As protesters defaced and vandalised China’s national emblem at the Chinese government liaison office in Hong Kong on 21 July, they faced the wrath of a pro-Beijing mob armed with batons at Yuen Long subway station. Emotions are running high, with scuffles witnessed between students from Hong Kong and Mainland on university campuses around the world. The grim law and order situation and burgeoning number of demonstrators have made nervous both the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) authorities and the Central government in Beijing.
Beijing’s hardening position in the wake of the defacement of the national emblem could be discerned from the PLA spokesperson Wu Qian’s answer to a question on Hong Kong’s situation, on the morning of 24 July. Wu Qian said that “China has been paying close attention to the developments in Hong Kong, especially the demonstrations and violent incidents on 21 July, as well as the storming of the liaison office by the radicals… The actions of some of the radical protesters have challenged the authority of the Central government and touched the bottom line of the principle of ‘one country, two systems’. It is absolutely intolerable. The ‘Pearl of the Orient’ cannot be defiled.” Hinting that Beijing may send forces to quell the protests, he mentioned Article 14 of Chapter III of the Garrison Law, which stipulates that “In the event that the application of the Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region has been approved by the Central People’s Government, the Hong Kong Garrison shall send out troops to carry out the task of assistance in maintenance of public order and in disaster relief according to the order from the Central Military Commission, and the troops shall immediately return to their station after the task has been accomplished.”
But what triggered such protests and how does Beijing view the situation in Hong Kong? Early this year, fearing that Hong Kong may become a safe haven for fugitives, the local government proposed a “Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation (Amendment) Bill 2019”, thus providing for an extradition agreement between Hong Kong and Beijing, however, the Bill faced stiff resistance from Hong Kongers, who feared that political dissidents, human rights activists and even foreigners living in Hong Kong could be extradited to the Mainland to face trial. The bill is also seen by the locals as an infringement on their special status, dilution of the autonomy that China has promised will be upheld through 2047. Carrie Lam, the Chief Executive of the HKSAR, suspended the bill mid-June, but protesters are demanding a complete withdrawal of the bill and her resignation as it happened in 2003 when similar demonstrations scuttled the passage of the national security bill and led to the resignation of the then Chief Executive, Tung Chee-hwa. Seeing Beijing’s muscular approach, it appears that the 2019 protests will go the same way as the 2014 “Umbrella Movement” when Hong Kongers demanded the right to universal franchise in electing their leader.
Going by a Xinhua report published on 24 July in Chinese, it appears that Beijing is in no mood to relent; on the contrary, it is ready to send forces to quell the resistance. It has bluntly warned both protesters and foreign forces, primarily the United States and Great Britain to “lay their unbearable black hands off Hong Kong”. As regards the protesters, the commentary says that “A handful of radicals in Hong Kong have perpetrated violence, seriously undermined Hong Kong’s social order, trampled on the rule of law in Hong Kong, and openly challenged the authority of the Central government”. “They have illegally stored dangerous items and a large number of offensive weapons, defaced the national emblem and insulted the country and the region. These are shocking acts, which have not only harmed the interests of the people of Hong Kong, but also hurt the feelings of the entire Chinese nation, including the 7 million Hong Kong compatriots. Condemning violence, cracking down on crime, upholding the rule of law, and guarding peace are the responsibilities that any government should take,” says the report.
According to another article titled “The causes, effects, and countermeasures of Hong Kong’s anti-China riots” by Hu Aiguo, China has failed to “comprehensively decolonize, take over the education and judiciary, and annul the destructive influence” left by the so-called democratic reforms introduced by the British colonial authorities in Hong Kong just before the handover. As a result, Hong Kong retains its old age administrative, judicial and educational system, and it is for these reasons that the “pro-independence forces in Hong Kong deliberately emphasize only on the ‘two systems’ and ignore the ‘one China’ principle”. Hu has pronounced the protesters as separatists and terrorists, who, he says, have been clamouring for the establishment of the so-called “interim government” in place of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. He claims that the judiciary and legislature are hand in glove with the protestors, who at the instigation of anti-China forces are unleashing another colour revolution.
As for foreign intervention, China has harshly criticised some American and British politicians for “extending their political black hands and nakedly meddling in Hong Kong affairs in the guise of freedom and democracy”. China argues that this has once again exposed the dark political scheme of gross interference in China’s internal affairs by these forces. It says that “Hong Kong is a special administrative region of the People’s Republic of China. Hong Kong affairs are purely China’s internal affairs, and that the Chinese government and people will never allow wanton intervention of any foreign government, organization or individual in its internal affairs, and will not tolerate any foreign forces to abet turmoil in Hong Kong. We advise the US and the UK to abandon their double standards, immediately stop sending any false signals to the violent wrongdoings, and immediately stop the political smear of ‘one country, two systems’ with ulterior motives, and lay their unbearable black hands off Hong Kong.” Hu Aiguo’s article even accuses the CIA of instigating the riots. Arousing nationalistic fervours, he says China’s national security and territorial integrity are once again facing a severe test, and the Chinese nation has once again reached a most dangerous time. He reminds China that the disintegration of the Soviet Union began with the Baltic states of Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia.
B.R. Deepak is Professor of Chinese Studies at Jwaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.