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Saturday 22 June 2019

hong kong

The big march

How long can the people defy Beijing?

By Steve Vines

Two million people are a challenge for any public transport system. When quarter of the population of Hong Kong took to the streets to demonstrate against Beijing last weekend the trains and stations of the Mass Transit Railway were rammed.

At the height of the protests one MTR driver used his train’s communications system to tell his passengers how sorry he was not to be able to join them. Stay safe, he said, and a roar of approval echoed down the tunnel.

It’s one thing to have the audacity to take on the world’s largest and arguably most terrifying dictatorship. It’s something else to succeed in forcing it to back down. Yet this is precisely what has happened in Hong Kong.

The sheer scale of the protests has stopped in its tracks a move by the Beijing-backed Hong Kong government to allow the rendition of people from Hong Kong to the Chinese Mainland. But the demonstrators also have the wider objective of preserving the autonomy that was promised to Hong Kong when it reverted to Chinese rule in 1997.

One country, two systems. That was the promise. A generation later, and 30 years after the Tiananmen Square massacre, mere words look puny in the face of a Chinese superpower bent on full control of Hong Kong by 2050 – or they did until this week.

When it feels as if the entire community has been involved in protest it is hard to paint an all-encompassing picture, but this much is clear: this week the people lost their fear of the dictatorship that pulls the strings of Hong Kong’s hapless government.

They have taken on the world’s largest dictatorship and forced it to back down

Each side has its figureheads. Carrie Lam is the tone-deaf patsy for Beijing and Joshua Wong the fearless, nerdy champion of democracy. But at times like these the snapshots are what linger in the mind. The train driver’s message of encouragement to his passengers was one. Later, in an upmarket shopping mall, a former justice secretary known for her close ties to Beijing suddenly found herself confronted by passers-by denouncing her for betraying Hong Kong. No wonder leading members of the loyalist camp are now declaring it is no longer safe for them to appear on the streets.

Even in the mainstream media, now largely controlled by Beijing-backed forces, journalists are openly defying their owners. The staff at the Ming Pao newspaper went so far as to publicly denounce the way they had been told to cover the news.

When Lam said that as a mother she could not back down because it would be like a parent giving in to misbehaving children, out of nowhere a group of mothers mobilised a demonstration joined by thousands.

When the government blinked on the extradition bill, a string of other retreats followed. A bill to introduce heavy penalties for insulting the national anthem was shelved. A widely unpopular plan to reclaim swathes of land for housing that would have lined the pockets of the government’s business supporters was put on the back burner.

Rallies against the hated extradition law have led to a string of further retreats by the government

Most importantly for the immediate prospects of the protest movement, the police, who had used heavy-grade tear gas, batons and rubber bullets to subdue a protest on 12 June, were forced to concede that no riot had taken place. Later, when the two million-strong rally took over the city centre’s main thoroughfares, law enforcement simply stepped back and let the crowd flow.

It is clear that the Hong Kong government had not the slightest idea of what was going on in the hearts and minds of its citizens. Having seen off the Umbrella democracy protests five years ago, the administration launched a slow but steady campaign of revenge that resulted in long jail sentences for protest leaders. Democratic lawmakers were expelled from the legislature, anti-government candidates were banned from standing for election, and the rules of the legislature were changed to limit debate and reduce scrutiny.

Other unwelcome firsts included the banning of a separatist political party, the expulsion of a prominent Financial Times correspondent and a series of measures to curb freedom of expression.

Seen from the perspective of the grey men who rule China, Hong Kong had been brought back under control. They wanted to keep it that way, and ordered their Hong Kong surrogates to keep turning the screws until the lessons of attempting defiance had been thoroughly absorbed.

Lam is a colourless career bureaucrat and Beijing’s handpicked head of government. Her experience of unquestioningly following orders greatly impressed her bosses, but she also displays that distinctive superiority complex common to high-level bureaucrats the world over who believe that they always know better than the people whose destinies they control.

Carrie Lam displays the distinctive superiority complex common to high-level bureaucrats the world over

Her difficulty is that besides being a bureaucrat she is an elected leader, even though her electorate consists of a mere 1,200 people, most of them handpicked by Beijing. Unlike the hapless Theresa May, who managed to make a shambles out of the admittedly tough job of delivering Brexit, Lam has turned her shambles into something worse. Both leaders have confronted difficult problems by repeatedly doing what does not work, hoping it will somehow end up working.

Like May, Lam has never been truly in control. She is firmly under the thumb of controllers both in Beijing and in the innocuously named Liaison Office that sits on Hong Kong’s harbour front. They support her, in Lenin’s formulation, like a rope supporting the hanging man. When she follows instructions, they lavish her with praise. When anything goes wrong, they are quick to signal that she was somehow acting on her own responsibility. Meanwhile they bypass her by issuing flurries of orders to her underlings and the echo chamber of Beijing loyalists who occupy influential positions in the Hong Kong government.

While leadership at the top flounders, the leadership of the mass protests is ever-morphing. As one set of leaders is carted off to jail, others, often very young, take their place. Joshua Wong is one of the most remarkable of these. Now 22, he is the skinny bespectacled student who at the age of 15 led a devastatingly effective rebellion by fellow school students against the introduction of a national education curriculum.

Lam, then the government’s number two ranking official, was dispatched to lead a team for a televised debate with Wong and other school students. She found that despite her fluency in reading out prepared statements she was simply no match for her opponents.

Wong is not obviously charismatic but he is a fast learner and has developed an ability to articulate the feelings of Hongkongers in Cantonese, and more recently, in English.

Joshua Wong: “Apologise is useless. Stand down is the only way out.”

“It’s time for Carrie Lam to step down and to face [up to] how two million people already joined the fight,” Wong said on his release from a short stint in jail this week. Asked if he accepted an abject apology from Lam for the extradition law, which is now suspended, he said: “Apologise is useless. Step down is the only way out.”

Lam has not stepped down. Nor has she ever sat down with Wong since that debate, but she will have taken comfort during the big demonstrations knowing that he was in jail.

His absence didn’t thwart the pro-democracy movement, whose other leaders have shown a confidence and organising ability that shocked Beijing – to the extent that its propaganda machine is now busy spreading stories of how the protests have been organised and sustained by dark foreign forces.

The people have won for now but a government backlash could follow

Yet the discipline and determination of ordinary people focused on preserving what remains of the liberty that sets Hong Kong apart from the rest of China is such that this kind of propaganda is greeted – in Hong Kong at least – with derision.

At least for now the people have won and the dictatorship is licking its wounds. Yet nobody underestimates how dangerous a wounded authoritarian system can be. It is unlikely to take defeat lying down and may yet seek terrifying revenge. If only, as Bertolt Brecht mocked the East German dictatorship, the party could simply dissolve the people and replace them with others.

Further reading

– For updates and analysis on the protests try the Hong Kong Free Press, set up expressly to offer an independent alternative to the South China Morning Post (now owned by Alibaba and skewing heavily pro-Beijing)

– How did a row over an extradition bill escalate into mass protests? Here’s how. Thank you, NYT.

City of Protest: A Recent History of Dissent in Hong Kong, by Antony Dapiran, is a Penguin Special published in 2017 and therefore predating this year’s protests. But it’s authoritative on the Umbrella Movement that made Joshua Wong a household name

Hong Kong: China’s New Colony (Orion), by Stephen Vines, is useful for general background, especially on the 1997 handover