the epicentre of the protests – and saw the first inklings of the unrest in Hong Kong’s Times Square. Walking past the protestors, I remarked to my friend that he must be sympathetic to the cause of the protestors. I was met with a form of political indifference which tends to typify Hong Kong’s economic elite. With a shrug of the shoulders, he opined that “supporting the protestors is like trying to use a sandbag to keep out a flood. You better be prepared for the possibility of drowning”.
Unfortunately, it is this defeatist tone which punctuates the political life of many a Hong Konger. The handover of Hong Kong, and the political will which has entrenched itself in the 20 years since then, should serve as a catalogue of warning for other democratic nations who find themselves dangerously close to walking down the same path. Indeed, one of the most popular narratives to come out of this discussion is the idea that China is some kind of evil hegemon which seeks to subjugate all that come under its rule. An example relevant to Hong Kong were the protests which were organised against the construction of the High Speed Rail project which connected the Mainland and the Island. The idea is that China will stop at nothing to make sure that every trace of democracy is purged from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and anywhere else which falls into its sphere of influence.
For anyone who actually has any understanding of Chinese foreign policy, this analysis falls wide of the mark. Unlike the United States, Chinese foreign policy leans far more on the use of economic dependency and assimilation than the ‘guns and steel approach’ traditionally favoured by the West. The reclamation of Hong Kong has its roots in two decisions taken in the 19th Century: the leasing of the New Territories in 1898 and the resolution of the Second Opium Wars in 1860. Instead of trying to challenge either decision, China just chose to run down the clock, forcing a complacent Britain to have no option but to cede not only the New Territories but the remainder of Hong Kong as well.
The actual lessons to be taken from the tragic fate which is to befall Hong Kong are threefold. The first is a critique on the divisory nature of capitalism more than anything else. Though not by any means unique, the scale of the indifference to political management by the property-owning class in Hong Kong is staggering. Politics is seen as something of a joke, in large part because those who have the power to make real changes would much rather continue to rig the system in their favour. The root of this problem is plain and simple. The worth of human beings on this island is measured in terms of the size of bank accounts, and very little else. Why should fundamental human rights concern you when the upheaval caused by their defence impacts your investment portfolio? It is this political ignorance and self interest which lead to the election of Carrie Lam, a politician who has a very real claim to serving special interests and foreign states above and beyond her own people. Sound at all familiar?
The second is to reiterate a principle which has been increasingly forgotten with the failed (but in my view morally justifiable) conflicts which took place in Iraq and Afghanistan. Namely, it is the idea that the foreign policy of democratic governments ought to be firmly grounded in the values which are important. Indeed, that sometimes mean making sacrifices so that those values can be upheld all over the world. What use are human rights if they are only to be enforced when it is convenient to us. Many of the British political class were rightly outraged at the callous behaviour displayed by Sajid Javid when he shut the door on Shamima Bagum, likely resulting in the death of an innocent child. Yet people, especially those on the left with whom I share a platform, seem unwilling to fight for those same values abroad. Hong Kong is a prime example of this. The decision to hand over the Island wholesale was one which was done on economic as opposed to political grounds. Once again, the economic elite won out against the concerns of ordinary inhabitants. Britain knew that it was signing Hong Kong’s death warrant in 1985. The inconvenient truth is that they just didn’t care enough to fight for the values which define Hong Kong and Kowloon.
The third and final warning alarm is that movements are increasingly being forced to resort to extra parliamentary means in order to put their concerns on the agenda. This is a threat which strikes at the heart of democratic systems. If anything means that the world will face a democratic backward slide, it is this. Democracies are supposed to be inherently pluralistic, allowing the expression of even highly unpopular policies and opinions on the proviso that they do not impact the red lines set out by each state regarding the protection of citizens. Why is it that the existential nature of climate change needed Greta Thunburg and Extinction Activism in order to bring it to the public consciousness. Democracy is breaking down because the quality of political representation has gone to the gutter. This is not a partisan point which concerns the left or right in particular. In equal measure, the modern political world cries out for RAB Butlers and Hugh Gaitskells. The age of men and women of ideas feels like it is passing with every day. The age of democratic demagogues is increasingly upon us.
The Hong Kong people were already lost because the British political class discovered the voter value in not caring about the truth. The Island was sold on a lie, a bed of false promises which provided the Hong Kong people 50 years to manage the transition. Yet the transition is already taking place, whether people like it or not. It is sad, because it stands to rip apart one of my favorite places anywhere in the world. People talk about this as a problem between Hong Kong and China. Unfortunately, it is probably more accurate to consider Hong Kong yet another victim of the managed decline of the British Imperial project. The best we can hope for is that it can be used as a catalyst, to highlight the need to re-energise politics before it is too late for other nations as well.