Last week massive demonstrations kicked off in Hong Kong in protest over China’s latest attempts to exercise more control over the semi-autonomous city state.
Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997 after being a colony of the Britain since the 19th century. Since then it – and the island of Macau, have enjoyed a semi-autonomous status that has left its booming economy largely intact, while allowing Beijing the right to vet its chosen leaders.
This last point is what triggered the protests. China’s Communist Party imposed tight rules on the nomination of candidates in the 2017 fanning fears that a truly democratic election will not happen then.
What started off as a student boycott of classes in protest, in August has ballooned into hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers taking to the street in solidarity.
This is Beijing’s greatest political challenge since the Tianamen square protests 25 years ago. It shouldn’t come as a surprise for Hong Kong watchers.
The island state has developed a thriving free market economy, while mainland China has developed a mixed economy. Part of the handover from the UK in 1997 was the understanding that Hong Kong would retain its essential nature as a bastion of capitalism and parliamentary democracy in the region. Beijing would only appoint a chief executive.
With Hong Kong’s multi-billion dollar economy and a financial hub in Asia it would serve little good to rock the boat. But it was only a matter of time until Beijing would seek to exercise more control over Hong Kong, if only that it does not fan its own pro-democracy lobby.
The Communist Party has entrenched its dominance over mainland China over the last 65 years, through what they call scientific development where partisan politics does not have a place in the running of the country.
Under this system they have allowed liberalisation of the economy and engaged in massive infrastructure and social engineering projects that have seen the most populous nation rise to the second largest economy in the world. It is estimated that China’s economy will overtake that of the US by 2027.
But China’s GDP per capita numbers at about $7,000 rank it about 82nd in the world in the league of the league of less accomplished middle income economies.
Hong Kong’s per capita GDP stands at $40,000 and therein lies the crux of the matter.
The limitations of the per capita GDP criteria notwithstanding, this one statistic suggests that the average Hong Konger has a higher standard of living than the average Chinese on the mainland.
Democracy comes with development. The more affluent people are the more they will want to determine their own destiny and not abrogate their responsibility to a higher authority. The basis of democratic practice.
"Looking from the outside one would understand Beijing’s reluctance to cede any ground to the protestors, as to do so would embolden the pro-democracy movement simmering under the surface on the mainland...
The current standoff serves as a very useful test case for democracy.
Will the Hong Kong middle class continue to agitate for greater autonomy and therefore the right to ever increasing political space or out of pragmatism kowtow to Beijing? In case of the former it will validate the theory that once man has got his basic needs he cannot be held back from agitating for a freer society. In case of the latter the theorists may have to rethink their models.
Looking from the outside one would understand Beijing’s reluctance to cede any ground to the protestors as to do so would embolden the pro-democracy movement simmering under the surface on the mainland.
There are high stakes at play and while this is a very different world from 1989, one should not be surprised if China risks playing into the hands of its detractors and move swiftly to crackdown on the Hong Kong protestors.
In an ideal world China and Hong Kong should be able to coexist well into the future, but reality dictates different.
Power seeks to concentrate more and more power to itself. On the other hand the liberals will always seek to spread their brand of politics, if only as a survival mechanism; the freer everyone is the more likely their way of life will be protected, able to fend off attacks from more authoritarian systems.
And that’s why Taiwan too must be watching these developments with growing unease.
The state started as the refuge of the Nationalist Party, which was deposed by the Communist Party in 1949. While not universally recognised diplomatically Taiwan has managed to maintain its sovereignty thanks largely to the US, which does not encourage Chinas territorial ambitions over the island state.
With China having its way more and more in Hong Kong what would stop them turning to Taiwan a few decades or even generations down the line?