Asia

Commentary: An independent and thriving Hong Kong is a fantasy

HONG KONG: Six months after they began, the protests in our city have reached fever pitch.

On one particularly devastating day earlier this month, police fired more than 1,500 rounds of tear gas, a police officer shot a demonstrator at point-blank range while being attacked, and protesters immolated a man who disagreed with them.

Advertisement

Advertisement

More than 4,000 people have been arrested, infrastructure has been destroyed, and the economy has sunk into recession. And for what?

READ: Commentary: Surely separatism is not Hong Kongs endgame?

LOFTY GOALS

Hong Kongs government withdrew the extradition bill that triggered the protests. Yet the protesters rage on, lacking any coherent strategy or demands.

Advertisement

Advertisement

They claim that they are fighting for democracy, but it is hard to reconcile that lofty goal with medieval-style catapults launching bricks and firebombs. In truth, the protesters scorched-earth strategy can lead only to more chaos, destruction, and death.

It does not have to be this way.

READ: Commentary: This may be the end of Hong Kong as we know it

On the political front, the main lesson is that it is up to the government to ensure order and security. Within the “one country, two systems” framework, Hong Kongs own government has powers to address internal security matters.

But where its actions are inadequate, it is the right and responsibility of Chinas central government to intervene.

By allowing peaceful demonstrations to escalate into large-scale riots, Hong Kongs protesters have made such intervention unavoidable.

The US Congress has antagonized Beijing by passing legislation that supports human rights and democracy in Hong Kong, where months of protests and unrest have rocked the semi-autonomous Chinese territory Protesters react as police fire tear gas while they attempt to march towards Hong Kong

PAYING THE ECONOMIC PRICE?

Economically, Hong Kong is paying a high price for the protracted protests. In July to September, the citys GDP shrank by 3.2 per cent quarter on quarter – the worst economic performance since the 2008 global financial crisis.

Yet all is not lost, as the citys stock market continues to function. Alibaba – Chinas largest e-commerce company, which holds the world record for the largest initial public offering – has followed through on its plan for a secondary listing in Hong Kong, where it is on track to raise nearly US$13 billion.

For most of the last two decades, IPOs in Hong Kong have raised more than those in the United States or mainland China.

The market capitalisation of all listed companies in Hong Kong amounts to about half that of the mainland.

Hong Kong is also an essential platform for Chinas management of offshore financial assets, and a critical link to global supply chains, with about 60 per cent of Chinas inflows of foreign direct investment channeled through the city.

READ: Commentary: A very gloomy outlook for Hong Kongs economy

Alibaba described its decision to list in Hong Kong as a vote of confidence in the embattled city's markets AFP/YE AUNG THU

FRUSTRATION FOUND A HOME – ON SOCIAL MEDIA

Yet these economic advantages have had unintended social consequences, driving the citys highest level of inequality in 45 years.

As in many Western economies, while property owners, developers, and elite professionals amass wealth, Hong Kongs lower-middle-class workers have faced stagnating incomes and surging housing prices.

READ: Commentary: Behind Hong Kongs extradition bill protests – a looming divide, growing pessimism about the future

READ: Commentary: Reverence for the rich and powerful hold Hong Kong back from badly needed reforms

The resulting frustration is at the root of the current upheaval.

Persistent governance failures aggravated public sentiment further. In the face of massive social, geopolitical, and technological disruptions, Hong Kongs government needed to adopt proactive policies that could both respond to new developments and anticipate future challenges – beginning with the lack of affordable housing.

But it remained committed to the outdated colonial-era principle of “positive non-interventionism,” so the problems festered, and popular anger grew. That anger found a home on social media.

SHOOK BY TECHNOLOGY

Technology shook the foundations of the “one country, two systems” arrangement by facilitating “information disorder”: The spread of overwhelming volumes of biased, misleading, and outright false information, often designed to stoke anti-China sentiment in Hong Kong.

The formation of filter bubbles and echo chambers compounded the problem, inundating young people with the message that mainland China was to blame for their every woe.

Belongings left behind by anti-government protesters are pictured inside the Polytechnic University (PolyU), in Hong Kong, China on Nov 26, 2019. (File photo: REUTERS/Adnan Abidi)

When these ideas began to be translated into action, protesters used social media to organise, document, and spread awareness of their activities, often anonymously.

For both the demonstrators and their opponents, social media have been a crucial means of shaping the narrative, enabling them to share images of, say, police brutality or protester violence.

READ: Commentary: Hong Kong campus siege widens split between moderates, radicals

But social media are a weapon as well as a battleground. In August alone, more than 1,600 police officers and their family members were victimised by “doxxing” – the publication of private information online, in order to invite harassment or worse.

In some cases, even the addresses of childrens schools were shared. (Some journalists and opposition figures have also been doxxed.)

THE POLICE SHOWED RESTRAINT

Despite these provocations, Hong Kongs police have shown considerable restraint.

Yes, two people have died in the chaos. But compare that to the 22 protesters who were killed in just two weeks of demonstrations in SantiagRead More – Source