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The Future of Hong Kong’s Autonomy

How will China and the West respond to the Water Revolution?

By Brian C.H. Fong for
The Future of Hong Kong’s Autonomy

A protester waves a United States flag during a rally in Hong Kong on Saturday, Oct. 26, 2019.

Credit: AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein

The “Water Revolution” in Hong Kong that began in June continues to hit global headlines. Many people are wondering why Hong Kongers are so united and willing to carry on their fight for over four months, with no indication of retreat so far.

We should start with this premise: Hong Kongers are a stateless nation struggling for autonomy. Only by grasping this basic truth can we interpret the significance of the Water Revolution in a wider context, as the latest chapter of Hong Kongers’ continuous struggle for autonomy. With that in mind, how will China and the West respond to the autonomist demands of Hong Kongers?

Hong Kongers: A Stateless Nation Struggling for Autonomy

In contemporary nationalism literature, the “state” and the “nation” are fundamentally two different concepts. The former refers to “a system of political actions” built upon sovereignty, while the latter means a political community based on either common ethnicity or common civic values pursuing the “right to self-government,” as defined by nationalism scholar Michael Keating in his classical book Nations Against the State. Conceptually, a nation may or may not possess a state. When nation‐ness and state‐ness largely coincide, we can call it a nation-state, such as Japan, but it is not uncommon that a nation lacks a state of its own. Examples of stateless nations include Catalans, Scots, and Quebecois struggling for a greater degree of autonomy or outright independence.

The imposition of border controls between China and Hong Kong in 1949 laid the foundation for Hong Kong to develop to its own identity. The “informal devolution” of autonomous powers from London to Hong Kong in the 1950s-1970s provided the institutional foundation for the formation of the Hong Kongers as a stateless nation. Such autonomous powers were later “de jure recognized” under international law by virtue of the 1984 Sino‐British Joint Declaration (SBJD) and “codified” as domestic law under the Chinese state structure by virtue of the 1990 Basic Law (BL). By July 1, 1997, Britain handed over to China not only Hong Kong’s sovereignty but also a young stateless nation, the Hong Kongers.

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Unfortunately, Hong Kongers and China had fundamentally different interpretations of the “one country, two systems” (OCTS) model from the very beginning. Hong Kongers aspired to maintain a permanent “two systems” under a rooftop-like “one country” while Beijing treated the “two systems” as a transitional phase moving toward greater centralization under the “one country.” Because of such fundamental differences, the story of Hong Kongers after 1997 is that of a series of struggles for autonomy against absorption by China — from the 2003 anti-Article 23 movement and 2010 anti-express railway movement to the 2012 anti-national education movement and 2014 Umbrella Movement. China has tried to subsume the Hong Kongers since 1997, but their stateless nationalism has, paradoxically, become more consolidated through their struggles.

It is under this context that the Water Revolution, Hong Kongers’ latest fight for autonomy, first broke out in June. In the eyes of many Hong Kongers, the proposed Extradition Bill represented China’s reinforced attempt to chip away at Hong Kong’s autonomy by removing the firewall that separates the legal jurisdiction of the territory from the Chinese one. The bill was suspended on June 15 in the face of both local and international pressure, namely the June 12 mass resistance outside Hong Kong’s Legislative Council and the June 13 re-introduction of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act (HKHRDA) in the United States by a bipartisan group of members of Congress.

The Extradition Bill saga created a strong fear of losing Hong Kong’s autonomy, motivating Hong Kongers from different generations to overcome the long divide between peaceful and militant protests and work together from offering frontline resistance to behind-the-scenes support. In other words, the Water Revolution began as a protest against the Extradition Bill, but it has evolved into a wider fight for Hong Kong’s autonomy. For many Hong Kongers, unless a popularly-elected autonomous government and legislature could be established to fully represent their will, the Extradition Bill, and any other attempt to chip away at Hong Kong’s autonomy, could always come back.

China’s “Take-All Approach” to Hong Kong’s Autonomy

While Hong Kongers have voiced their autonomist demands strongly in the Water Revolution, the political future of Hong Kong is invariably linked to the policy of China, the current sovereign of the territory.

For decades, China’s basic approach toward Hong Kongers’ autonomist demands has been consistent: to respond with greater centralized, authoritarian controls over the territory. Such a centralized authoritarian approach to Hong Kong is an extension of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) regime’s overall strategy on assimilating Chinese peripheries from Manchuria and Mongolia to Xinjiang and Tibet; this approach is built upon the lessons that China drew from the collapse of the quasi-federalist Soviet Union in 1991. Since 2012, the Xi Jinping regime has forcefully extended its centralized authoritarianism to Hong Kong. This trend is parallel with the aggressive assimilation of Uyghurs and Tibetans under Xi.

But China’s approach to Hong Kong is more than a direct application of centralized authoritarianism. Hong Kong is governed fundamentally differently from Xinjiang and Tibet (Hong Kong has not yet been directly ruled by the CCP nomenklatura system) and the pressure of assimilation facing Hong Kongers is moderate when compared with that facing Uyghurs and Tibetans (Hong Kongers do not yet face re-education camps and the social credit system). The reasons for this are obvious, but often overlooked: it serves China’s own strategic and economic interests to maintain some forms of Hong Kong’s autonomy in the name of the OCTS model.

Despite oft-heard claims that “Hong Kong is depending on China to survive” as advanced by Chinese and Hong Kong elites, in reality “China heavily depends on Hong Kong’s international financial center to survive.” Hong Kong’s tremendous financial value to China only exists under the OCTS model, particularly its separate common law system, independent currency pegged to the U.S. dollar, and system of free flow of capital. Functioning as the “financial lung” through which the Chinese economy breathes, Hong Kong’s financial importance to China is irreplaceable. Other Chinese cities like Shanghai and Shenzhen can’t replace Hong Kong, due to their lack of internationally recognized free market and rule of law — the failure of the Shanghai Free Trade Zone to live up its promise of free-flowing currency and capital tells us a lot about the constraints facing China when trying to reduce its dependence on Hong Kong.

The coupling of China’s centralized authoritarianism and its irreplaceable financial dependence on Hong Kong have prompted the Xi Jinping regime to adopt a “take-all approach” since 2012 — changing the “inner content” of the OCTS model to facilitate tighter control on the one hand, while keeping the “outer shell” of the OCTS model to make the best use of Hong Kong for its own agenda on the other hand. Over the years, China successfully tightened its grip on Hong Kong by disqualifying opposition legislators and candidates, trespassing into the Hong Kong jurisdiction in the incidents of Causeway Bay booksellers and Xiao Jianhua, banning the pro-independence Hong Kong National Party, applying Chinese laws through the co-location arrangement at West Kowloon station, and so forth. While there were both local opposition and international warnings against all these controversial decisions, they failed to stop China from steadily chipping away at Hong Kong’s autonomy while continuing to make best use of its special status to serve the CCP regime.

In this context, the success of the Water Revolution in stopping the legislation of the Extradition Bill was extraordinary, because it was the first major setback for China’s “take-all approach” since 2012. Being forced by both local resistance and international pressure to suspend, and later formally withdraw, the Extradition Bill, China hit a wall and cannot push further. Worse still for China was that the Water Revolution has exposed its limitations, previously commonly overlooked, in controlling Hong Kong.

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First, the Water Revolution exposed that China’s hands are tied in deploying the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) (including the People’s Armed Police, PAP). Constrained by its irreplaceable financial dependence on Hong Kong as well as the possible reaction of the Western countries, particularly the United States, China was revealed, as later confirmed authoritatively by Chief Executive Carrie Lam, to be reluctant to pay the huge price that would stem from deploying the PLA to bloodily crack down on the protests. In other words, thanks to its international status as a financial center, Hong Kong is not Tiananmen Square 1989, Urumqi, or Lhasa.

Second, the Water Revolution exposed that China cannot effectively control Hong Kong via its local collaborator network when facing the united crowds of Hong Kongers. Given that the price for deploying the PLA is too high, when trying to put down the Water Revolution China has so far mainly relied on its local collaborator network, particularly the Hong Kong police. Since June the Hong Kong government has adopted a “paramilitary police-state” mode to indiscriminately beat, arrest, and prosecute protesters for the purpose of deterring people from taking part in the protests. Concurrently, pro-China business chambers, political parties, and social organizations have been mobilized to support the police and to stage counter-protests. Such a multipronged divide-and-conquer strategy, if successful, would enable China to divide the militant protesters from the peaceful protesters and then conquer the movement, just as it did five years ago in the Umbrella Movement. However, such a strategy has proven to be insufficient to quell the Water Revolution. Both militant protesters and peaceful protesters have learned from the failures of the Umbrella Movement; thus they put great emphasis on ensuring “no division.”

At the time of writing, the Water Revolution remains resilient, despite the fact that more than 2,000 protesters have been arrested and over 200 have been charged with rioting. In contrast, the police’s repressive tactics have backfired, destroying the legitimacy of the CCP’s local collaborator network. Opinion polls conducted by the Chinese University of Hong Kong in mid-October showed that protesters continue to keep public opinion on their side, with 52 percent and 49 percent of the Hong Kongers giving a “zero mark” to the police force and Hong Kong government, respectively, in terms of trust. Unless there is a dramatic change in the momentum of the Water Revolution, it is unlikely that China can turn around the situation by relying on its local collaborator network.

With the “PLA card” (the threat of a bloody crackdown) losing its deterrent power and the “local collaborators card” (the paramilitary police-state) self-destructing, China runs the risk of exhausting its tools and faces greater pressure to make concessions. It is under this context that in September China addressed one of the “five demands” by formally withdrawing the Extradition Bill, and recently floated the trial balloon of replacing the chief executive. Local and international pressure is building for the Hong Kong and Chinese governments to accede to the protesters’ other four demands (setting up a commission of inquiry to investigate the police, retracting the classification of protesters as “rioters,” dropping all prosecutions against protesters, and implementing universal suffrage for the chief executive and Legislative Council elections), but the dilemma facing China is that acceding to these demands will amount to a complete retreat from the “take-all approach” in which Xi Jinping himself has a personal stake. Failing to put down the protests on the one hand while being reluctant to make further concessions on the other hand, China has no immediate solution to the current impasse.

The West: New Involvement in Hong Kong’s Autonomy

One of the major implications of the Water Revolution so far is that it has breathed new life into the role of the West as a stakeholder in Hong Kong’s autonomy, highlighting the complexity of Hong Kong’s “internationalized autonomy.”

There are two reasons prompting Western democracies to take a more active role in Hong Kong’s autonomy now.

First, China’s growing centralized, authoritarian controls over Hong Kong have undermined freedom and rule of law in the territory, forcing the Western countries to stand up for their own interests. The “disappearance” of Causeway Bay booksellers and billionaire Xiao Jianhua in 2016 and 2017 respectively sounded the alarms over cracks in Hong Kong’s status as a separate jurisdiction. Then finally the Extradition Bill was introduced early this year, aiming to remove the firewall that shields both locals and non-locals in Hong Kong from the jurisdiction of China. The Extradition Bill attracted unprecedented across-the-board opposition from international business chambers (including the International Chamber of Commerce, the American Chamber of Commerce, and the Nordic Chambers), and also government officials and parliamentarians of major Western governments (including the United States, the European Union, the U.K. and Canada, and G7 leaders). Obviously, the major lesson of the Extradition Bill saga to the West is that they can no longer rely on the Hong Kong government to protect their interests in the territory and must stand up on their own.

Second, wider geopolitical conflicts arising from China’s expanding influence are changing the Western countries’ approach to Hong Kong’s autonomy. In recent years, China’s influence has spread around the world by ways of Belt and Road projects and offshore United Front operations, prompting the West to consider various ways to counter Chinese influence. Within this wider geopolitical context, Hong Kong has been transformed from a geopolitical neutral ground bridging China and the “Free World” into the forefront of resistance to China’s expanding influence.

The marked change in U.S. policy toward Hong Kong over the past few months is illustrative. Earlier this year, the outgoing U.S. consul-general in Hong Kong, Kurt Tong, already declared the strategic importance of Hong Kong’s autonomy in the U.S. free and open Indo-Pacific strategy. When the Extradition Bill saga was heating up, U.S. government leaders and members of Congress threw their support behind the Water Revolution, as indicated in the high-profile meetings between White House officials and Hong Kong’s democratic leaders, the inclusion of the Hong Kong issue in the agenda of the U.S.-China trade talks, and the quick passage of the HKHRDA by the U.S. House of Representatives. At a time when a “U.S.-China New Cold War” appears to be on the rise across different battlefields of trade, technology and security, Hong Kong’s autonomy has evolved into another arena for a U.S.-China showdown.

In a word, Hong Kong’s autonomy is not only a local issue, but also an internationalized one. The Extradition Bill saga has shown that the future of Hong Kong’s autonomy is not only shaped by central-local dynamics, but it will also be structured by global geopolitics. With the global significance of Hong Kong’s autonomy, how Western countries, particularly the United States as the global leader, respond to Hong Kongers’ autonomist demands will certainly shape the way forward.

Hong Kongers, China, and the West: A Framework of Three-Way Interaction

The future of Hong Kong’s autonomy remains uncertain, because it is structured by a complex three-way interaction between Hong Kongers, China, and the West, with each being shaped by various interrelated variables.

China’s approach toward Hong Kong’s autonomy is principally decided by its capacities and resources to control the territory, which are in turn shaped by a number of variables: Will the stability of the CCP regime be affected by its economic debt crisis and capital flight? Can China still maintain and command its local collaborator network in Hong Kong? Is China capable of coping with simultaneous unrest across the Chinese peripheries, from Xinjiang and Tibet to Hong Kong and Taiwan? All these interrelated variables will decide whether China can muster enough capacities and resources to push forward its “take-all approach” toward Hong Kong or not.

The Western countries’ approach toward Hong Kong’s autonomy will depend upon their willingness and efforts to support Hong Kong’s autonomy, which are in turn shaped by the geopolitical strategies of the United States as the leader: What strategies will be adopted by the U.S. to check China’s expanding influence and how Hong Kong will be positioned in this geopolitical chessboard? How aggressive will Washington be in exercising its leverage in Hong Kong’s autonomy by the virtue of the annual certification and individual-targeted sanctions under the impending HKHRDA? Will the U.S. join hands with other countries such as the G7 allies to exert pressure on China over the Hong Kong issue? We need to pay close attention to each of these variables to assess the will and efforts of the West to support Hong Kong’s autonomy.

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Given its geopolitical status as an overlapping periphery, the state of Hong Kong’s autonomy will always be structured by big powers, particularly China and the United States. But Hong Kongers as a small stateless nation can still influence the parameters of the geopolitical game, if they can fight in unity and with wisdom — that’s exactly what they have done successfully over the past four months. In future, will Hong Kongers continue to consolidate their stateless nationalism and overcome China’s divide-and-conquer tactics? Will protesters bring the fight more directly to China and its local collaborator network by undermining their capacities and resources to control Hong Kong? Will Hong Kongers strengthen the support of the West by strengthening a global citizen diplomatic network? All these interrelated variables will shape the future mobilization power of Hong Kong’s autonomist movement, and thus decide whether Hong Kongers can exert the “leverage of the weak” in the emerging U.S.-China New Cold War.

For stateless nations, the road to autonomy is always bumpy and winding, to be measured in terms of decades and even centuries. With their strong aspiration for autonomy, Hong Kongers have no choice but to take up this heavy challenge. “I can’t go on. I’ll go on,” the famous quotation once employed by nationalism scholar Benedict Anderson in the discussion of small nations, should be the motto for Hong Kongers in the long road ahead.

Brian C.H. Fong is a comparative political scientist based in Hong Kong. He is the first editor of two forthcoming book volumes entitled China’s Influence: Centre-Periphery Tug of War Across the Indo-Pacific and Routledge Handbook of Comparative Territorial Autonomies.