It is hard to read the news reports and watch the TV footage of Hong Kong’s democratic protest against China’s heavy hand without wondering, “Are we all Hongkongers now?” All hail these brave men and women—young and old, rich and poor, influential and ordinary—for insisting on their right to representative government.
So it is hard to conclude this after tens of thousands of resolutely nonviolent demonstrators were attacked late last week by knife-wielding thugs and triad gangs plainly doing Beijing’s dirty work: Good enough this movement goes down swinging, but go down it will, and probably in very short order.
It is a tragedy but not a Grade 1 tragedy. Syria is Grade 1; Egypt, Gaza, and Eastern Ukraine are Grade 1. In my view, what we will now witness is the Singaporization of Hong Kong. Singapore is a prosperous nation lying somewhere between a democracy in name only and a soft police state. And what’s that as tragedies go? Grade 3 or 4 maybe?
Having dwelt in both places, I blame no Hongkonger for resisting as the future presents itself. To become another Singapore is an awful fate if you think democracy matters, but it isn’t fatal. In the best outcome, Beijing will have learned a lesson and Hong Kong people can live to fight another day, just as the more conscientious Singaporeans do, if silently.
Two paradoxes have driven this crisis since the mainland prompted it over the summer, when it declared that Hong Kong people could elect their own leader in 2017, as long promised, but Beijing must approve the slate of candidates.
First, Beijing’s deal is an out-and-out swindle, but it is lawful. Second, the protest movement is entirely justified in its demands, but it stands on weak legs and speaks too much from the heart, not enough from the head.
The Sino-British pact signed in 1984, under which Hong Kong returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997 after a century and a half as a colony, committed Beijing to universal suffrage precisely to prevent the Chinese Communist Party from denying representative government to what is now designated a Special Administrative Region, the “SAR.”
But the agreement between London and Beijing was a slippery business from the first. As a correspondent in Hong Kong at the time, I viewed it as Britain’s face-saver, a way to turn 7 million over to a Communist government and still feel O.K. looking in the mirror.
Then as now, it is difficult to argue the treaty trumps sovereignty, and Hong Kong became sovereign real estate when Prince Charles dropped the Union Jack for the last time. Equally, China’s strategy—have your elections, here’s the slate—transforms the question into one of legal interpretation, a letter-of-the-law issue. They are won or lost in courts, not streets. (And which courts is the next queasy-making question.)
As to the protesters, one is full of admiration but not brimming over. They are right and act on their convictions. What’s not to like, as we say. But they felt it without thinking it through.
Many surprising people in East Asia have learned from the Leninists over the decades. Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang did, as did the People’s Action Party in Singapore, whose inner circle is known as “cadres,” which operates without identifying themselves as such. Why didn’t Benny Tai and his Occupy Central with Love and Peace take the lessons?
Love and peace are no match for steel-hard organizational discipline, a strategic goal identified and propagated with the clarity of spring water, and tactical nous second to nobody’s. The Chinese Communists the Hong Kong movement went up against are Leninists, after all—or lapsed Leninists, in any case.
All means are available to achieve the identified end in the Leninist method. And Beijing just proved the point. Once the mainland’s agents in Hong Kong marshaled the triads—and the use of criminal gangs in politics is well established in Chinese culture (and in Japan)—it was the beginning of the end.
People’s Daily, China’s official organ, has narrated this crisis like the Greek chorus in a tragedy. Just before the street attacks, an editorial warned that demonstrators would “end up paying for their actions.” Afterward, it warned that to persist “could lead to deaths and injuries and other grave consequences” if the democrats persist much longer.
Translation: If you want another Tiananmen Square, we’ll provide one.
Beijing has been mindful of something else the democratic movement ignored. Across East Asia since 1945, the orthodox social contract has been the provision of prosperity and services in exchange for acquiescence as an undemocratic elite controls all politics. You get a refrigerator, a TV, even a small car, but you get no voice. “Shut up and change the channel” was my summary of the deal when I covered the region.
This is the deal whereby the Chinese now live, in greater or lesser contentment. South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan have fought past it. And this, in effect, was the Occupy movement’s aspiration. But the most significant detail in the news coverage last week was the emergence of discontented Hong Kong people who began jeering the demonstrators because they couldn’t get to work. Beijing knew they’d come out eventually. Occupy misjudged.
It is also the deal that Singaporeans have lived under since Lee Kuan Yew took the island independent in 1965. And it will be Hong Kong’s deal now. In effect, Beijing, like the famous LKY, is making an offer the populace can’t refuse.
To call this Singaporization makes an essential point. As the island nation makes clear, any notion that trade, investment, or financial services will be negatively affected as Beijing comes down on Hong Kong’s democrats can be dismissed. Law in Singapore is two-tiered. Commercial, securities, and investment law are clear as a bell, as the nation’s successful financial center attests. Domestic law, in the tradition of all Confucian bureaucracies, is where the rules are kept intentionally vague so as to preserve administrative prerogative.
I wish I were wrong as to Hong Kong’s future. In the best outcome, I’ll prove to be. On Saturday, the democrats marshaled one of their largest crowds to date in response to the earlier violence introduced by Beijing’s goons. So we’ll have to see and hope for the best.
In the meantime, I remind my Hong Kong friends of Admiral Farragut’s famous imperative as he led his fleet into Mobile Bay in 1864: “Damn the torpedoes!” he ordered. He then had himself lashed to his mast as a mark of resolve. Farragut prevailed, but if he hadn’t he could’ve lived ever after knowing he’d done his best.
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