What’s Up Wednesday 8/14/19

Keeping an Eye on Hong Kong

On July 24, we wrote about the passing of Li Peng, better known as the “Butcher of Beijing” for his role in the 1989 mass slaying of protestors (you could easily be blunt and call it the mass murder of protestors) in Tiananmen Square.  The conclusion of the article was that the Tiananmen Square tragedy was unlikely to occur today, that despite our misgivings about China here in the U.S., and regardless of the perpetual uncertainty of the trade war in which we’re embroiled, that these and other considerations aside, China has made gains (I’ll admit it – we consider these gains to be substantial) in human rights in the 30 years since Tiananmen happened.

All of us together may have an opportunity to discover if Tiananmen is truly in the past, and to gauge how far (if at all) China has advanced in this regard.  The events unfolding in Hong Kong now may give us some insight into these things.  Hong Kong could verify that the July 24 article we did was justified in its doubt that an episode like Tiananmen Square could transpire in the year 2019 (and it’s fair to say that conditions today in Hong Kong have reached a point of volatility similar to those seen in 1989 in Tiananmen Square).  We’ll watch how China chooses to address these chronic protests, whether in thirty years some positive change has indeed occurred (or not) in the world’s most populous country.

So far the actions taken against protestors in Hong Kong are fairly benign by the dubious historical standards China has set.  Nevertheless the atmosphere remains necessarily tense, an intense situation that began with the introduction of an extradition bill (not an event that you’d normally expect to procreate such a level of discontent) – this bill would have permitted China to extradite, without oversight by any part of the Hong Kong legislature, any individual who was accused of a crime with a prison term meeting or exceeding 7 years.  Hong Kongers (who don’t consider themselves Chinese – and don’t you dare assert different – this despite the fact that since 1997, China has owned Hong Kong (when the turnover of Hong Kong (from UK to Chinese control) happened, there were assurances from Beijing that the “one country, two distinct systems” arrangement between China and Hong Kong would endure for the long term.  Perhaps rightly, there were plenty of skeptics.  Slowly (and methodically) China has whittled away the sovereignty of Hong Kong’s political system and unique culture.  To say nothing of its economic identity.

In fact Hong Kong’s leader is not selected democratically by Hong Kongers.  The leader’s selection is made by an election committee (of 1200 members) that is answerable first to the government in Beijing.  This implies certainly that decisions made at the loftiest perches of the Hong Kong government are at very least being approved by China.  Further, it makes it (highly) probable that the ultimate decision on how to deal with the protestors (who are not going away it seems) will emanate from Beijing (you can bet that Beijing, as much as the rest of the world, remembers and is thinking heavily about Tiananmen Square as Hong Kong unfolds; the current economic tussle between it and the United States may also dampen the severity of Beijing’s response to the Hong Kong protests; that would be a positive ramification of the much-maligned trade war).

The extradition law that fired up this movement, its catalyst (after the uproar, the law is currently on hold), may have symbolized in the minds of proud Hong Kongers their eroding way of life, perhaps to a lesser extent the drip-drip-drip deterioration of their values, in the wake of the 1997 handover that saw Hong Kong’s fate pass from England to China.  There is also the worry (think we over here distrust China?  You ain’t seen nothin’) that China devised the law to help it quash political opposition, that should the law be implemented, outspoken critics of the Chinese government would find themselves extradited to the mainland for trial (and if you happen to be tried in a Chinese court of law, you face almost certain conviction – remember those three basketball players from UCLA who were collared in China for shoplifting after some of the least-clever criminal activity you’ll probably ever see recorded?  If Trump truly assisted in their release – or whoever else it was or may have been who assisted in their release – those bumbling basketballers owe him, her, or them a lot more than they can ever repay.  They (the players involved) probably have no clue to this day just how bleak their collective future could have been if they’d entered the Chinese court system – the sentence, even for a feeble offense like shoplifting, can be real sobering.  The lack of fairness in the Chinese criminal justice system proves (along with other minor annoyances such as ubiquitous industrial spying and the repeated violation of intellectual property rights) that the world’s most populous nation still has some growing to do.  Maybe the reasonably indifferent release of those UCLA basketballers demonstrates that they have already made some strides.

Meantime this revolt in the streets of Hong Kong persists.  Protests against the extradition law have transformed into cries for governmental reforms.  It’s become a movement of frustration, perhaps something of a last-ditch effort to salvage what Hong Kongers believe religiously is their vanishing culture, their disappearing voice, as Beijing’s influence multiplies, in the decisions that affect their lives, their futures, their freedoms.  Hong Kongers love Hong Kong – they may be the Tesla owners of the geopolitical arena – when was the last time you listened to a Tesla owner say something against that company or its products; the blind support of Tesla has become personal.  Facing the death of a vibrant (and unique to Hong Kong) culture seems to have made these protests personal for many of those involved; even those Hong Kongers on the sidelines have a definite rooting interest in what’s happening below in the streets – why the movement, in size, has grown enough to resemble the Tiananmen Square protests.

To date, protestors have occupied the streets, disrupting daily business and commerce.  Their massive presence has closed down government buildings.  Most recently protestors have brought the busy Hong Kong International Airport (flights have resumed after two days of cancellations) to a standstill.

How have the police responded?  So far with tear gas (never fun), and rubber bullets (that probably hurt like hell when they strike you) – but so far at least no mass murder.  Clashes have occurred in the last few days at the Hong Kong International Airport between police in riot gear and protestors – and again, as far as we know (and there are folks on the ground there who should theoretically be able to see it), no mass murder; in fact (and this is terrific news), very few casualties (and apparently no casualties linked to police).

Keep this in mind too, as you read about these protests for government reforms (the overriding demand that protestors in Hong Kong are now making).  The protests, the way that they are resolved (or not), may give us insight into the feasibility, the likelihood of a permanent truce between us and China (or even better, an agreement that gives us at least some of what the president is seeking) in this ongoing trade war.

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