Time for HK protesters to sit back and think

October 08, 2019 10:54
Anti-government protesters break into a branch of Bank of China during a demonstration in Tseung Kwan O on Monday. Violence and vandalism will undermine the Hong Kong protest movement, observers warn. Photo: Reuters

This week marks the beginning of the fifth straight month of protests in Hong Kong. A million-person march on June 9 was focused on opposing the government’s extradition bill and that goal was finally achieved on September 4, when Chief Executive Carrie Lam finally announced the withdrawal of the Fugitive Offenders Bill.

Since then, however, protests have continued and the level of violence has gone up. The first police shooting of a protester, 18-year-old student Tsang Chi-kin, happened on Oct. 1, China’s national day. Now, the government has invoked emergency laws and announced a ban on face masks during all protests. This marks a turning point in the protest movement.

It is time for protesters to consider their future course, especially where violence is concerned. What can be achieved by pressing ahead, continuing and in all likelihood escalating the protests, followed inevitably by government escalation?

The protesters themselves are getting younger, with secondary student numbers rising dramatically. One 15-year-old was quoted as saying: “If my death would mean Hong Kong got freedom and genuine democracy, then it would be worth it.”

A noble thought. But his death or the death of any number of young people won’t bring Hong Kong genuine democracy or significantly more freedom than it already has.

After all, where else in the world do people have the freedom to protest as people have in Hong Kong? Few governments even in the West would tolerate for so long the destruction that has wrought grievous damage to the economy. Few people in Hong Kong these days dare to go out in the evenings for fear of being caught up in protests.

Idealism is great, but it needs to be grounded in reality. The reality is that Britain returned Hong Kong to China in 1997, when it became a Special Administrative Region, which gives Hong Kong residents freedoms comparable to the freest cities in the world and that are denied to 1.4 billion people in mainland China.

According to both the Sino-British Joint Declaration and the Hong Kong Basic Law, this status will last for 50 years under the “one country, two systems” principle. It will end on June 30, 2047.

The current status provides Hong Kong with such things as the common law system inherited from the United Kingdom and an independent judiciary.

Henry Litton, who sat on Hong Kong’s Court of Final Appeal from 1997 until his retirement in 2015, wrote recently: “The common law system underpinning Hong Kong’s ‘core values’ is destined to expire in 27 years’ time…. There is no mechanism in the Basic Law for the system to continue beyond 30 June 2047. All the calls for Freedom, Democracy etc. have no meaning if the common law crumbles.”

That, again, is reality. Today’s protesters need to ask themselves whether their actions are likely to help Hong Kong people retain their current freedoms 20 years down the road. Isn’t it better to lock in what Hong Kong has today rather than to throw the baby out with the bathwater?

Of course, that doesn’t mean that people should not fight for change in Hong Kong. But they have to ask themselves whether hurling gasoline bombs is going to bring democracy, how the lives of Hong Kong people will improve as a result of damaging subway stations and putting the economy into recession.

In fact, change is occurring before our very eyes, with property developers offering land to the government for development. There is now a consensus within Hong Kong, backed by Chinese state media, that unaffordable housing cannot be tolerated. That in itself is a major victory.

The anti-extradition protests show how vital it is for any government to keep in close touch with the people. This is a lesson that Carrie Lam and her successors are unlikely to forget.

In fact, as the highly acclaimed Murray MacLehose, governor from 1971 to 1982, demonstrated, it is possible even for a foreigner, someone who was unelected, who did not speak Cantonese, to govern well. As he later said: “My job was to make Hong Kong as contented and prosperous and cohesive as possible.”

There is reason to hope that Beijing now understands that for a Hong Kong government to function effectively, it needs the support of the people. In 2017, China said that the most important quality a candidate for chief executive required was China’s trust. Now, it should know that the trust and support of the Hong Kong people is just as important. That, too, is a reality.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.