After three months, the Hong Kong extradition protests of 2019 have become quotidian. The Monday morning question for China-watchers has not been whether a protest took place but how many people showed up or how violently clashed with the police or with one another. Was this going to be the Monday that the Chinese government might finally decide that enough was enough, and that the rule of law must be reinstated by force in the Special Administrative Region?
One June 9, more than 1 million people flooded the streets of Hong Kong to protest a controversial extradition bill that would have made it legal for convicted criminals in Hong Kong to be extradited to mainland China. The force of that protest came from its spontaneity; spontaneity means unpredictability, and unpredictability puts real pressure on political decision-makers to placate the masses before things get out of hand. The June 9 protests forced authorities to halt the bill – first temporarily, then indefinitely. But the protests of recent weekends haven’t forced government authorities to do much of anything.
That’s not a coincidence. It is immensely difficult for protest movements to sustain the intensity and magnitude necessary to drive real political change. When protests become a regular weekend activity, it usually means they have lost the momentum necessary to create political change. Consider the yellow vest protests in France that began late last year. The size and vitriol of the protests prompted French President Emmanuel Macron to ditch his planned fuel tax hike and call for a national dialogue to address the protesters’ demands. For weeks after Macron’s capitulation, the yellow vests continued to ransack Parisian businesses and burn cars in the streets – but they never again forced Macron’s hand. Though some yellow vest protesters still turn out each weekend, their numbers have dwindled so much that Macron’s government is making another pass at the economic reforms that brought protesters to the streets in the first place.
Like the French protests, the unrest in Hong Kong has reached a plateau of ineffectuality. Yes, last weekend thousands of protesters took to the streets and clashed with police in Hong Kong again, despite the fact that Hong Kong authorities forbade any marches in the city and despite rumors that China was considering dispatching the People’s Liberation Army to the restive Special Administrative Region to quell the unrest. But these protests are orders of magnitude smaller than the June 9 demonstrations. As for the PLA, the source of those “rumors” is a Chinese Defense Ministry spokesperson who told a media briefing last Wednesday that the PLA would only intervene at the Hong Kong regional government’s request.
Mainland China’s government does not seem to feel compelled to intervene Tiananmen-style in Hong Kong. Spokespersons for China’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office gave a fairly bland press conference on Monday, repeating some platitudes about how bad the demonstrations are for Hong Kong and scolding foreign countries that have criticized China over the protests. That is remarkable on the face of it. One of the primary roles of the Chinese state is to maintain social harmony. A Chinese state that is unwilling or unable to ensure social harmony will not remain in power for very long. But this Chinese state is neither of those. This is a Chinese government that has elevated Xi Jinping to the de facto position of emperor-in-chief and is busily attempting to remake Uighurs in the image of the Han via “reeducation camps.” China is not intervening in Hong Kong because it chooses not to.
Three Rivers, Two Systems, One China
To understand why – and to understand Hong Kong in the first place – we need to examine a bit of Chinese history and geography.
China’s three most important rivers – the Yellow, the Yangtze and the Pearl – each represent a phase of Chinese territorial expansion. The Yellow River is the cradle of Chinese civilization. The earliest ancestors of today’s Chinese people emerged from the Yellow River Basin, expanding primarily southward where they fought and eventually conquered rival tribes and ethnic groups that lived along the Yangtze River. From there, Chinese civilization spread even farther south, all the way to the Pearl River. The conjoining of the regions around these three rivers was achieved by the Qin and the Han dynasties, which ruled China successively from 221 B.C.–220 A.D. Since the Han Dynasty, the fundamental goal of every Chinese dynasty or ruler has been to maintain Chinese control over these three regions, often by conquering neighboring regions as buffers or tributaries.
What is today southern China (the area around the Pearl River system) has been an integral part of China for over two millennia. For most of that time period, Hong Kong was irrelevant. To successive Chinese dynasties, “Hong Kong” simply referred to the small, sparsely populated and strategically unimportant island of Hong Kong that lay at the edge of the Pearl River Delta. Today, “Hong Kong” refers to the former British colony that combines three distinct geographic units. Hong Kong Island, which as recently as 1841 was described by then British Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston as “a barren island with hardly a house upon it,” was ceded to the British Empire “in perpetuity” in the 1842 Treaty of Nanjing. The Kowloon Peninsula, another hilly and mostly unpopulated region, was ceded to the British in 1860 in the Peking Convention. The “New Territories” were leased to the British in 1898 for a period of 99 years. Of the three, only Hong Kong Island is separated from the Chinese mainland.
If it had been up to the British, Hong Kong would never have been returned to China. In fact, the British approached the Chinese government in the 1980s hoping to renew their 99-year lease on the New Territories. Not only did Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping reject the British request, but he also informed the British that when the terms of the lease expired, China planned to recover its sovereignty over all of Hong Kong, not just the parts that were leased. By 1979, when Britain first approached China about renewing the lease, Britain was hardly an empire any longer and certainly did not possess the capability to defend Hong Kong from China. Britain had no choice but to acquiesce to China’s demands. It did so in the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, which said Hong Kong would be returned to China in 1997 – but also guaranteed that Hong Kong’s unique political and economic system would remain unchanged for a period of 50 years: the so-called “one country, two systems” framework.
In the Mainland’s Image
The “one country, two systems” framework did not reflect any sort of British-Chinese compromise. From the Chinese government’s perspective, “one country, two systems” was a pragmatic policy designed to slowly assimilate Hong Kong back into mainland China – and the Chinese government would benefit from Hong Kong’s status as a global financial capital along the way. But it was never going to be easy. After all, the British essentially built and then ruled Hong Kong for 156 years. The British bequeathed to Hong Kong an entirely different set of values and structures from those cultivated on the mainland under Qing and then Communist rule. Many in the West let themselves believe that post-Mao China would be recreated in the image of the West, that Hong Kong could function as a sort of Trojan horse for the remaking of China as a liberal democratic pillar of the international political system. They failed to realize that China’s intention all along was to remake Hong Kong in its image. The era of Chinese humiliation at the hands of foreign powers was over for good.
The Chinese government always knew that integrating Hong Kong would be long and arduous. Beijing probably assumed there would be moments like the anti-extradition protests or the 2014 Umbrella protests. Hong Kong was a British colony for too long for there not to be deep-seated political and cultural experiences that needed to be overcome. Luckily, we don’t have to guess how long China planned for this process to take; we can simply take China at its word. China agreed to a “one country, two systems” state of affairs for a period of 50 years. Much as China refused to renew the British lease on the New Territories in 1984, it will refuse to renew the “one country, two systems” framework in 2047. In 1997, China was not yet strong enough to assimilate Hong Kong into the mainland, but Beijing is betting by 2047 it will be. And by then, China will be looking to use the lessons it has learned in integrating Hong Kong to bring Taiwan into the fold. China’s goal in the coming decades will be to make it politically and economically impossible for Taiwan to resist rejoining the mainland, even if that means implementing another “one country, two systems” framework to ease the shock of a union, just as it did with Hong Kong.
It’s difficult to predict what kinds of hot-button issues and developments impel people to leave the comfort and safety of their homes to protest against their government. That many in Hong Kong would have opposed the extradition bill is not a surprise, but why the extradition bill in particular caused such a stir – after all the other steps China has taken to reassert control over Hong Kong – is a mystery. Take China’s kidnapping and extradition of five Hong Kong residents in the 2016 Causeway Bay Books controversy, for example. Those disappearances were arguably more shocking than anything put forward in the extradition bill, which was simply a formalization of a power that China has exercised in the past and will exercise whenever it deems it necessary. But for whatever reason, the bill touched a nerve inside Hong Kong, and the government in Beijing will now watch carefully to see what it can learn from how the situation develops from here. Intervening too heavy-handedly would be counterproductive. China’s goal is not to force Hong Kong to be like the rest of China, but to slowly assimilate and acculturate Hong Kong to its new political reality – and China isn’t in a rush.
If this level of unrest was simmering in Beijing, or Shanghai, or any other Chinese city, the Chinese government would have already suppressed it. In that sense, “one country, two systems” is very much alive and well. The same rules don’t apply in Hong Kong. China knows that Hong Kong is different and removed enough from the rest of China that it does not need to fear that what is happening there will spill over into other Chinese cities. “One country, two systems” cuts both ways. China also knows that forcing Hong Kong to become like the rest of China overnight will inevitably fail. China’s complacency should therefore not be read as a sign of weakness but as a sign of confidence. The question the rest of the world should be asking itself is not “what will happen in Hong Kong?” That is a fait accompli. The real question is, “what will happen to Taiwan?” My best guess: In the long-term, China will have more of an interest in assimilating Taiwan than anyone else will have in defending it – that Hong Kong’s present is Taiwan’s future.