“China is a near dictatorship”: Talking to an Area Studies expert about the Hong Kong protests

Hong Kong’s Kowloon area, one of the focal points of the ongoing pro-democracy protests (Photo © Timo Al-Farooq)

For over seven months now Hong Kong has been rattled by mass protests against mainland Chinese domination. I talked to Aaron B. (name has been pseudonymized to ensure confidentiality), a China expert and independent researcher from Berlin, Germany, about the ongoing volatility in the Special Administrative Region.

Aaron, the Australian journalist CJ Werleman who routinely writes about China‘s mass internment of Muslim Uyghurs cautioned in a piece for the UK‘s Byline Times that what is happening to the former could also happen to the protesters in Hong Kong. Do you share his view?

What are you going to do, throw the whole city in jail? That’s not exactly feasible, there’s no space in Hong Kong. With regards to Hong Kong – and Taiwan for that matter – China always engages in a balancing act.

There’s a geopolitical reality, for example the one in which the U.S. has offered protection to Taiwan. And in Hong Kong‘s case it is a treaty that China has signed and which states that until 2047, Hong Kong shall be governed under “One Country, Two Systems.” Of course, China interprets this differently than the West would like it to do.

Is that true? Personally, I find China’s handling of what is happening in Hong Kong pretty reserved. For over half a year now, there have been regular mass demonstrations, acts of vandalism and outright rioting. Taking this into account, I would say China’s reaction is pretty restrained. Does China take “One Country, Two Systems” more seriously than the West thought it would?

The rioting is so extreme because China is not taking “One Country, Two Systems” seriously. Don’t forget that the rights of Hongkongers are severely curtailed. Hong Kong isn’t exactly what you would call democratic: Beijing always has the last say in the region’s elections, for example.

How Hong Kong is governed is determined by Beijing and not by the people of Hong Kong. There used to be freedoms like freedom of the press and freedoms within universities, so that you could do research and publish freely…

…Are those freedoms gone?

They are being curtailed more and more. When you have booksellers that publish critical works being kidnapped and brought to mainland China where they are forced to plead guilty on national television, then you can’t exactly call that freedom. Hong Kong does not even have real free elections.

What about the district elections that were held in November of last year?

They had a strong symbolic value, no question about that. And they will definitely have repercussions for the election of the Chief Executive of Hong Kong (the post that is currently held by Carrie Lam). But in reality the districts don’t have much political clout. I think the elections worked as a barometer to test the current political mood. To gauge how strongly the people of Hong Kong actually support the pro-democracy protesters.

But you’re right: many thought we would witness a new 1989, a new Tiananmen, and that Beijing would roll into Hong Kong in their tanks. The China of today is much smarter than before. And why shouldn’t it be? Hong Kong has been in decline for decades. Economically, it has long ago been overtaken by mainland China. And this is something Hongkongers know. They are completely dependent on the mainland. Dependent on tourism and on people from China coming to Hong Kong to spend money there.

Yes, it is still an international finance hub, which Beijing still views as an important asset. But Hong Kong is not as important as it was twenty or thirty years ago. I mean, the city is becoming more and more inhabitable by the day if you look at the housing and real estate prices there.

From Beijing’s vantage point, it is much smarter to just wait this whole thing out. All the while saying: “There is a red line: which is that Hong Kong is China. The protesters who are being romanticized as freedom fighters in Europe and the U.S. are in China’s view nothing but, rabble-rousers, miscreants and even terrorists.

Let’s talk about the pro-democracy movement: are its demands merely political? Or are the protests a means to vent long-term, pent-up socioeconomic grievances? I mean, you already mentioned it: “The city is becoming more and more inhabitable by the day.” When I was in Hong Kong about a year ago, there were already frequent protests by relatively small groups of people in front of MTR stations in Kowloon against the exorbitant housing prices and the scarcity of affordable housing in general. Are the protests we are currently seeing actually protests against gentrification? Or are they really just about the erosion of democratic freedoms and the impotence of not being able to do anything against a country one actually doesn’t want to be a part of?

Probably both. The real question is: how much of both. The way in which the Hong Kong government is always reacting and reasoning, as if to say “Yes, we did make mistakes. We are trying to make housing more affordable and to create jobs.” does show that one wishes to frame the narrative as one of social issues.

This is not the case in the West where the media always portrays the protesters as people who are fighting for democracy, and nothing else, like I just mentioned. That isn’t exactly true. It is not every day that you see two million people out on the streets protesting. You only see these numbers when people feel these issues affect the whole city, whichever social class you might belong to.

Even in Hong Kong there are elements that profit handsomely from mainland China. The whole city is connected to China. And there are parts of the population which are not exactly small in numbers (even though the media likes to downplay their demographic significance) that say “Hong Kong is a part of China. Stop pissing off China, we are dependent on China. We have to try and emulate mainland China’s economic success instead.”

The protests we are seeing in Hong Kong at the moment are a cultural, political and economic fight all in one. Don’t forget that the city has an unbelievable level of social inequality: on the one hand you have the finance hub Hong Kong, where a lot of people make tons of money. Real estate in Hong Kong, for example, is among the most expensive in the world.

On the other hand you have a large part of the city’s population living in dire poverty, some of them being poorer than people in mainland China! Twenty years ago that kind of scenario would have been unthinkable. Socioeconomic hegemony is a privilege that Hong Kong has lost. Even culturally speaking, Hong Kong has lost certain privileges. The city was once considered Western and progressive. But those days are long gone, which also contributes to a sense of loss.

Ideologically speaking, it is a fact of life that the democratic freedoms in Hong Kong are being limited more and more. This points to what Beijing really understands “One Country, Two Systems” to mean: namely not as a scenario in which it protects democracy in Hong Kong for 50 years and then suddenly, one fine day, the whole thing becomes a part of China. It doesn’t work like that…

…so you’re saying that China is eroding democracy in Hong Kong preemptively, piece by piece?

Exactly. But one must also try to understand Beijing’s point of view: Hong Kong used to be a British colony. That had to do with the Opium Wars, as we all know, which in China’s anti-colonial consciousness are still very much present.

I mean, let’s not over-humanize the British who are believed to have brought democracy to that part of the world: Hong Kong was nothing but a British crown colony. And from a Chinese perspective that colony was ultimately returned to China via a treaty. Albeit a treaty in which China did have to make concessions.

But from China’s point of view Hong Kong is without a doubt China. So when it sees people in the West supporting Hong Kong’s independence, China feels as if it is being conned. Because for China, Hong Kong was a part of China that was stolen and eventually returned to its rightful owner in 1997.

Let’s talk about the five demands of the movement, namely 1) the full withdrawal of the extradition bill that sparked the protests in the first place; 2) a retraction of the official characterization of the protests as “riots”; 3) the release of all arrested protesters; 4) investigation into alleged police brutality and 5) dual universal suffrage, meaning for both the election of the Legislative Council and that of the Chief Executive. Are these demands realistic?

Yes, I believe they are because they don’t go very far. Nowhere does it say that Hong Kong wants independence. In this context the district elections were actually highly interesting: they showed that the people of Hong Kong and the pro-democracy movement overwhelmingly support these demands. If Beijing gave into these demands and guaranteed civil liberties, for Hong Kongers this would mean that they wouldn’t have to demand independence. The political status of the city could stay as it is.

Like I said, the demands are not that radical. The Chief Executive should resign, the police brutality should be investigated and there should be free elections. The latter means that the people of Hong Kong decide who governs them and not Beijing, as is currently the case, when it pre-decides which candidates are allowed to run and only allows the ones to run that are loyal to Beijing.

Why doesn’t Beijing just give in to these demands? Wouldn‘t the whole matter be resolved then?

That‘s a good question, I have been asking myself that a lot lately. I believe it has to do with China‘s paranoia towards democracy. You and I have talked about this before. I mean, there are democratic forces within the Communist Party that support a softer approach towards Hong Kong. But the people who are in power in China – meaning Xi Jinping and his inner circle – are extremely authoritarian.

If you look at China throughout the 20th century you will see a country that is more used to authoritarian governance than to democracy. This was the case even before the Communists came to power, like during the Republic under Chiang Kai-shek. Don’t forget that Taiwan used to be a military dictatorship.

China is scared that everything will fall apart if it doesn’t rule with an iron fist. This fear is not only a legacy from the Cold War and of its experience with European Colonialism: the threat of U.S. imperialism and the fall of the Soviet Union also feed China‘s authoritarianism.

Beijing wants to modernize the whole country, and it has the self-confidence to do so. To become a world power, if not the world power. But it believes that it can only accomplish this kind of hyper-modernization by force.

The pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong is not a new phenomenon: as we all know, its precursor was the peaceful Umbrella Revolution of 2014 which ended within three months after the demands of the protesters — to scrap electoral reforms in Hong Kong proposed by China‘s Standing Commitee of the National People‘s Congress — were met. Why are the current protests we have been seeing in Hong Kong for over half a year now and the police response to them been so violent? I mean, the extradition treaty with China which triggered the protests has been scrapped. Why are people still out on the streets protesting?

I believe there’s a lot that’s been lying dormant in Hong Kong. There has been public discontent for a long time. Even before the protests started, demonstrations in Hong Kong were not a rare thing. Politically, something has been bubbling beneath the surface for quite some time now. The extradition bill was just the straw that broke the camel’s back.

The only reason why the situation escalated is the ham-fisted, inept way the government of Hong Kong reacted. They definitely underestimated the situation. Carrie Lam should have scrapped the proposed bill much earlier than she did. The fact that she didn’t is the only reason we are seeing this unprecedented level of confrontation in Hong Kong.

I recently read an article which posited that the rioting and the level of violence we are seeing now might actually backfire and prove to be detrimental to the pro-democracy movement itself because it would lead to stronger repression by Beijing. I think there’s some truth in that.

And it has already begun: in a democratic system, you hope that the police are on your side. Sure, they are employed by the state, but they are also supposed to protect the rights of citizens against the state encroaching on these rights. Which is why the ideological position of the police is so important. And the influence of Beijing within the Hong Kong police force has been growing stronger since the protests began. There are reports of mainland police officers being brought into Hong Kong and of Mandarin being spoken within the Hong Kong police force more frequently than before.

The tactics of the Hong Kong police against the people of the city they serve have proven to be been much more heavy-handed in the past months than they usually are. You get the feeling that there are two parties locked in an irreconcilable feud. But in the end, what are you going to do? Beijing has the upper hand.

Exactly: what are you going to do as a protester? I don’t wish to condone violence, but hypothetically speaking: lets say I get why parts of the movement are rioting because they are so desperate that they see no other way of venting said desperation. But what could be an alternative? How do we get back to an Umbrella Revolution and away from this kind of urban warfare between protesters and their MacGuyver-like improvised utensils of protest and a heavily armed and manned police force? Or is there no way back towards a peaceful solution?

The only way is through dialogue. Like I mentioned earlier: the only thing that has been fanning the flames of violence is the intransigent stance of the Hong Kong government. You always see Carrie Lam or some police spokesperson stepping in front of the TV cameras and rattling off the same words over and over again: “The protesters should respect the law. The protesters should stop throwing stones and go home. Anyone who doesn’t follow suit will be punished severely.” Why shouldn’t you go “mad” at some point if there is not a single iota of readiness to engage in dialogue by the Hong Kong government?

But like I said: Beijing has the upper hand. It has much more staying power than the protesters do. Which is why Beijing isn’t thinking “Hey, let’s roll into Hong Kong in our tanks and tiananmen the place.” It’s more like “Let’s wait it out, the protesters are going to hit a brick wall anyway.”

I believe that the pro-democracy movement will be worn down bit by bit by Beijing until the former is dead. Beijing doesn’t have any problem with going on like this for five or ten years. I even believe that it would sacrifice Hong Kong if push came to shove. Because they are thinking: “We have the strength to do so. Hong Kong needs us more than we need Hong Kong.”

I can understand fully well why the people of Hong Kong are pissed. Interestingly enough, it is predominantly young people and students that are actively and passionately involved in facilitating change in Hong Kong. And who view the question of democracy as the most pressing one in their lives and lifetime.

Of course this level of engagement and direct action is made possible because unlike mainland China, Hong Kong is a much more Western-oriented and open society. English is spoken widely and the people consume international media.

Aaron, to round off this interview I would like to come back to the situation in Xinjiang and the mass internment of Muslim Uyghurs and Kazakhs by China: Why isn’t there any networking going on between the former and the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong? I mean, both are violently being oppressed by China. And there are plenty of other groups and minorities within China that suffer from Beijing’s repression and therefore also might have an axe to grind with the central government. Why don’t they all come together? Why is there no overarching, interconnected solidarity movement for their related causes and grievances?

In China there is no public sphere for networking. In order to do so you would have to be allowed to form interest groups and such. China is pretty near to a dictatorship, if you will. Any kind of networking, especially if it is anti-state and anti-government in nature, is severely punished by Beijing.

When a year ago Marxist students were discussing Marxism and showing solidarity with oppressed workers, they were thrown into jail. China is a vast police and surveillance state, the internet is controlled by the state. And for decades the state has been ensuring that not a single network can develop which would have the power to topple the government.

But surely in an open society like Hong Kong this kind of solidarity movement would be much easier to organize? I mean, a simple placard saying “Hongkongers and Uyghurs share the same fate” could be a start, right? I get that its not feasible the other way around. But solidarity originating in Hong Kong and directed at Xinjiang, that would be possible, wouldn’t it?

I’m not sure whether at some point something like you just described hasn’t already happened. Let’s not forget that what is happening in Xinjiang is exactly the reason why the people in Hong Kong are so scared. If you talk to students there, they say things like “Look at what that country is doing to its own people.”

I mean, why is it that the people of Hong Kong are so worried about their democratic freedoms? Because they are witnessing what is happening in Xinjiang, for example. So the knowledge of and empathy for what is happening over there is definitely present among the people of Hong Kong.

But do I see some kind of network evolving between the two, especially one that has the capacity to take on China? No. The Chinese state is just too strong.

So how will it go on for Hong Kong? 2047 is the year the handover treaty between China and Britain, Hong Kong’s former ruler, expires, and with it “One Country, Two Systems”, at least legally. You mentioned earlier that China has no problems just waiting it out until then. What happens on that imminent due date?

No one can say for sure. I’m not that old, but it is kind of “funny” when I talk to older sinologists and China experts who will tell you things like “Back in 1997, 50 years seemed so far off. And now it’s halftime and this date is getting closer by the day.” To them it seems disconcerting that something which not too long ago seemed so abstract is becoming more and more definite.

What happens in 2047 will depend on a lot of things. Beijing is working on a vision for China. It wants 2049 to be the year by which Taiwan becomes a part of China again. It wants Hong Kong to be an integral part of China again. It wants China to be the economic power in the world, its influence not only limited to all parts of its own country, but it also wants a say in how the broader world works. And it wants to break U.S. hegemony, ushering in a global age in which China is one of its leading voices.

One key question is always going to be: how well is China’s economy faring? Will the government succeed in continuing to develop the country? Will it succeed in continuing to create jobs and to fight poverty? It will all depend on that. If it doesn’t succeed, Beijing will have 1,3 billion people against it. But it looks like everything is working in Beijing’s favor, at least for the moment.

You don’t exactly get the feeling that the Chinese are going to wake up the next morning and topple their government. Quite the contrary: thanks to the rapidly growing economy and the corresponding consumerism, to me they seem rather sleepy and unwilling to think about certain questions and issues.

Aaron, I thank you for this interview.

The interview was translated from German by myself.

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