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The Hong Kong protests

Opinion

September 29, 2020

Things in Hong Kong are not as they seem. In an Alice in Wonderland scenario right wing political leaders like Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, who invariably defend their states against violent attack, now applaud demonstrators in Hong Kong as they confront local police with weapons and firebombs.

What can explain such glaring contradictions? How has Hong Kong become such a cause celebrate for the far right, fake news brigade?

And why have so many liberals and left-wing commentators on Hong Kong ended up joining common cause with the most reactionary forces on the planet? In other words, what is really going on in Hong Kong?

Hong Kong has been continuously in the news for the last couple of years. On our television screens we have seen massive pro-democracy marches involving millions of citizens protesting against perceived threats to their democratic rights. They are demanding the extension of the vote to cover all positions in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.

Now, in order to break the standoff, China has recently introduced a Security Law for Hong Kong which applies the regulations against treason and sedition, subversion and sabotage. And authorities in Hong Kong began arresting some of the leaders of the protest movement. In response to this, the United States, UK and other countries have started to impose sanctions on China.

As the former colonial power in Hong Kong, Britain is playing a particularly hypocritical role in the current dispute over the Territory.

For example, Britain is demanding the extension of elections in Hong Kong yet it ran the area for 150 years without any elections! In the first place, Britain only gained control of Hong Kong and its surrounding territory through naked conquest in the two Opium Wars 1841-1860. These wars were so-called because of the resistance of the Chinese to the sale by the British of opium from India as unwanted payment for Chinese silk, porcelain and tea. But the British used their naval technological might to defeat Chinese opposition. The British then demanded the key deep-water port of Hong Kong and its surrounding territory as colonial possessions.

During its colonial rule, far from standing up for Hong Kong’s local population as Britain is pretending to do now, the British introduced anti-Chinese racial zoning with the best areas in the extremely limited land area reserved solely for Europeans (and their servants).

Under British rule, Chinese people in Hong Kong faced many other discriminatory regulations including higher taxes. Plus a requirement to carry lights and written passes at night which for many poor Chinese meant that a curfew operated for them every night.

At the end of the Second World War there was a worldwide move towards decolonisation. But Britain decided to keep Hong Kong under its control for military and strategic reasons.

In compensation, a promise of more democracy was made in the Young Plan. But, because of the success of the Chinese Communist revolution on the mainland in 1949, and the threat the British felt it posed to their dominance in the region, even these modest proposals for democratic reform were withdrawn in 1952.

Following the Chinese revolution, many people fled to Hong Kong from the mainland. Some people left because they had been on the losing right-wing nationalist side. Some because they feared to lose their wealth in the major changes that followed the revolution.

Another wave of refugees came during the late 1950s escaping the poverty and famine of the disastrous Great Leap Forward. More people again left the mainland and moved to Hong Kong during the massive disruption of the Cultural Revolution.

Unsurprisingly, many of these refugees from the Chinese mainland were anti-communist and have long influenced the political makeup of Hong Kong (HK), rather like the older Cuban exile community in Florida. Only in the last few decades have more ‘normal’ mainlanders come for work or settlement in HK.

In 1997, the official lease for Hong Kong between the UK and China came to an end. The British wanted to extend the lease but China demanded the return of its territory. Britain had no practical choice but to comply.

However, there was a major contradiction posed by the Handover. Hong Kong was run on private capitalist lines dominated by a few wealthy families, while the rest of China operated as a state-managed, planned economy. But it so happened that the Chinese needed a gateway to the world capitalist market for its now booming economy. And so it came forward with the idea of a 50 year ‘One Country, Two Systems’ transitional system which would allow capitalism to continue for a long period in HK, along with various democratic rights of free speech, assembly and private media. Many observers have since assumed that the ‘two systems’ referred to here are only the different political setups in mainland China and HK. But it actually referred to the two different economic and political systems.

In the run up to the Handover, Governor Chris Patten, acting on behalf of Britain’s Thatcher government, cynically introduced a number of democratic changes in order to tie up Beijing in the Accession process and to try to protect capitalism in HK after the handover. This was part of a wider preparation for the transfer which included large scale privatisation of public utilities and the sale of public land to the rich families that dominated Hong Kong.

Thus the 1997 Hong Kong Handover to China Agreement left many things unresolved including the lack of a National Security Law which has only now been introduced.

To be continued

Khalid Bhatti is a freelance journalist.

Pat Byrne is a British journalist.