A new development seen in Hong Kong last week was the arrival on the streets of the island city — which has enjoyed iconic status as a centre of world trade long before the transfer of the British-run territory to the People’s Republic in 1997 — of soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army. In August, around 12,000 soldiers were moved to HK, supposedly on a “rotational” basis.
The PLA soldiers stepped out of their barracks in shorts and T-shirts to help clear debris from the protests that rocked the city for five months and turned especially violent in recent weeks. Last week, before the troops came out in an unusual street-cleaning role, the police fired live ammunition on student protesters who, in turn, used petrol bombs.
The pro-Beijing city government didn’t ask for the troops. Their use in a seemingly civic role is thus apt to be seen as a veiled warning to the protesters that Beijing won’t hesitate to use harsh measures against them for seeking democracy and the end of intervention from the Communist system in the rest of China.
The Basic Law — or constitution — promulgated with the post-colonial Chinese takeover was under the dictum of “one country, two systems”, giving HK’s people a large measure of personal autonomy — in politics and business — not known in the mainland. Beijing’s intentions become suspect when, earlier this year, it sought to amend a law through which certain suspects were to be extradited to mainland China for trial.
The law was withdrawn recently, but the protests have mounted in intensity. HK’s protests were student-driven but professionals and the working poor too have joined in, although class demarcations in HK don’t appear as sharp as in many other societies. Besides use of harsh measures by the police, the pro-Beijing administration has used pro-government protesters to counter the pro-democracy protests.
Are the HK protests of a similar register as some of the landmark developments in Tibet and Xinjiang? This is unlikely. In terms of the scale of resentments, the latter two are to do with ethnic, national and religious questions that are mixed up with human rights violations of minority communities. However, HK bears a greater resemblance to what happened at Tiananmen Square, the gateway to Beijing’s Forbidden City, where on June 4, 1989 the police and the military fired bullets into mostly student pro-democracy protesters. The more extreme estimates place the death count in “thousands”.
But neither the Chinese authorities nor HK’s people are likely to forget that the day after Tiananmen around 70,000 people in HK maintained a peaceful vigil in memory of the students who fell in Beijing.
If the Communist authorities wish to avoid rude jolts, they need to adopt a conciliatory posture. Luckily for Beijing, there’s little scope in HK, or Tibet or Xinjiang, for trans-border armed infiltration, as seen commonly in both Afghanistan or Kashmir in India....