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China is looking for a quick economic fix in Hong Kong. It’s missing the point | Antony Dapiran | Opinion


After another weekend of violent clashes between protesters and police, Hong Kong held its collective breath on Monday afternoon as the Chinese state council’s Hong Kong and Macau affairs office – the cabinet-level office with responsibility for Hong Kong policy – held a press conference to give its views on the “Hong Kong problem”.

With official state media over the past week ramping up reports of “extremist elements” and foreign “black hands”, and senior establishment figures openly referring to the possibility of the People’s Liberation Army being deployed, Hong Kongers were braced for potentially paradigm-shifting news. It seemed almost anything was possible, from the resignation of the unpopular incumbent chief executive, Carrie Lam, to the imposition of a curfew to PLA troops on the streets of Hong Kong.

As expected, the office’s spokesman Yang Guang expressed support for Lam and her administration, decried the use of violence by protesters, and insisted that Hong Kong’s rule of law should be upheld. But, as with so many messages in China, it was the unspoken that rang loudest.

To begin with, Yang acknowledged the peaceful protests that had been held in opposition to Lam’s extradition bill, and further acknowledged that Lam had suspended work on the bill as a result. This in itself was remarkable: it would seem anathema to Beijing to publicly recognise the fact and effectiveness of political protest in Hong Kong, when such a possibility is unthinkable in the mainland.

Second, while Yang unsurprisingly expressed support for Lam and her administration, his comments contained veiled criticism. Yang said that there had been “deficiencies” in the way Lam’s administration handled the extradition bill, leading the council to “reflect” upon its governing style. In China, where leaders are universally regarded as infallible (until, that is, they very publicly fall from grace) this is an extremely harsh statement. It also has some historical resonance: following similar mass demonstrations in Hong Kong, then-president Hu Jintao famously advised Hong Kong’s inaugural chief executive Tung Chee-hwa to “identify his deficiencies” in a December 2004 public appearance. By the following March, Tung had resigned, citing ill health. Today’s thinly veiled criticism does not bode well for the longevity of Lam’s administration.

The focus in Yang’s prepared remarks on upholding Hong Kong’s rule of law, and severely punishing those who have engaged in acts of violence, was clearly intended for consumption by an international audience for whom Hong Kong’s rule of law is seen as a core value. But alongside this statement, Yang also expressed support for Hong Kong’s police force in its mission of upholding the law. This was a clear indication from Beijing that it has no intention of involving the PLA, however it also signalled Beijing’s assent to the Hong Kong police adopting harsher policing tactics. It is perhaps no coincidence that police also announced today that they would begin road tests this week for three powerful new riot control water cannon vehicles, with a view to deploying them on Hong Kong’s streets by mid-August.

Also surprising, given recent rhetoric, was that the malign influence of “foreign forces” did not receive more airtime. Indeed, foreign influence was not addressed in Yang’s initial prepared remarks, and was only raised in a question from official state news agency Xinhua. While Yang did criticise foreign politicians, who he said wanted to make Hong Kong into a “problem” for China, there were no references to “colour revolutions” or ”black hands”, a welcome dialling-back on recent hysteria.

This suggests that those in the highest levels of government in Beijing regard this, quite correctly, as a purely domestic problem for Hong Kong. Unfortunately, they seem to continue to be looking to blame it on the wrong targets. Affairs office spokeswoman Xu Luying, speaking of social problems in Hong Kong, focused on economic issues such as youth opportunity, social mobility and housing affordability. This holds out hope that Beijing intends to work with the Hong Kong government and, perhaps more importantly, Hong Kong’s all-powerful tycoons in addressing housing prices and other business and economic issues.

However, while these indeed contribute to discontent in Hong Kong, Beijing would be sorely mistaken to believe this to be the root cause. The real motivation bringing Hong Kong people out on to the streets every weekend can be heard in the slogans they now chant: “Democracy now!” and “Reclaim Hong Kong! Revolution of our times!”

The extradition bill that originally motivated the present protest movement and the livelihood issues Beijing is targeting are merely symptomatic of what Hong Kong’s protesters see as the underlying cause: Hong Kong’s undemocratic system, under which the people are governed by a government beholden to Beijing and accountable to Hong Kong’s tycoon class, and not governing in the interests of the people. Until democratic reforms are introduced, the protesters believe, Hong Kong will not see meaningful change.

With no policy initiatives or specific measures coming out of today’s announcements, one thing is certain: protests in Hong Kong will continue. If Beijing does not realise that it will take more than economic fixes to bring an end to the current crisis, the cycle of protest and crackdown seems likely only to intensify.

Antony Dapiran is a Hong Kong-based writer and lawyer and the author of City of Protest: A Recent History of Dissent in Hong Kong


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