By Isidro Estrada (special to HT from Beijing)
HAVANA TIMES — The National Day of the People’s Republic of China was celebrated on October 1. This year’s one-week holiday marked the 65th anniversary of the founding of the republic. It also coincided with a spell of intense showers that pounded the entire country, from the semi-arid and icy plains of the north to the lush, subtropical valleys of the south.
The veritable sea of umbrellas seen that day, both in north-laying Peking and southern Hong Kong, were, however, opened for different reasons. While those in the former served only to protect people from the downpours, those in the latter became precarious shields, held up against potential floods of tear-gas and pepper-spray. Only two days before, both substances had been used by Hong Kong police to violently push out some 150 protesters who sought to take the government headquarters of this special, administrative region of China.
Since then, umbrellas have become a visual symbol of the Hong Kong protests, protests which, in essence, demand that the region’s more than five million inhabitants be granted the right to choose the region’s candidates for executive leader in free elections, as stipulated by the Hong Kong Basic Law which Peking approves, without having these candidates scrutinized by the National People’s Assembly (NPA), China’s highest legislative authority, enjoying the full support of the Central Government. And that’s precisely where the umbrella is getting stuck right now.
The massive protests in the south and the till-now intransigent posture of the north mark the extremes of an anxiety-filled waiting period. No one knows for certain how and when this arm wrestle between two different perspectives on the application of democratic mechanisms in China will actually end.
Just a matter of speed?
In the opinion of the protesters, most of whom are students, allowing a committee of 1,200 people who are linked to China’s central authorities to approve or reject Hong Kong’s government candidates is nothing short of unacceptable. That, at least, is the posture they have maintained till now. For the central government, on the other hand, it is clear that the Basic Law, whose ideological underpinnings are rooted in the concept of “One country, two systems,” unambiguously establishes that Hong Kong, no matter what its particularities and attendant liberties, is a part of and remains loyal to the rest of China. And China, government officials insist, has only one NPA, which, according to the country’s constitution, is the country’s highest authority and expression of the will of the entire country.
To understand the current conflict in all its ramifications, we must place the proposals and responses from each side in context. The government repeats time and time again that, despite the stumbling blocks it has encountered, it continues to impel its political reforms with determination. As part of these reforms, authorities have been gradually eliminating mechanisms which in the recent past have allowed for phenomena as fatal for China as the rise of the Maoist ultra-left and a personality cult, among other historical gems. In this connection, the central government points to the changes that have been in effect for some time now, such as the law that establishes that no political leader can remain in office for more than 10 years, following a total of two, 5-year terms, and that, at the age of 68, such leaders must retire. We won’t be having any more “helmsmen” in Chinese politics, the message appears to be.
The umbrella have become a visual symbol of the Hong Kong protests, protests which, in essence, demand that the region’s more than five million inhabitants be granted the right to choose the region’s candidates for executive leader in free elections
Parallel to this, the Chinese government continues to consolidate its work with the Eight Democratic Parties and Persons without Parties and is delegating more and more responsibilities to them, entities that, operating in the shadow of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), appear to provide a counterweight to any potential blunder or excess by the executive, and to complement the NPA, at least in theory. With this, they are advancing a new model in which authorities gladly subject themselves to public scrutiny and abstain from adopting policies without previously consulting with broad sectors of the population.
In support of their intention of setting in motion a gradual “democratization” suited to local characteristics, the Chinese government and Communist Party also invoke the government assemblies in villages and communities, on which leaderships and lifestyles were previously imposed without any squeamishness by political authorities, and which, today, are experiencing a gradual liberalization, such that peasants and citizens are the ones who directly chose their leaders – a preliminary step, China’s central authorities claim, in the implementation of similar mechanisms at higher levels of the nation’s political structure.
Step by Step…and then What?
Set on implementing – and even moving beyond – these and other changes, the Chinese government is betting on a slow, gradual process. Before, they claim, it is advisable to address other, more pressing issues, such as income inequality, agricultural reforms, the merciless fight against the scourge of corruption and the repositioning of the Chinese economy, a process which involves liberalizing the productive forces even more, eliminating State monopolies and separating the government and market more and more. In short, the government is laying all its bets on greater liberalization, which translates into “socialism with Chinese characteristics”, or, more suggestively, as “red capitalism.” To achieve this, they aspire to establish a general atmosphere of peace, social harmony, stability and unity.
These last two elements – factors that very few analysts stop to consider – are of the essence for the central government and, in addressing the issue of Hong Kong, what authorities fear in the mid-term is the establishment of a local government that has severed all ties with central authorities, and even challenges these, in its adoption of a separatist politics for this former British colony, as is happening in certain areas of Taiwan, Xinjiang and, sporadically but powerfully, in Tibet. More than Hong Kong’s adoption of a formal or Western-styled democracy, what Peking is concerned about the most is trying to avoid the possible separation of Hong Kong from the rest of China. And they are clear that, on this point, they are unwilling to make any concessions.
I consider everything I have address so far – in broad strokes – as a needed preamble for any attempt at understanding and discerning the complexity of China’s situation. To ignore China’s official government plans, as is frequently done, does not help us shed any light on these issues.
What Did Mr. Deng Say?
The fact of the matter, however, is that at least 800 thousand of the city’s residents – those who participated in the unrecognized referendum of June 30 – don’t see it that way. They do not resign themselves to accepting any kind of interference by higher authorities in the voting process. They also perceive that the country has taken a step back from the commitment that China’s former and late leader Deng Xiaoping made in the 1980s, when he stated that “Hong Kong will be governed by the people of Hong Kong.” In short, they are unwilling to wait for the outcome of the “gradual” process advanced by Peking. They want it all and they want it now. This out-of-synchness between the expectations of the two sides produces a gap that is difficult to close.
To complicate matters even more, Hong Kong’s current executive leader, Leung Chun-ying, has seen a frank drop in popular support, from even before entering office. It is no accident the protesters turned his resignation into one of their demands, accusing him of excessive acquiescence before central authorities and blaming him for the constant drop in the quality of life indicators of the middle and lower class and the growing divide between rich and poor, a situation to which the permanent outflow of large fortunes from continental China contributes in more ways than not”)
With their lavish investments and constant real estate maneuvers in Hong Kong, continental China’s nouveaux riches have made the price of housing skyrocket. The resentment of many of the leaders of the “Occupy Central” movement finds its breeding grounds in the flow of millions (in both money and population) arriving from the other side of the border.
With their lavish investments and constant real estate maneuvers in Hong Kong, continental China’s nouveaux riches have made the price of housing skyrocket. The resentment of many of the leaders of the “Occupy Central” movement finds its breeding grounds in the flow of millions (in both money and population) arriving from the other side of the border. These social factors and the complicated subjective relations between the continental Chinese and people of Hong Kong have an impact on current developments which many observers have overlooked.
Entrepreneurs and Millionaires: Champions of the Counter-Protest
It is also impossible to ignore the fact that Hong Kong’s current elite, and a good part of its business community, do not identify with the demands of “Occupy Central” in the least. What’s more, they oppose and even detest it. They know that every day of protest spells millions of dollars in losses for the local economy. The counter-protest staged last Friday, in which a thousand or so citizens attacked the protesters (requiring the police to intervene again, this time to separate the two bands), is evidence of this. Neither differences with the central or local government, nor protests that undermine the normal course of their operations, are convenient for Hong Kong’s business community. The idealism of the hundreds of thousands of students and other sectors that have taken to the streets is countered by the crushing reality that Hong Kong’s economy is in the hands of this business community. And they are willing to defend it tooth and nail. Hong Kong is already overly reliant on the “gold” arriving from the north.
It is no accident that Peking has stated that it is leaving the current crisis in the hands of local authorities with the utmost confidence. Editorials and reports published as of October 2 by continental China’s official media have emphasized the futility of the protests and have predicted their imminent conclusion. These are not mere words. At that exact moment, 70 of the most successful businessmen and owners of Hong Kong’s largest fortunes were meeting with central government officials in the Chinese capital.
That said, it is unlikely that the tragic events of Tiananmen Square in June, 1989, will repeat themselves in Hong Kong. Considering the many things that have changed since and the current economic dependence of this former British colony on the continent, we can safely assume that everything will be solved back home, without the need to mobilize the detachments of China’s Popular Army in Hong Kong, much less the tanks that shook the streets of Peking, and the world’s conscience, a quarter of a century ago.
China’s most efficient troops move in BMWs, Mercedes Benz and Bentleys today. They smell of Burberry and their most effective arsenals are in the form of juicy bank accounts.
The fight is ultimately between financial pragmatism and lofty political ideals.
It remains to be seen who is willing to offer more.