Harsh truths for Hong Kong: extradition bill protests will not achieve anything
- Retired Singapore diplomat Bilahari Kausikan says Beijing will never tolerate any action that undermines national unity and the bill formalises ‘one country, two systems’
- Besides, what is really needed is good governance and a sensible housing policy – blame the tycoons for denying the city that
The proximate causes may be different, but they all arise from the disquiet of many Hong Kong people with Beijing’s sway. I do not know when the demonstrations will end. But I am quite certain about what they will achieve: absolutely nothing!
Ever since the end of the Qing dynasty in the late 19th century, the legitimacy of Chinese governments – imperial, republican or communist – has rested on the ability to defend China’s sovereignty and its borders. I don’t think Beijing is eager to exercise direct control over Hong Kong. But the unity of China is not a matter on which any Chinese government will ever compromise.
Beijing was willing to tolerate two systems provided it did not undermine one country. But this is precisely what the demonstrators, particularly those who have resorted to violence in defiance of the law, are now doing.
The Hong Kong people are used to thinking of themselves as the centre of their own universe, a delusion perhaps inherited from the British. But what the demonstrators have failed to understand is that Hong Kong is no longer unique.
Of course, Hong Kong still has some advantages. It prospered because it was shielded from the political vicissitudes of the late-Qing, republican and post-1949 China, and enjoyed the rule of law. But it is precisely confidence in Hong Kong’s political stability and the rule of law that constant demonstrations and the resort to violence have called into question. They only hasten the erosion of Hong Kong’s uniqueness.
The West generally sees the issue as the Hong Kong people demanding more rights and democracy. Typical was the headline of an article in The New York Times on July 8, “Hong Kong Protestors Are Fuelled by a Broader Demand: More Democracy”.
Perhaps they do want more democracy. I applaud the idealism and courage of the young demonstrators; I doubt their common sense.
The people of Hong Kong are now citizens – of China. The rights they enjoyed as a British colony were not very different from what they were granted under one country, two systems and substantially more than those enjoyed by other citizens of China. It will not get any better.
What Hong Kong really needs is not more democracy but better governance. Good governance requires political representation, but the terms are not synonyms.
I suspect that the only Hong Kong demographic that London really cared about was the tycoons. So long as they paid token obeisance to British rule, they were largely left alone to become fabulously rich and to make London rich. Any rights ordinary Hong Kong people enjoyed were a consequence of the need to create conditions that would allow the tycoons to prosper, not ends in themselves. It was for essentially the same reason that Beijing acquiesced in two systems.
The power of the tycoons survived the handover. They now only pay ritual obeisance to a new master and the bulk of their fortunes is probably no longer in Hong Kong. But it is their power that prevents good governance and a sensible housing policy. I am surprised that the anger and frustration of ordinary Hong Kong people is not more directed against them.
I do not think Beijing wants to nakedly intervene to stabilise Hong Kong because to do so would be to destroy Hong Kong. Still, I also do not think Beijing’s patience is infinite.
Singapore and Hong Kong are often regarded as rivals. There is undoubtedly an element of competition in the relationship. We may gain some short-term advantage from Hong Kong’s troubles. Thoughtful Singaporeans nevertheless understand that the long-term interest of Singapore and the entire region is in a stable and prosperous Hong Kong.
We watch what is unfolding in Hong Kong with sympathy. But it is the sympathy that one feels for a friend or relative so desperate as to contemplate suicide. This is not something most Singaporeans would care to emulate. Unlike Hong Kong, Singapore is independent and sovereign. Our destiny is in our own hands. We can only hope that Hong Kong stabilises itself without Beijing having to directly intervene.
Bilahari Kausikan is the former permanent secretary of Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This article first appeared in his Geo-Blog with Global Brief magazine (Toronto) – www.globalbrief.ca