Tuesday, September 30, 2014


The "Occupy Central" movement and the "Umbrella Revolution" in Hong Kong look a lot like the start of the Tienanmen movement (15 April--4 June 1989).  Having served both in Hong Kong and Beijing, the current events do concern me in more ways than one.

Hong Kong was China's oxygen tank when China was still weak, striving to follow-up on Deng Xiaoping's call for reforms in 1992.  Today China is assertive, and given the growth of its Eastern corridor, Hong Kong has now become "one among others."

The Basic Law gave expression to the principle "Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong".  The system inherited from the British rule is supposed to remain unchanged until July 2074.  The selection of the chief executive by universal suffrage was enshrined as the ultimate aim. The "one country/two systems" policy was also meant to be a blueprint for future situations (Taiwan).  The formula worked rather well to a point. The Chinese obeyed more the letter than the spirit, but overall the follow-up was satisfactory.

Beijing's choice of the current Chief Executive, Leung Chung-ying, raised alarm bells from the start.  He appeared to be more a Beijing surrogate than his own man. The Chinese misunderstood too that the passing of time, since the handover in 1997, did not erase the aspirations of a generation born after the handover to China. The last British Governor Christopher Patten was able to push the conversation about democracy forward, both against Chinese disbelief and the obstruction by Office mandarins in London. His legacy fills Hong Kong's streets today.

The situation ahead of October 1st (China's national day) is potentially tense. It is to be expected that President Xi Jinping will do the utmost to avoid having to intervene in a harsh way.  The financial/economic Pearl River Delta is too important to fail.  On the other hand, he must avoid contagion in southern China which is politically more porous than the north. He also understands that the manifestations are less directed against China than against its governance. Everybody who lived in China knows how the bonds with the "motherland" are sentimental and socio/culturally deeply-rooted in the hearts and minds.  The street in Hong Kong is against the Mainland's heavy hand, nothing more.

Hong Kong continues to be relevant as China's modernization laboratory.  Any misstep could have enormous consequences internally and internationally. The protesters should beware of miscalculations or provocations. Beijing had better listen and show restraint, likewise for the stake it has in the perception of neighbors and Taiwan. 

After having been briefly arrested, it looks as if Joshua Wong, the 17-year-old student activist, was set free. The pro-China camp better beware of making martyrs. Any too blatant reference to Tienanmen in either camp might ignite what is still manageable into a full-blown crisis. The Chinese mind is well suited to come up with face saving measures. A half-measure might suffice to calm down the provocateurs on one side and the hardliners on the other.  The West had better remain low-key, for now.

Hong Kong is like a tiny scorpion at China's far end.  Despite its insignificant size, its sting can nevertheless be fatal.  In choosing to harm, however, it might simultaneously sign its own death warrant.

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