Why outsiders have no right to comment on China’s governance of Hong Kong
Imagine if, 150 years or so ago, a modern Chinese fleet had overwhelmed an underpowered British navy off the south coast of England and demanded a long lease on the Isle of Wight as the victor’s spoils. That, and that Britain capitulate to China’s demand to open its markets to a noxious drug, whose use it denounced at home.
We would, today, regard that as an outrageous action.
If, towards the end of the lease, China demanded that it had the right to negotiate what happened on the Isle afterwards, we would also surely regard that as highly presumptuous. The land, on the other side of the world, was taken with menaces. After its rightful return, the former occupier should have a say in how it’s run?
To compound the cheek, imagine that towards the end – the very end - of its occupation China began steps to institute one party state Communism and insisted that the Isle of Wight should continue on that trajectory under a system of “one country, two systems” after reuniting with the mainland. When it later looked as though Britain was leaning towards introducing multi-party democracy on the Isle, influential Chinese officials and intellectuals – including the last governor – howled with rage that Britain was not sticking to what had been agreed.
If this seems somewhat absurd, consider that it is more or less what has happened to Hong Kong. Seized by Britain after the First Opium War. Given not a taste of democracy during colonial times, but then rushed into believing that that was its future in the past few years before it was reunited with China. And now a host of British officials – such as Lord Patten, the last governor – and institutions such as the Economist magazine and the Financial Times, are lamenting that the “two systems” look as though they might be converging closer to the “one” of the mother country, with much disapproval of president Xi Jinping’s warning about “red lines”.
The hypocrises are so many, one hardly knows where to begin. From forcing the opium trade upon China in the 19th century to deciding only at the last minute that Hong Kong deserved the benefits of democracy, to the absurd assertion that Britain had any moral right to have a say in the future of an island it snatched from its rightful and historical owner, western criticism of Beijing for making clear that it will decide what happens within its borders reeks of assumptions of superiority, and probably only encourages statements such as this from China's foreign ministry:
“The Sino-British joint declaration, as a historical document, no longer has any practical significance, and it is not at all binding for the central government’s management over Hong Kong.”
Some warn that this abrupt discarding of an international treaty means China's word can no longer be relied on. Others cry concern for the pro-democracy movement. On both counts, a large dose of realism needs to be ingested.
Firstly, Hong Kong is simply nowhere near as important to China as it used to be. In 1997, Hong Kong constituted 18.4 per cent of Chinese GDP. By 2015 that figure had dropped to 2.8 per cent, with the dynamic hubs of Shenzhen and Guangzhou rapidly catching up. The stark fact is that Hong Kongers’ leverage to maintain their special status has diminished dramatically.
Secondly, democratic reforms were offered - but were rejected. Universal suffrage was on the table for the election of Hong Kong's chief executive, from a Beijing-approved list of candidates. This would certainly have given the voters choice; but it was not unfettered enough for legislators, who in 2015 voted down a democratic advance in favour of the completely free elections they are frankly unlikely ever to get. For why should a Chinese leadership that has no intention of ever implementing western-style liberal democracy on the mainland sow a dragon’s tooth on its own soil by setting one up in Hong Kong?
Something certainly needs to be done to address the aspirations of young people in the city. According to a recent survey, only 3 per cent of 18- to 29-year-olds describe their ethnic identity as “Chinese” in a broad sense, compared to 41.2 per cent in 2008. New chief executive Carrie Lam’s desire that all children in Hong Kong will learn from an early age to say “I am Chinese” sounds a sensible first step, but clearly a chasm has to be bridged.
The mistake is to think that Britain or the West have any right to contribute to that, or, indeed, to say anything at all about Hong Kong’s future. For the truth is that China has every right to decide for itself how to govern a part of its own land it should never have lost in the first place. It is an internal matter for “one country”, no matter how much outsiders may be attached to Hong Kong’s “second system”.
To dispute that would be to suggest that Spain has the right to guide the Philippines and large parts of the Americas, France to do the same in Africa and Indochina, and Britain across the globe. Such neo-colonialism would be as absurd as it would be unpopular, and should be called out for what it is – and that includes the case of Hong Kong.
Sholto Byrnes is a senior fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies, Malaysia