The protests that have shaken Hong Kong will not threaten China’s grip on power for now. But the country’s leaders will need to learn the right lessons to head off bigger problems in the future, says Cris Sholto Heaton.
The spark that sets off a riot or a revolution is often not the real reason why people take to the streets. The start of the French Revolution, for example, is usually said to be the storming of the Bastille prison on 14 July 1789, which was triggered by Louis XVI firing his comparatively popular finance minister three days earlier. In practice, that was just the breaking point in a prolonged political and economic crisis that would eventually have erupted into violence whether the king took that decision or not.
In the same way, the increasingly violent protests that have been shaking Hong Kong for the last seven months are not solely about democracy or freedom of speech. Instead, they are driven by a much broader set of frustrations that represent perhaps the biggest challenge that China faces in the decades ahead.
That’s not because these protests are set to spread into mainland China – they’re not, regardless of what happens in the next few months and how they are finally resolved. There is virtually no sympathy for the Hong Kong protestors among Chinese, who mostly see them as unpatriotic, ungrateful and too willing to overlook how their territory’s privileged position within China has allowed them to grow wealthy much faster than the rest of the country.
However, in the longer term, the same factors that are driving unrest in Hong Kong could well emerge in China. Indeed, the experience of other countries that have managed a high level of economic success suggests that this is quite likely, unless China learns from their examples and adapts its economic development to head these problems off.
Economics, not democracy
To understand why, it’s necessary to look at the foundations of the Hong Kong protests. The immediate trigger was the government’s attempt to pass a law that would allow people accused of crimes in jurisdictions with which Hong Kong does not have an extradition treaty to be extradited on a case-by-case basis. One consequence of this would be that suspects could be extradited from Hong Kong to mainland China.
The fact that this law became so controversial was a surprise to almost everybody outside Hong Kong. Most MoneyWeek readers were probably taken aback to hear that there is currently no extradition arrangement between Hong Kong and China – not even for clear-cut serious criminal cases like the one that was the direct pretext for the proposed law (which involved a man from Hong Kong who had committed a murder in Taiwan, fled home and confessed to the crime, but could neither be prosecuted in Hong Kong nor extradited to Taiwan under current laws).
The reason why allowing extradition to Taiwan almost unavoidably means allowing extradition to mainland China is that China considers Taiwan to be a rebel province that is part of its territory. So politically neither Beijing nor Hong Kong’s top leadership, who are effectively selected by Beijing, were willing to countenance a Taiwan-only extradition law. And the reason why an arrangement that covers the mainland is so controversial is that Hong Kongers believe that it would make it possible for China to pursue political activists based in Hong Kong, thereby undermining the principle of “one country, two systems” under which Hong Kong is supposed to enjoy substantial autonomy and political freedom until 2047 (the 50th anniversary of its return to China). Hence the explicit goal of the protests quickly became not just about the proposed law, but also about demands for greater democracy in Hong Kong.
However, while there are many people in Hong Kong who are deeply concerned about democracy, and while there are real fears about the territory’s special rights being eroded, the reason why it has been possible to get millions of people onto the streets of Hong Kong for such a sustained period is that this builds on deep-rooted anger about how well the territory’s economic system is working.
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