As China celebrates the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic today with an extravagant show of its military might in Beijing, developments in Hong Kong since June this year are the most recent reminder that the in-built authoritarianism of Communist power has failed to check political challenges by ordinary citizens on the peripheries. If Tibet in the west has been rebellious but quiescent after the crushed armed uprising of 1959, and one million Uighur Muslims of Xinjiang in China’s northwest have been locked up to undergo “re-education” programmes in the past year, Hong Kong in the southeast has thrown an open challenge, foregrounding democracy. Taiwan, the island territory in the southwest, has also point-blank refused to integrate with the mainland. The recent protests in Hong Kong, which began 17 weeks ago, assumed menacing proportions on Sunday on the eve of the 70th anniversary celebration. Armed police admitted having fired live ammunition as a warning shot as tens of thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators hurled petrol bombs and street fires raged. The mood today in the globally famous trading station, an icon of world capitalism, is likely to be watched with some trepidation in mainland China.
Although accused of high-handedness by protesters, the Hong Kong police have, on the whole, acted with restraint. At a time of the noticeable slowing down of the Chinese economy from double-digit figures, demographic troubles, and escalating trade tensions with the United States, any provocation on the lines of the infamous Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, when the military fired on unarmed pro-democracy student protesters, can engulf the Chinese state in more troubles than it can take in its stride. The British crown colony of Hong Kong was returned to the People’s Republic in 1997 on terms that would ensure the continuance of the existing economic, social and political milieu for the next 50 years. It’s to meet this requirement of a high degree of autonomy for Hong Kong — except in the field of foreign relations and defence — which was part of the handover agreement, that Beijing advanced the “one country, two systems” model.
However, from the beginning the Communist state has adopted strategies to whittle the pre-merger free elections design in Hong Kong. Smaller political protests, including the more prominent Umbrella Movement five years ago, have been part of the political landscape of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of China. The dam burst with the new law — since rescinded — to extradite charged persons to the mainland for trial.
The Communist giant is facing the bite on its peripheries, and a forceful integration of Hong Kong could prove messy. Former US President Bill Clinton said the developments in Hong Kong were a “touchstone” of US-China relations. China’s neighbours, including India, will naturally watch how Beijing deals with the protests. There may be a hint in this of tightening or relaxation of Beijing’s expansionist policies....