Conflicts in Hong Kong

Hong Kong was a small but important part of the British Empire, acquired by military might. Hong Kong Island originally became part of the Empire in 1842, after China was defeated in the First Opium War, as the lucrative opium trade was imposed on China by Britain. After the Second Opium War in 1860, further land was ceded, including Kowloon Peninsula. Then in 1898 the New Territories to the north of Kowloon were leased to Britain for 99 years.

Under British rule, Hong Kong became a centre of global trade and finance, much of it supported, directly or indirectly, by the opium industry. Its Chinese population lived in squalor, while, in the first decades at least, many wealthy Westerners enjoyed opulence and an often-debauched lifestyle, with the Royal Navy ready to defend Britain’s interests and so-called free trade.

As the end of the lease approached, the British government decided that Hong Kong without the New Territories would not be viable, so in 1984 an agreement was reached that the whole of Hong Kong would be transferred to China in 1997, with an undertaking that the social system would be guaranteed for fifty years. Hong Kong is officially a Special Administrative Region of China, under the supposed principle of ‘one country, two systems’, and there is at least a semblance of the capitalist idea of democracy, with elections and political parties, though the members of the Legislative Council are only partly chosen by direct elections.

Hong Kong’s economy has fared pretty well in capitalist terms since the Chinese takeover. It is a very large importer and exporter, with many goods being trans-shipped through its container port and its airport the largest anywhere for international cargo. It has the world’s seventh-busiest stock exchange, and the second-highest number of billionaires of any city (behind only New York). Some supporters of capitalism have regarded Hong Kong as leading the world in economic freedom, in terms of the rule of law and the ability of people to make decisions about their lives. Given the extent of inequality and poverty and the lack of genuine democracy, this was always nonsense, but presumably even such apologists are likely to be changing their minds given recent events.

At the end of June this year, China imposed on Hong Kong a new security law, which included possible life sentences for secession, subversion or terrorism. Some cases could be tried in China, not Hong Kong, and the Beijing government would have the final say on how the law should be interpreted. The head of Amnesty International’s China Team said the law ‘represents the greatest threat to human rights in [Hong Kong’s] recent history’ and ‘China will have the power to impose its own laws on any criminal suspect it chooses’. Others claim that it infringes human rights and international law. There were protests last year that involved pitched battles with police, and the new law was widely seen as making any kind of protest illegal. Some critics thought the law meant that Hong Kong was ‘turning into China for real’.

Even before the law came into effect, some opposition groups, both pro-independence ones and campaigning organisations, decided to dissolve themselves, though some carried on their work from Taiwan. Many people deleted social media posts in order to be on the safe side. On the first day of the law being in operation, there were demonstrations, met by riot police, with ten people being arrested under the security law. Anyone allegedly promoting ‘Hong Kong independence’ can be charged with inciting secession.

China set up a new security agency in Hong Kong, with a so-called ‘hard-liner’ as its head. Journalists have become worried about revealing sources and fear that even reporting banned slogans may be illegal. Books by pro-democracy activists have begun to disappear from local libraries, supposedly so it can be ascertained if they violate the new law. Among those arrested was a newspaper owner, and the offices of his paper were searched. At one demo in early September, around 300 people were arrested, including a twelve-year-old girl who allegedly ran away ‘in a suspicious manner’.

District council elections held in November last year resulted in a big majority for the ‘pro-democracy’ groups, while opinion polls showed that most people supported the protests, if not the violence. This year’s Legislative Council elections have been postponed till next year, presumably because the authorities fear an outcome unfavourable to them.

Politicians in other capitalist countries have objected to China’s recent policies. Johnson has said that up to three million Hong Kong residents who hold British national overseas status would be given the right to settle in the UK, though it remains to be seen if he would keep to this if push comes to shove. Australia has made it easier for Hong Kong students in Australia to remain there after they graduate. Trump has put an end to any special economic treatment for Hong Kong, so that it will be treated the same as China. This may mean that US companies will switch from using Hong Kong as a regional hub to another Chinese city or Singapore.

One reason for these actions by China may relate to the issue of control in the South China Sea, which is an important sea lane and has extensive oil and gas reserves (see the August Socialist Standard). Eight missile boats and corvettes from the Chinese navy are currently stationed in Hong Kong, and one recently took part in a ‘live-fire drill’ which involved firing cannons and torpedoes. This is a very small part of the whole navy and even of the South Sea Fleet but it may still be useful in standing up to US naval operations there. There is, however, little chance of demonstrations in Hong Kong undermining the Chinese navy’s strength, and Hong Kong becoming independent from China is hardly a real possibility in the short or medium term. It may also be the case that clamping down on dissent in Hong Kong is a way of sending messages to Taiwan, which is still viewed as a ‘rebel province’, or to workers in China who may be kicking against the traces. China, the message reads, will not put up with dissent or any kind of demand for more democracy. The Beijing government is in charge, and people had better bear that in mind. Stopping demos and arresting fairly small numbers of people could be an effective way of making this point.


Socialist Standard October 2020

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