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This protester calls himself “Bruce”. We’ve hidden his face and obscured his voice to protect his identity. He’s one of the millions of Hong Kongers taking to the streets.
What started as a protest against an extradition bill has become the most serious challenge to the Communist Party’s authority since the Tiananmen Square protest three decades ago. As the demonstrations enter a third month neither the government nor the protesters is willing to back down.
But it’s not enough to deter the demonstrators. So what happens now?
Hong Kong is one of the most important financial centres in the world. And it has a unique status. It’s a city in China but it’s not entirely Chinese. It has its own currency, its own passport… its own legal system. There’s even a boundary between Hong Kong and the rest of China and you need a permit to cross it. This is all down to its history.
In 1842 Hong Kong was ceded by the Chinese to the British after the first Opium War. But in 1997 Britain gave it back to China. With one important condition – for 50 years Hong Kong was to be governed under what is known as “one country, two systems”. The chief executive who runs Hong Kong would be appointed by a pro-Chinese committee. But the city was guaranteed a high degree of autonomy with its own government, legal system and economic independence until 2047. Over the past decade those rights have been eroded.
Fuller democracy, promised as part of the handover agreement has yet to be granted by China.
China’s grip has got ever tighter. In 2012 the government tried to install a patriotic pro-Chinese education system. Then five Hong Kong booksellers who sold material banned in mainland China disappeared. In 2016 pro-democracy opposition leaders were thrown out of Hong Kong’s parliament for insulting China when swearing their oaths. And then in February this year the government introduced a bill which would have allowed extradition to the mainland.
All this is fuelling the protesters’ anger.
As the protests get larger and more violent the chance of China intervening increases. Beijing has made thinly veiled threats to send in its military forces – the People’s Liberation Army.
In 1989 a student demonstration in Beijing ended in massacre. Hundreds, maybe thousands, were shot dead. For the Chinese government the Hong Kong demonstrators are defying the authority of a Communist leadership that cannot tolerate defiance. Another fear is some protesters’ demand for full independence. But military intervention would be a very risky strategy for Beijing
In 1993 Hong Kong’s GDP accounted for more than a quarter of mainland China’s. Today China’s remarkable rise means that Hong Kong’s economic output makes up less than 3% of the mainland’s. But Hong Kong remains important for China. Multinationals use it as a launch pad to the mainland and it gives Chinese companies access to the rest of the world.
So how the turmoil is resolved matters to more than just the people of Hong Kong.
This all comes at a time when China and America are waging a trade and technology war. Bloodshed on Hong Kong’s streets would make relations deteriorate even further. Beijing is now blaming outsiders for the trouble.
For China the situation has become much more than a dispute over a law. It’s become an existential threat. Bruce and the other protesters are holding their breath.
China’s Communist rulers must choose between two mortal dangers – the collapse of economic stability and prosperity, or the acceptance that protests can limit the Party’s absolute power.