With the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Beijing safely over and regional leaders departed, China’s new strongman Xi Jinping decided to lower the boom on Hong Kong. Police there began clearing the barricades last week from the city’s main thoroughfare with the students in apparent retreat. Hong Kong’s chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, widely perceived as Beijing’s puppet, was quoted by Reuters as promising “resolute action” and warning students not to return to occupation sites. The students’ Occupy Central movement arose this summer after Beijing’s rubber-stamp National People’s Congress Standing Committee announced a pre-screening of candidates for the 2017 Hong Kong chief executive election. This was a blatant interference in the “one country, two systems” formula that promised Hong Kong a degree of local autonomy after the Chinese takeover in 1997.
On December 1, Voice of America reported that “hundreds of Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters clashed with police,” but “hundreds of riot police armed with pepper spray and batons pushed back, injuring several protesters. . . . Scores of volunteer medics attended to numerous injured, some who lay unconscious and others with blood streaming from head gashes. Police said at least 40 arrests were made.” One could almost hear the strains from Les Misérables: Will you join in our crusade? Who will be strong and stand with me? / Somewhere beyond the barricade, is there a world you long to see?
So what happens for Hong Kong when tomorrow comes? What of the pledges in the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984 and the constitutional guarantees contained in the Basic Law that the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region would continue “to enjoy a high degree of autonomy except for foreign and defence affairs. It shall be allowed to have executive, legislative and independent judicial power”? Beijing gave its response when, according to a BBC report, the Chinese embassy informed a group of British MPs seeking to conduct an inquiry into the situation in the former crown colony that they would be denied entry into Hong Kong.
A major Beijing propaganda theme in attempting to deny the democratic aspirations of the people of Hong Kong is that outside agitators, chiefly from the United Kingdom and the United States, are behind the wave of unrest. China’s government mouthpiece, the Global Times, editorialized earlier this fall that “the more [extremists] count on support from Washington and London, the more absolutely they will fail.” President Obama was put on the defensive on Hong Kong by his Chinese hosts at the APEC summit. In a joint press conference with Xi Jinping, Obama declared, according to Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post, “On the issue of Hong Kong, I was unequivocal in saying to President Xi that the United States has no involvement in fostering the protest that took place there.”
Xi responded with a stern warning that “Hong Kong affairs are exclusively China’s internal affair, and foreign countries should not interfere in those affairs in any form or fashion.” Still, as Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Russel pointed out in congressional testimony on December 3, the United States continues to have extensive commercial interests in Hong Kong, with more than 1,400 American companies investing there and with Hong Kong alone still representing the ninth-largest market for U.S. exports. But these economic ties alone cannot resolve political questions.
The political uncertainty hanging over Hong Kong is, of course, nothing new. In December 2004, while en route to the city, veteran congressman Henry Hyde succinctly summarized its ongoing dilemma. “The danger,” he observed, “is that Hong Kong will end up being just another Chinese city.” Hyde expanded on his concerns in a speech there. He observed: “Whether or not the people of Hong Kong and the government in Beijing wish or even recognize it, the unique status and relative freedom of this former crown colony have made it the preeminent testing ground of the possibilities of China’s political evolution, the most difficult and important test being whether greater freedom and democracy can be made compatible with the regime’s insistence on order and stability.”