Written: October 8th, 2019.
Potted History, Mostly From Memory and Probably Wildly Inaccurate.
I’m going to use a lot of Wikipedia article because Yay! This isn’t a scholarly document and so I can.
In 1842, the combined forces of the UK, France, and America fought a war with China to force them to allow the opium trade. They could only buy tea with silver, and they didn’t have any, so they sold opium for silver and used that to buy the tea. The great tea clippers would buy opium in India, transport it to Hong Kong, and sell it to buy Chinese tea.
Hong Kong Island was part of the terms of the surrender. It was a deep-water port, so it could handle the tea clippers, and it was protected from the region’s destructive typhoons. The Chinese (Qing dynasty) government gave Britain ownership of Hong Kong Island, and part of Kowloon, in perpetuity.
Britain set it up as a full-on colony, with a Governor, and the Chinese locals were happy to trade with them, but were generally second-class citizens. The amount of money coming through the territory – firstly from the tea trade, then from Hong Kong acting as a gateway to China, drew many people there.
In 1898, the Qing government gave Britain the New Territories on a 99-year lease. There’s a street in Kowloon called ‘Boundary Road’ (Google map it!) that was the edge of the different territories – but effectively there’s no difference.
But there is ONE important difference between the original colony and the New Territories: when the New Territories were ceded, there were a bunch of ‘rural’ dwellers there who demanded a say. The UK government gave them power over the region through ‘rural committees’. Every clan in the New Territories was granted land in their ‘villages’ and the families became wealthy – and powerful – by trading that land. At this point I am very pointedly going to say that the rural committees are NOT in any way related to organised crime and the powerful clan triads in Hong Kong who are mostly based in the New Territories, particularly Yuen Long. Definitely not saying that, despite what many people believe. Absolutely not.
Here’s an article from the South China Morning Post, mistakenly saying that Yuen Long “is known to be a triad stronghold, with gangs thought to recruit youths from the villages”. https://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/politics/article/3020331/good-bad-and-ugly-yuen-long-hong-kong-northern-town-caught
While we’re here, there’s an incredibly relevant quote in this article (and the SCMP is pro-Beijing): “The most rural parts of Yuen Long are controlled by village heads who also wield political sway over the area and all the way up government echelons.” It’s almost like this article about Yuen Long’s rustic charm is more about an organised crime infestation that everybody is aware of.
Anyway. China had a great deal of turmoil during the two world wars. During World War 2, the ruling Kuomintang government of China fought the Japanese and won. They were so weakened by this battle that the Communist Chinese drove them out of China and they set up a provisional government in Taiwan (that’s why Taiwan is a thorn in the side of China, and is a democratic not-a-country-thank-you-very-much). The Chinese Communist Party took over, the leaders of the CCP installed themselves as a ruling committee/politburo, and China went completely to hell.
Millions of people died. The Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution killed tens of millions of people. Many Chinese faced starvation so they ran to Hong Kong. Hong Kong overflowed during the sixties. They have an extremely anaemic view of the Chinese Communist Party (I’ll call it the CCP from here on).
After the Cultural Revolution the CCP gained a small amount of common sense, and partly opened China up to foreign trade. By a carefully orchestrated combination of extremely low wages and strategic corporate larceny, China became the cheapest place to manufacture stuff. Shenzhen, just across the border in the Mainland, is a Special Economic Zone (tightly controlled capitalism is allowed with its borders). That’s where most ‘made in China’ stuff was manufactured for many years, then trucked into Hong Kong and shipped out from there. (‘Tightly controlled capitalism’ = government officials make money selling stuff overseas). It still is, for most electronics. (Foxconn manufactures Apple stuff. Their compounds in China house tens of thousands of workers in each compound. This compound in Shenzhen is the largest, it’s all the white buildings, and it houses more than a hundred thousand workers with a massive wall around them.)
This is where Hong Kong becomes really, really important for both the CCP and the rest of the world. Super important.
China has basically turned into a fascist one-party dictatorship run by the descendants of the original CCP politburo. These ‘Emperors’ hold on to power through a combination of the carrot (the increase in living standards has been measurable within living generations) and stick – by not allowing democratic elections, and brutally silencing anyone who disagrees with them. Disappearance, torture, concentration camps, ethnic cleansing, state surveillance – this has become worse as the years have passed. Back in the nineties, it looked like China would open up but President Xi has locked China down and the oppression has become more and more brutal. You WILL be jailed for saying that democracy is a good idea.
If you piss off a party member, you can be arrested, dragged before a court where the judge has no legal qualifications apart from being someone’s friend (really) and put into a concentration camp to be tortured for the rest of your short life. Nobody will know what happened to you, nobody will hear from you again. If you’re lucky you may get a lawyer but in China you’re guilty until proven innocent and trials usually last one day and lawyers are not generally permitted to speak in the defence.
This has even happened to citizens of other countries, who are sometimes even grabbed outside China. If you’re of Chinese heritage, it doesn’t matter what your passport says, China owns you and can throw you in jail if your business partner decides that they don’t need you any more and your share of the profits would buy them a nice Lamborghini. This has happened to a staff member of Australia’s Rio Tinto and more recently an Australian writer, both of Chinese heritage. Both these men just disappeared. (Note: both of these cases are not as black-and-white as they appear. I’m aware of this: and nothing ever is.)
If you’re overseas and can’t be nabbed, the CCP will not hesitate to threaten, incarcerate, or torture your family. Elderly grandparents, particularly mothers, are the leverage of choice, but they won’t hesitate to go for wives or children who are still in China. (I’m serious.)
Another SCMP Op-ed, that was published July of this year: https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/opinion/article/3018421/chinas-legal-system-has-long-way-go-it-can-be-trusted
Hong Kong still has a British-style Rule Of Law. The judges are all legal experts, and independent from the government. The legal system is much more trustworthy, you’re innocent until proven guilty, and it’s internationally regarded as extremely fair. This rule of law carries over to the financial system, which up until recently has been internationally famous for being free of corruption and meticulously fair in its dealings.
So international businesses sign their contracts with Chinese businesses in Hong Kong and have them subject to Hong Kong law. They have all the financials handled in Hong Kong where they know the legal system will protect them, and because Hong Kong has NO EXTRADITION TREATY WITH CHINA. You can’t be extradited from Hong Kong if you piss off a mainland official. THIS IS EVERYTHING. (If you’ve read this far: thank you. I hope you’re making an ‘Ahhh I understand!’ face right now.) This is why Hong Kong has been such a major trading and financial centre. Mainland cities like Guangdong and Shanghai have been growing into this market, but in the recent mainland crackdowns – Hong Kong still remains the safest place to do business.
In 1997, the lease on the New Territories ran out. Britain started negotiations in 1987: they wanted to keep Hong Kong, and make it a democratic city (like Singapore) independent from China. At the time, the people of Hong Kong wanted to be returned to the Motherland (yes, really). Deng Xiaoping was in the process of opening China up, and there was a great deal of optimism about the possibility of democracy in China. Deng wouldn’t budge on the New Territories treaty, so Thatcher handed Hong Kong over.
Britain tried to do the right thing by Hong Kong, by having the legal system write a Basic Law (a mini constitution) that granted Hong Kong people basic rights like freedom of speech, protest, and assembly. The Basic Law guaranteed increasing democracy during the fifty years that Hong Kong was a ‘special administrative region’ with different laws to the rest of China. They set up a democratically-elected Legislative Council to run the territory. The CCP had a fit, saying that this was all made up after the agreement (even though it was before the handover) so it was void.
Tiananmen happened in 1989 and everything changed. (Note: inside China, Tiananmen did not happen at all.) Many Hong Kong people fled. Hong Kong was still on course to be handed over and the Hong Kong people really weren’t happy about it. They’re the only people in China who can hold remembrance rallies for Tiananmen and these rallies are huge. (Again: inside China, nothing happened.)
I was there in 1997. There was a great deal of patriotic fervour (a little too much ‘If I do as the abuser says they won’t hit me again’ mentality, in my opinion). The media was full of noise about ‘cleansing the great shame’ of losing the opium war and ceding Hong Kong. Hong Kong businesses started to self-censor anything that would piss off the Mainland politburo. Mainland billionaires moved in on masse and bought up the real estate, sending prices even higher than their already astronomical levels.
I left in 2002, just before the SARS outbreak. The CCP had tweaked the Legislative Council so that it was massively pro-Beijing, by ensuring only limited members of the community had the vote. The gerrymandering was obvious, blatant, and when it came to the position of Chief Executive, more concerned about politics than administrative talent.
It could be argued that just about anyone running anything in China is selected more on politics and connections than talent. This makes it extremely difficult to deal with the CCP government, as problems are generally dealt with by a mixture of bluster, buy-off attempts and threats, and if none of these work then the administration tends to shut down in a confused state of paralysis and then brings the army in to make it all go away. (Example 1: Hong Kong, October 2019) There have been cases of rural officials getting pissed at business partners and attempting to jail them, only to have the business partners contact someone higher up and have the rural official put in jail.
The Hong Kong people have been more and more pissed about this situation. They’ve voted in pro-democracy Legislative Councillors who’ve been disqualified for ‘not being patriotic enough’ to China when they were sworn into their positions. (They did a stupid thing and hurt themselves.)
The Umbrella Movement (Don’t Call It a Revolution!)
The government introduced legislation based on Article 23 of the Basic Law to make treason punishable by prison, with a very lax definition of ‘treason’. It basically meant that you could be incarcerated for badmouthing the CCP. This failed spectacularly.
When the previous Chief Executive (Hong Kong’s a Business City! Look at our Leader, he/she’s a CEO!) CY Leung was voted into the position in 2014, he was jokingly referred to as ‘Mr 689’… because that’s how many votes he received. The procedure to vote him in, the whole Legislative Council election thing, Article 23, the lack of democracy – it all boiled over into the 2014 Umbrella Movement.
The protesters VERY CAREFULLY did not call it a revolution, and shut down any attempts to call it a revolution. Counter-revolutionary activity against the great revolutionary force of the Chinese Communist Party is punishable by death. Only the CCP’s revolution is the good one, and all other revolutions are evil. Or something.
They’ve also, continually up until the present, confirmed that they aren’t separatists. They know that if they say the words ‘Independence for Hong Kong’ they lose. They must insist that they want their legal rights as a Special Administration as given to them by the Basic Law. Again, high ground.
The Umbrella movement was basically a demand for ‘universal suffrage’ – ie the vote for everyone, as outlined in the Basic Law – and they attempted to shut down the city by closing the main thoroughfares in Central.
China paid triad gangsters to go in, beat everybody up, and with the help of the police clear the protest. It worked. They paid thugs to make it go away (Protection money? Standover tactics? Whatever). Note: Nobody disputes the existence of violence by triad gangsters here. It’s an accepted fact.
Then this year, the new CE Carrie Lam (google ‘Glass Cliff’ for the reason why a woman’s suddenly in this job) introduced the Extradition Law. Ostensibly it’s because a guy in Taiwan murdered his girlfriend and fled to Hong Kong and couldn’t be extradited back to Taiwan.
In reality it’s because of the Book Shop Five. Five owners of a bookstore in Causeway Bay were about to publish a really nasty tell-all book called ‘Xi And His Six Women’ that was basically character assassination. (Mainland Chinese are very big on being morally pure etc.) They never had the chance to release it, they all disappeared – picked up by Chinese Public Security (ie secret police). One was a Swedish citizen who was picked up in Thailand. This is illegal, China can’t do this. (A Chinese citizen used to be in charge of Interpol. He disappeared, possibly for doing his job.)
But they really, really want to, so they introduced the extradition law. Piss off your Chinese business partner: you’ll be sent over the border to a place where torture is normal. Say the wrong thing: secret police on your doorstep. Unfurl a banner on Lion Rock saying that you want votes for everybody: gulag for you.
So: Here We Are. 2019 And It’s All Gone To Hell.
Instead of holding a sit-in in one location the protesters have decided to hold flying protests to disrupt the most important thing about Hong Kong to the CCP: the money. They decide on an app where to go, build barricades, block off the road, trash pro-Beijing stores (there’s some fantastic photos of completely trashed stores next to ones that haven’t been touched, depending on whether they support the CCP or not on the r/HongKong subreddit) throw some rocks, and when the police appear they scatter and disappear. There’s also video of them returning later and cleaning up after themselves.
They’ve hit the wrong businesses a few times (Shanghai Bank most recently) and issued apologies for it. They are specifically targeting pro-Beijing companies and the recent NBA thing will be interesting to watch unfold.
Their motto is ‘Be like water’ – they arrive, disrupt, and then disappear. The ABC (Australian ABC) documentary on them is very informative about their tactics and up on the ABC iView app.
At this point can I just say: ‘be like water’ and wearing black: I see what you did there.
Xinhua (the mouthpiece of the CCP) is framing the protests as ‘violent thugs have been given guns and grenade launchers by the CIA and are terrorising this peaceful city’ and people believe it. Many overseas Chinese are completely down with this depiction of the protesters as violent criminal troublemakers. I think it’s a cultural thing: making waves is heavily frowned upon, and everybody knows what happens to people who do it. ‘Causing trouble’ is a crime in China that’s used as a catch-all to incarcerate problem people who haven’t actually broken any other laws.
A group of gangsters in white shirts has been seen to assist the police, without the restraint that the police have shown – they’ve been beating people up indiscriminately. This looked really bad and they seemed to have pulled back on that one. A legislative council member named Junius Ho (he can’t spell ‘Julius’) has been loudly supporting them and the CCP government – he’s stopped to shake these white-shirted gangster’s hands. He’s the past president and present member of the Tuen Mun (next door to Yuen Long) rural committee and what a coincidence. So the CCP has been trying to buy their way out of it by again paying thugs to break up the protests – and it failed. It looked really bad on social media.
The CCP has produced a number of ‘patriotic’ videos about the PLA that are obvious, direct threats to the people of Hong Kong. They’ve been shared by Xinhua, the CCP propaganda mouthpiece, on twitter and this is hilarious because twitter is blocked in China.
A lot of government officials in Hong Kong have been bought off by China or their jobs depend on sucking up to the CCP. When they hold press conferences, they look like terrified hostages. Except for the Rural Committee people who look like the CCP has given them a great deal of money and told them they’re terribly patriotic and helping to remove the threat of violence from a beautiful city or something.
(That’s Junius Ho at Carrie Lam’s right hand. Not symbolic of anything, nosiree.)
The protest movement has no leaders (they were rounded up and jailed ages ago and it did nothing), making it impossible for the CCP to negotiate with them. They have five very clear demands (that’s why they hold up their hands with the five fingers spread). They know exactly what they want – they want democracy and for the police to stop being bastards.
Unfortunately for the CCP, unlike the Mainland, everybody in Hong Kong has full access to the Internet and they’re sharing everything. This has become a war for the high ground and when you have a bunch of children in industrial dust masks holding kickboards and PVC pipe against fully-trained riot police who’ve already shot two people in the eye and shot two school kids with live rounds, the kids are going to win the propaganda war.
The police have become more and more brutal – to the point of beating up completely restrained protesters and even bystanders who weren’t doing anything – and I strongly suspect the CCP has brought in PLA soldiers (we saw them being trucked in) and provided them with Hong Kong Police Force uniforms (this video shows soldiers inside the PLA barracks pretending to be protesters, and soldiers in Hong Kong Police uniforms suppressing them. It looks like urban warfare training and there have been suggestions that they’ve infiltrated the protesters.)
The view of many people on the Mainland is that the Hong Kong people are spoilt brats tainted by Western immorality, traitors to the motherland, unpatriotic and violent. If they are PLA soldiers – they’re just acting based on the information they’ve been given, and let’s face it the PLA is a blunt instrument used to maintain the CCP’s hold on a terrified Chinese population.
The Mask Rule
So here we are again. The Government can’t make protesting illegal; it’s in the Basic Law. So they make masks illegal: the threat is that they will outlaw masks to identify the protesters and when this is over they’re all going to the gulag.
China isn’t the world leader on facial recognition for nothing. (I haven’t gone into China’s high-tech methods for urban population behaviour control but every time they’re brought up people say ‘That looks like something out of Black Mirror’.)
The Hong Kong people cannot afford to lose this. If China wins, everybody goes to jail, and jail in China is something you really don’t want to experience.
The police have started rounding up protesting children to terrorise the parents.
There’s video of the little ten-year-old girl in the top left trembling with fear as she’s held by the police. This is where we are.
The Hong Kong protesters are fighting for their free speech and the right to vote for their own government. They’re still out in force because the CCP can’t arrest everybody.
The Chinese government is terrified that the Mainland residents may hear what’s happening and decide that democracy sounded like a good idea in 1989 and it may be worth revisiting and the CCP can’t arrest everybody.
The CCP has been paralysed because attempts to buy the protesters off haven’t worked, paying thugs to beat them up hasn’t worked, and even bringing in the army hasn’t really worked. Banning the masks was the ‘people appointed for politics rather than merit’ thrashing around in a panic and making a decision that only added fuel to the fire.
They don’t want to bring tanks in because then they lose the propaganda war and nobody wants to be seen to be the bad guy on the world stage (the new age of social media and everybody being aware of what’s happening is a big part of this. The first revolution in the world to be live-tweeted.)
Where Do We Go From Here?
There are three possible outcomes here.
The protesters win. Yeah nah not happening. Carrie Lam may step down and be replaced by another CCP toady but Beijing wants that sweet, sweet money running like water through Hong Kong. Not happening, and if China backs down it’ll lose face and it will nuke Hong Kong before it loses face. (Ha ha you think I’m exaggerating, don’t you?)
The CCP wins. Mass roundups of protesters, mass incarceration (probably over the border), a heavy crackdown to terrorise the population. Hong Kong will become just another Chinese city. Most of the big business houses will stay with a smaller office or move to Singapore. Most of the people will leave if they can. BUT the people will remember when democracy was within their reach and they will not forget. Even if they win this one, the CCP’s hold on China is doomed. Unfortunately this is my bet. The oppressive government has been hit at its foundations and the cracks are showing.
(Also: China’s economic bubble is close to bursting and there’s that carrot disappearing.) I have hope for the people of China, which for me is what this is all about. The people of China deserve the benefits of freedom and democracy.
War of attrition. The government just continues to beat the crap out of the protesters and hopes that their will to continue peters out. People will have to get on with their lives eventually. The result of this is the same as number 2 with less people ending up in concentration camps. This is what I think will happen: by the middle of next year, enough of the protesters will have been coerced into submission that the movement fades. But nobody will forget.
Additional Notes for the Really Masochistic:
What is a Lennon Wall? (I hope a photographer is making a permanent record of these.)
Why is the MTR being vandalised? (This article is by the Hong Kong Free Press who are excellent. Highly recommended.)
The Hong Kong Anthem (People were singing ‘Can you hear the people sing’ from Les Miserables as a kind of alternate anthem. A composer made this anthem for them. Now they gather and sing this in shopping centres because the centres are a public place and it’s not technically a ‘gathering’ so not illegal)
Taiwan’s Place in All This (Taiwan’s not perfect but it’s what China could be if it was free and democratic. I’ve been there, and it’s awesome)
I just kissed goodbye my chance of ever gaining a visa to visit China ever again. Oh well.
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