Hong Kong means “fragrant harbour” in Chinese. But the territory’s citizens are creating a truly noxious headache for the Communist Party’s leaders in distant Beijing.
Protesters are insisting on their democratic rights with a determination and scale not seen on Chinese soil since 1989. Beijing will not want to use Tiananmen-style military force against them, not least because any bloodshed would likely have a severe impact on the Chinese economy.
The authorities are in the midst of a executing a pirouette to a new growth model, based on consumption rather than credit-fuelled investment. A blow-up in Hong Kong, which is the country’s main financial window on the rest of the world, is the last thing they want at this sensitive time.
Yet Beijing, having imposed the vetting system for election candidates in Hong Kong, cannot back down without suffering a major loss of authority. And it will, naturally, also fear that any reversal of its position will ignite other fires of democratic protest in China.
China’s army of internet censors have been busy blocking any mention of the scenes in Hong Kong on the mainland’s internet. And, of course, state-answerable television and newspapers will not touch the story. But, inevitably, word has got through to those – mainly young people – who know how to bypass the “Great Firewall” with proxy servers.
On the ground, it is possible that the umbrella-wielding, rubbish-collecting protesters will tire and dissipate. But at the moment they seem to have the bit between their teeth. These student-run protest groups have been blooded in opposition. They have challenged the authorities repeatedly over the past five years, on issues ranging from a high-speed rail link, to plans for a new “patriotic” school curriculum to perceived raids on the independence of the territory’s judiciary. The stakes here, of course, are much higher: this is about political autonomy, the vote.
This is a crisis long in the making. The British requisitioned this (then) barren rock in the South China Sea after pummelling the Chinese imperial forces into surrender in the 1830s. It was not a glorious episode for Britannia. Parliament ordered in the gunboats when Beijing refused to allow British merchants to sell Indian-grown opium into China through the port of Canton. Hong Kong began as the spoils of a drug-pushing thug.
But the territory blossomed into one of the most commercially dynamic territories on earth. When China descended into hell under Mao Zedong’s rule, hundreds of thousands of mainland refugees – including my father – fled to the safety and freedom of British-administered Hong Kong.
However, the British colonial authorities never introduced democracy while it was under their jurisdiction. This was partly for sensible reasons. In 1984 Margaret Thatcher bowed to reality and agreed to return the territory to China. Rolling out the vote at that stage would have been seriously provocative to Beijing.
Yet the British had plenty of opportunities to entrench democratic institutions before what expats jokingly referred to as “the great Chinese takeaway” loomed into view. Bolstering those realpolitik concerns was a patronising view in the colonial regime and the Foreign Office that the Hong Kong Chinese did not really want or need democracy. The last Governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, recalled in his memoirs advisers saying “no one in Hong Kong [is] really interested in politics”. Patten, to his credit, forced through some democratic reforms prior to the 1997 handover. But this was a plant with weak and attenuated roots.
The post-handover promise made by the former Chinese paramount leader Deng Xiaoping that Hong Kong would get universal suffrage by 2017 looked implausible. And so it has proved. What Beijing plainly wants in Hong Kong is a political leadership on a short leash, with the reins held firmly in Beijing. That is not the vision of “One Country, Two Systems” that many Hong Kong residents had in mind.
Yet, hearteningly, the population of Hong Kong have nurtured the fragile plant of freedom, despite its shallow roots. And now they’re massing to protect it from being torn up. No one can say how things will turn out. It is possible to sketch out many hypothetical scenarios, some bleak, some hopeful. A lot may hinge on the balance of power in the closed corridors of Beijing, just as it did in 1989.
But, if nothing else, this mass show of will should put paid to the patronising Western idea that the Chinese don’t care about personal freedom. The claim – so often mouthed by both Chinese and Western pundits – that the Chinese care only about getting rich looks slightly ridiculous this week. As the inspiring and exhilarating scenes from the fragrant harbour show, the Chinese are perfectly capable of kicking up a stink over politics too.
Ben Chu is the author of 'Chinese Whispers: Why everything you’ve heard about China is wrong'