Why India is not talking about the Hong Kong Protest
Strangely enough, the protest has received wide coverage in the western world but little about it has been written or discussed in India. Independence day is as good an occasion as any to ask why.
Independence day this year arrives amid tensions over the recent ‘integration’ of Jammu and Kashmir in India. One of the questions being hotly debated is whether or not the people of Kashmir themselves support the manner in which their special autonomy has been removed. While that debate rages on, it may be useful to pay attention to the almost three month long popular protests in Hong Kong. Hong Kong too has enjoyed a special political status. It had been a British colony until as late as 1997, and since then has shared a somewhat complicated relationship with China, of which it is constitutionally a part.
The hand over agreement between the UK and China in 1997 made provisions to allow Hong Kong to retain some of its unique political, economic and social privileges for the next fifty years. To that extent, Hong Kong too enjoys, at least in constitutional terms, a special status in terms of its unique constitutional relations with mainland China. The current round of popular protests there is at least partly inspired by concerns that China is seeking to remove some of those special privileges and erode, or even erase, Hong Kong’s special autonomy.
Hong Kong has its own currency, and people there have unlimited access to internet and social media, for instance, unlike in mainland China. The Press is quite vibrant, although major dailies there are now owned by pro China businessmen. Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba, for instance, owns the South China Morning Post. In theory at least, people in Hong Kong have the right to form assembly in public and hold demonstrations, though the administration and courts there look at protests with suspicion. In April, this year, leaders of pro democracy movement in 2014 were sentenced to jail. Schools in Hong Kong do not have to follow a rigid nationalist curriculum with explicitly political lessons or without mention of sensitive political issues. There were attempts to force such a curriculum in 2012, but widespread protests sustained the autonomy of Hong Kong schools to choose their curriculum.
The current protest in Hong Kong is probably the largest and strongest mass outcry in a long while. It has been going on for the past 10 weeks now. The protesters, whose number has now swelled to millions, are demanding greater democracy and an enquiry into police excesses against earlier demonstrations. They are not only leading marches on the streets, but even forced their way into government installations. As this piece is being written, they have laid siege in the international airport too. Hundreds of flights have been either cancelled or delayed. While some stranded passengers have expressed reservations against the method of protest, yet others have been patient and offered solidarity. The Chinese state, of course, has dismissed the protests as ‘terrorism’. While the hand over document has a clause that requires China to safeguard the special rights and freedoms of Hong Kong residents, protesters claim that China has already been moving to encroach those rights.
This round of protests started in early June, amid concerns that a controversial extradition law would be rushed through Hong Kong’s legislature. The Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation (Amendment) Bill, 2019 was proposed by the Hong Kong government in February, 2019. Critics of the bill feared that the amendment, once passed, could be used to legally extradite purported ‘fugitive offenders’ to mainland China, where the justice system is politically controlled. It has acquired notoriety for trumped up charges, lengthy pre-trial detention and forced confessions, according to a report in the Times, London. Protest against the proposed amendment united diverse and otherwise incompatible communities and interests, such as radical democracy campaigners, scrupulous lawyers and judges and even businessmen from the west who happen to visit the city state for business or pleasure. The proposed amendments did not include extradition for political crimes. But many were afraid that Chinese authorities could use provisions of this act to frame cases against suspected political dissidents.
Opposition against the proposed law had been building up since April. South China Morning Post reported about a protest march against the law by a crowd of about 130000. On June 9, the protesters carried out a ten times larger demonstration on the streets of Hong Kong. They counted nearly a million among them, or one in every seven residents, while the government claimed they numbered about two and a half lakhs. The crowd of protesters stretched over a mile, and embodied a rebuke to Communist China and Carrie Lam, its chosen leader to govern Hong Kong. Despite the large numbers, neither the government nor Beijing showed any leniency, and declared that the proposed bill would be given a second reading, as originally scheduled. The protest was entirely peaceful, although the police fired some pepper sprays and hit a few protesters with batons, well after the main body of protesters had dispersed.
Carrie Lam, the Chief Executive of the government, said the protest arose out of a misunderstanding, and that the amendment was meant only to prevent the city from turning into a safe haven for fugitives, and that all existing legal and humanitarian safeguards for the residents would survive unchanged. Reports in mainland China claimed the some Hong Kong residents had been misled by the opposition and their foreign allies.
The protesters obviously knew what they were doing. They are proud inheritors of a rich legacy of large scale mass agitations against suspected attempts to curtail the special freedoms of its residents. In 2014, protesters demanding more transparent elections had occupied the central streets for as many as 79 days. Earlier, in 2003 a proposed package of laws banning suspected sedition, subversion or treason against the Chinese government had to be withdrawn after nearly half a million residents took to the streets in protest.
The protest erupted once again, when the controversial bill was to be tabled in the legislature, within three days. A number of protesters tore into police barricades outside the legislature, hurling bricks, bottles and umbrellas at the officers. Riot police personnel were forced to fire tear gas and rubber bullets to repel the tens of thousands of protesters trying to force their way into the Legislative Council building. An outraged Lam refused to budge and compared the protesters to unreasonable children. Yet, the protesters received widespread support from across the society. Small shopkeepers closed their shops in solidarity and even a hotel chain offered free rooms to protesters where they could rest and shower.
Yet another community that had stayed silent until then now visibly expressed their concern. The foreign businessmen, consultants and executives who use Hong Kong as a safe base for their business told reporters that they were worried about perceived erosion of independent judiciary and individual freedom. The unrest stood to threaten Hong Kong’s reputation as a global business and financial hub. One of their concerns was that the US could treat Hong Kong differently if it became just another Chinese province. The US offers some special customs and commercial privileges to Hong Kong under a 1992 treaty. The threat of greater mainland control could eventually lead to withdrawal of these concessions, which risked a loss of Hong Kong’s economic appeal to the international community.
The clash between the police and the protesters put the government on the defensive. There were fresh calls for the Chief Executive Lam to resign. Incidentally, Telegram, a mobile app which the protesters used to mobilize support, was reportedly targeted by hackers from Chinese mainland, although the app company itself did not specify the location of the hackers.
On June 15, Mrs. Lam gave in and announced an indefinite suspension of the controversial bill, effectively suspending, but not altogether withdrawing it. She acknowledged publicly that she had failed to persuade the public and that the bill required wider consultation. In a statement, the Chinese government said it understood and respected Mrs. Lam’s decision to temporarily shelve the bill. Mrs. Lam even offered a public apology for introducing the bill in the first place, without sufficient public consultation. The protesters, however, were not ready to give in yet, and called for an irreversible withdrawal. They wanted a repeat of the withdrawal of the national security legislation of 2003 and the patriotic education legislation of 2012.
Protesters were back on to the streets. This time, millions of them, almost exclusively an under 30 crowd, blocked a major thoroughfare and surrounded the headquarters of Hong Kong’s police force. They now demanded the immediate release of arrested protesters. The police tactically maintained a low level presence at the site of protests, presumably to avoid raising of tensions. With protesters showing no sign of dispersal, the city government later raised concerns about disruption in public services, requesting them to be peaceful and reasonable.
By June 20, the demands exceeded the withdrawal of the controversial amendment. They included the resignation of Mrs. Lam, release of those arrested in clashes with the police and an enquiry into the use by police of tear gas and baton. The high school and university age students, who led the protest from the front, believed they were fighting a ‘final battle’ with Beijing for restoring their lost autonomy and for ensuring that it is never again compromised by brute force. In recent past they had seen forced ouster of opposition law makers, and disappearance of several individuals from Hong Kong into custody in the mainland and competition for housing and jobs in a country with soaring inequality. Intriguingly enough, the protest had not yet thrown up a visible leader. On the contrary, the protesters tended to gather through deft use of social media or messaging apps, such as Telegram, which minimize the need for an outstanding individual to stand forth as the designated leader. At the same time, a leaderless movement ran the risk of relapsing into violence. That would offer a convenient excuse for the mainland to strike back with violence.
The protest had by now turned into a movement, and was beginning to acquire the trappings of one, such as an anthem, and fresh targets of popular anger. A hymn called ‘Sing Hellalujah to the Lord’ appeared to be turning into an unofficial anthem for the protesters. The Hong Kong police, which once had built up a solid reputation as Asia’s finest, now was the new target of public anger. “Dirty cops are becoming like dogs”, read a banner. “They are learning to be People’s Liberation Army”, it continued. The Hong Kong police was damned as an example of how authorities appeared to serve Beijing more than its own people.
Gradually, by the end of June, there developed a radical section. Some of them carried offensive weapons and made attempts to storm into the legislature building. They even hoisted their own flag and attempted to disrupt an official flag hoisting ceremony in a neighbouring conventional centre. The police arrested about a dozen on charges of possessing offensive weapons, unlawful assembly and obstructing and assaulting police officers.
The movement has since grown larger, with the siege on the international airport being the latest episode. Strangely enough, the protest has received wide coverage in the western world but little about it has been written or discussed in India. Independence day is as good an occasion as any to ask why. Is it because India has its own troubles in Kashmir that the media here are silent on Hong Kong? Or is it because India is circumspect about how China would react to discussions on Hong Kong? Beyond those questions lies larger concerns that go deeper into the evolving nature of public politics in the twenty first century, such as how large nation states propose to handle their minorities. Has the idea of the territorially bordered nation states run its course? After all, Hong Kong is not a typical ethnic minority question at all. It raises more fundamental questions about how a visibly large and strong nation state wishes to manage a multicultural and liberal minority with global exposure and economic might. It is for this reason alone that the question should have received far wider attention in India. There is definitely more to the problem than meets the eye. At heart, it is a political problem about whether and how a cosmopolitan and liberal minority can successfully cohabit with an economically prosperous but ideologically narrow nation state. There is no question more important in India today, on this independence day.