Beijing’s poisoned chalice
Hong Kong’s prosperity has precious little to do with democracy, writes Eddie Ford
Thousands of armed police this week flooded onto the streets of Hong Kong, firing pepper bullets at crowds of demonstrators. Dozens have been detained. Social media is awash with accusations that the semi-autonomous metropolitan area has become “a police state”. The National People’s Congress voted overwhelmingly, 2,878 to one, for national security laws that specifically apply to Hong Kong. There were six abstentions. The PNC will start debating a new law criminalising ridicule of China’s national anthem, with a formal vote scheduled for June 4 - the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre.
The new security laws will outlaw subversion, separatism, “acts of foreign interference” and terrorism against the central government - it also allows Beijing to install its own security agencies in Hong Kong. Organisations, not just individuals, could come under the scope of the law. Carrie Lam, the fourth and current chief executive, has incurred global ire by supporting the NPC’s decision to bypass the Hong Kong government and impose the law itself. Under the ‘basic law’ - the mini-constitution enacted when Hong Kong was handed back to China by Britain in 1997 - Hong Kong is obligated to pass national security laws itself, but successive attempts to pass them have failed in the face of local resistance. Mass protests broke out in June last year that saw more than 8,000 people arrested. Protests have been rekindled, as the city emerges from pandemic restrictions. The 1997 agreement promised 50 years of uninterrupted semi-autonomy for Hong Kong under the ‘one country, two systems’ arrangement, so Beijing now stands accused of trying to bring 2047 forward to 2020. According to Lam, the laws “will not affect the legitimate rights and freedoms” of Hong Kong residents, or the independence of the judiciary - rather stretching credibility.
As for the proposed anthem law, a person would commit an offence if they have “intent to insult” the national anthem, by, for example, changing the lyrics or music, or singing in a “disrespectful way” - forget anything like Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Star-spangled banner’ or ‘God save the queen’ and be very careful at the next karaoke session. The law carries financial penalties and jail sentences of up to three years. Recent booing, at Hong Kong football matches, of the Chinese anthem, ‘March of the volunteers’, has proved embarrassing for the Beijing regime. Macau - a ‘special administrative region’ of the People’s Republic of China - enacted such laws in January 2019, but they stalled in Hong Kong because of the political gridlock.
When it comes to “foreign interference”, that clearly has happened. But this is hardly unique to Hong Kong. “Terrorism” and “subversion” - does that include mass protests or smashing up the local parliament? It could be all those and more, with Beijing the final arbiter. The state-run Global Times called the new laws “overdue”. They were needed to “prevent internal and external forces from using the region as a tool for creating situations that threaten national security”. Hong Kong “did not enjoy a single peaceful day” in 2019, the paper complained, being more like a city “in an undeveloped country engulfed in turmoil”.
Those demonstrating against the legislation chanted things like “Human rights are higher than the regime” and shouted “Be real Hong Kongers” at the police. Another slogan was: “Hong Kong independence, it’s the only way” - a demand previously on the fringe of the anti-Beijing movement, but apparently now growing in popularity. Incredibly, similar demands have appeared on some parts of the left. Perhaps the comrades naively think that this is just directed against Beijing - ‘Mainland China, hands off. We want to decide our own future.’ But in reality it is a chauvinistic demand directed against migrants from the mainland who are not regarded as real Hong Kongers - a bit like the local police.
Then again, only last year Socialist Worker argued that “protestors should look to their own power to win real democracy in Hong Kong” (July 2 2019). But obviously, at least for Marxists, the notion that the Hong Kong crisis and the struggle for genuine democracy can be resolved within Hong Kong is totally illusory - possibly inviting a Tiananmen Square-type massacre. What is required is a programme for sustained struggle throughout China against the corrupt, state-capitalist, Stalinoid regime in Beijing.
Either way, it is clear that Beijing has lost its patience and wants to impose a clampdown - though it is doubtful that it intends to bring ‘one country, two systems’ to a premature end. Yet the inference that many western commentators draw from the crisis is problematic, suggesting it could herald the end of Hong Kong’s prosperity. It has even been said that Hong Kong achieved such prosperity because of democracy, which is now in peril because of the proposed ‘national security’ laws.
Well, this is pure baloney - history as fairy story. A much better argument is that the territory achieved a level of prosperity due to the fact that it was a British colony with access to a global market and a ready supply of cheap labour. Hong Kong capitalists then provided, directly or indirectly, much of the finance needed for Deng Xiaoping’s capitalist turn - something encouraged by US imperialism ever since the Nixon-Mao rapprochement of 1972. The return of Hong Kong to China in 1997 occurred just before the country joined the World Trade Organisation. It is the link with China and integration into the world economy - plus maybe English-style contract law - which sees Hong Kong’s GDP per capita ranked above Finland, Canada and Germany.
But the idea that Hong Kong has ever had democracy is laughable. The nearest it ever came to it was when the lease on most of its territory was reaching its expiry date. Then and only then did the British, in the shape of Hong Kong’s last governor, Chris Patton, suddenly introduce elections for certain positions. The idea was obviously to pass a poisoned chalice to Beijing. Another possible motivating factor, if you do not want to be too cynical, was the belief that so-called bourgeois democracy was the pinnacle of human achievement, if not the ‘end of history’ - all societies are destined eventually to go in that direction. If you introduced a little dose of it in Hong Kong, then maybe the virus would infect the mainland and produce a vast market that could be dominated by western monopolies.
Obviously the Chinese leadership has other ideas. The claim is that China is using capitalism to strengthen the power of the state. Not that capitalism is using China’s strong state to develop capitalism. That matter is still historically undecided. But what cannot be doubted is the economic transformation of China. From grinding poverty it has now achieved what are called middle‑ranking living standards … and, of course, it functions as the workshop of the world, producing not just simple widgets but high-tech products too. Think Huawei, Alibaba, BIDU, Lenovo and Tencent. And it is not just Chinese capitalists who have benefited. United Nations statisticians love to boast about the success of the global economy and how many people have been lifted out of poverty over the last 20 years or so. Yes, two-thirds of them are Chinese, meaning that it is not the adoption of the western model that has lifted people out of poverty or ‘brought prosperity’ to China - nor the authoritarian model either, as some believe in the west. The relatively simple explanation is that China was allowed to integrate into the world economy - in marked contrast to the Soviet Union, of course.
No-one can seriously deny that China is the nearest there is to a challenger to US hegemony. However, contrary to a widely held conviction, we should not subscribe to the idea that its rise is inexorable or predestined by some hitherto unknown law of history. Actually, quite the opposite. Beijing is in a very weak position in terms of global politics. Just ask yourself who is China’s closest ally - it is North Korea (then at a push you could say Russia and Iran as well - even if only at the level of ‘My enemy’s enemy is my friend’). That more or less says it all.
The US is, and looks set to remain the global hegemon for some considerable time. At the moment it might be under the leadership of a semi-deranged individual, who recommends self-injecting bleach. But, whoever wins the November presidential election (assuming it takes place), we should not expect the policy of imperial pushback to stop. The particular form it has taken might change, but it will continue, whether under Joe Biden or a re-elected Donald Trump.