Democracy stares down Communism

China has global ambitions to export its ideology abroad - but is finding it difficult to convince Hong Kong of its appeal. An irresistible force against an immovable object

The protests in Hong Kong started way back in on the 31st March of this year. For more than six months, democratic activists have demonstrated and opposed the Chinese governor’s moves towards integrating the global financial behemoth that is Hong Kong within the Chinese communist fold.

The protests began when the Hong Kong government proposed introducing a law which would allow for the extradition of ‘fugitive offenders’ to mainland China for trial, and if necessary, imprisonment. Demonstrators saw this as another way for China to slowly peel away at Hong Kong’s autonomy, which has been eroded since the United Kingdom gave Hong Kong back to China in 1997. In short, this presents a challenge to Communist rule in China and the attractiveness of that model - and that challenge comes from within its own backyard.

China has been busy in the last few years with expanding its global influence through its One Belt, One Road Initiative, with the aim of reorienting global trade away from the Western world, and tilting it towards China. It has investment billions and billions of dollars in infrastructure from south Asia, into eastern Africa and into eastern/southern Europe. With the money, inevitably, comes some influence over those countries in which you have invested. These countries may seeker closer ties with Beijing, and perhaps even adopt its political/economic model. The only problem for China’s image at the moment (at least in the headlines) is the wave of protests which have hit Hong Kong throughout most of this year.

Beijing is not unused to dealing with protests in its territories. It has often suppressed protests or prevented them from taking root entirely. But the challenge it faces in Hong Kong is different entirely. Hong Kong has been practicing democracy for years. The Communist government sees the democratic experiment in the city as posing an uncomfortable thorn in its side. It is a prosperous city, and one that brings considerable prestige to China’s push to being the focal point of global economic activity, with its long and storied history as a centre for business and financial services. What China cannot abide, however, is the idea that democracy in Hong Kong supersedes its own authority in Beijing. Hong Kong cannot simply co-exist in the Chinese system - it needs to eventually form part of it.

Protests in Hong Kong have brought about the worst unrest the city has seen in decades. These activists are seeking the restoration of the basic democratic principles, such as allowing Hong Kong residents to choose their own leader through universal suffrage, rather than having a leader imposed upon them from Beijing. These protestors are often young, in their late teens or early twenties, and well-educated. Whilst they have not yet achieved critical mass which would allow them to effectively shut the city down, and retake the city through means which are peaceful or otherwise, the insurgent modus operandi of the protestors resembles the tactics

used by guerillas and popular uprisings elsewhere in the world. This may continue for some time yet.

Some activists have called for foreign intervention in the city, although that is unlikely to ever happen. There is not a global power out there that would risk going to war with China in what is seen as a purely internal Chinese manner. Even the UK, which had previously administered Hong Kong until the end of the 20th century, is too busy with its own Brexit issues to make any meaningful attempt to help calm tensions in the city. However, this does not mean that some Western countries are not sitting back with a small smile on their faces, watching the Chinese behemoth face off against a small uprising that has proven difficult to quell for the best part of 2019.

China has sought to strengthen its hand in Hong Kong, by allowing police in the city to use armed force, including live ammunition. On Tuesday, a young activist was shot, and the bullet only narrowly missed his heart. This led to more protests the following day, and galvanised fresh anger against the city’s authorities, further putting fuel on the fire.

The protestors are calling for universal suffrage, and the release of all of those who have been arrested during the protests. Some are even calling for self-determination or full independence for Hong Kong. China is unlikely to give into most of these demands, given the precedent that this will set for it in another problematic areas, such as Xinjiang and Tibet, where resistance to Beijing has rumbled on for a number of years.

The Chinese government has a lot to lose, and little to gain in these protests. If it manages to quell the unrest, and maintain control over the city, it may dissuade other domestic opponents to try their hand at rising up against the central government. But if it mishandles this situation, and Beijing ends up having to give concessions of varying degrees, its reputation will take a hit, and it will have lost face, something which has considerable weight in Chinese culture and dealings. China will not want to lose face in Hong Kong, one way or another.

On the other hand, the protests have achieved sufficient momentum for them to be encouraged that they may be able to twist China’s arm into conceding some small issues, although they are unlikely to want to give up when they see themselves as being in the ascendency.

But what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object? In Hong Kong, we may find out the answer.

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