By Bill Emmott
It was always inevitable, even before Britain handed back control of Hong Kong to China in 1997 after 99 years as a colony, that there would eventually be clashes between Hong Kong citizens' ideas of freedom and the ideas held by their new Communist Party overlords in Beijing. The slogan that summarised the agreement made in 1984 between the Chinese and British governments was "One country, two systems," a phrase which virtually predicted that the two systems were bound to contradict one another at certain times during the agreement's planned 50-year lifespan. Nevertheless, the protests against a proposed extradition law that have brought the city state to a standstill many times in the past three months have been of a scale and nature that must have shocked President Xi Jinping, as he watched them on the television back in Beijing.
Hong Kong today, a city state of 7.4 million people, is a lot less important in economic terms to China, a country 190 times larger at 1.4 billion people, than it was at the time of the handover by Britain. In 1997, Hong Kong produced an annual GDP equivalent to nearly one-fifth of China's GDP. Now, it makes up less than 3% of China's annual output. The city of Shenzhen, which is just across the border in southern China, now produces as much annual GDP as Hong Kong.
The implication is that China now cares much less about the potential disruption to Hong Kong's economy and even its financial system that can come either from political protests like those seen recently or from a ruthless crackdown on such protests by the Chinese military. Unlike other Chinese cities, what happens in Hong Kong is instantly witnessed all over the world through conventional and social media, so instability or brutality there would instantly affect China's reputation. But there is little sign that the Chinese government cares very much about that either.
So our question must be this: what is it that discourages China from using brutality to quell these sorts of protests and impose its authority? For although China's response to these massive protests against the extradition law has been quite restrained, there is no guarantee that this will always be the case. At some point, if the protesters push too hard, the Chinese might decide to use force. If that happens, no country -- not Britain, not the United States, certainly not Japan -- would be able to do anything in response except to express disapproval.
In fact, the current trade war between the United States and China might even act as a kind of encouragement for tough measures in Hong Kong. The sort of economic sanctions that have typically been imposed in response to perceived excesses of brutality by countries -- as was the case with China after the Tiananmen atrocity in 1989 -- are in reality already in place thanks to the trade war. China has even threatened sanctions on US companies involved in arms sales to Taiwan, showing that it is perfectly willing to retaliate.
One answer to our question might be found in the fact that over the past quarter century China has become quite accustomed to large public protests in its own cities. Nobody knows how many there are, as China's Ministry for Public Security ceased publishing official data on the number of "mass incidents" in 2007, having reported 87,000 such protests had taken place in 2005. But it is clear that protests do occur and are even accepted as a legitimate means of expressing public opinion.
There is a limit to that official acceptance however. It is that protests are not allowed to challenge Communist Party rule directly. And President Xi has in recent years tightened controls on the civil society groups and independent lawyers who are often seen as the organisers of such protests. The ability to protest is seen as a safety valve, but Chinese authorities still want to maintain control over it.
The big difficulty with the Hong Kong protests is that they have represented, both directly and indirectly, a challenge to Communist Party rule. The direct challenge has been to the ability of Hong Kong's chief executive, Carrie Lam, to introduce new laws through the city's Legislative Council, and even to her legitimacy in doing so.
The indirect challenge has been to China's own system of law. For the argument behind the opposition to the new extradition law in Hong Kong is that Hong Kongers do not trust the Chinese legal system to provide fair justice and due process. In the "One Country, Two Systems" formula, one system is saying that it does not trust or accept the other system.
This brings us back to our question: why has China tolerated this challenge, so far? It accepts public protests, but not when they challenge the legitimacy of Communist Party rule, which is what the Hong Kong protests have done. Unlike the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong in 2014, these protests are not just about Hong Kong's "system;" they are much more about China's own system.
One answer that has been proposed is that China's fairly soft response is all to do with Taiwan. A country that is dedicated to persuading the 24 million Taiwanese that they should eventually reunify with China cannot want to discourage this by being seen to act brutally towards 7.4 million Hong Kongers.
This hints towards another answer. This is that China's governing regime, for all the strongman leadership of President Xi, is actually weaker and more fragile than it looks. The reason for President Xi's crackdown on corruption and tightening of controls on civil society over the past seven years has been that without the crackdown Communist Party rule might have been at risk.
This is a vulnerable party and system, vulnerable to its own internal weaknesses and contradictions. Unless Hong Kong actually threatened to break away and become independent, the Communist Party would rather leave it alone. It has enough trouble to deal with in China's own system, thank you very much.
(Bill Emmott is an independent writer, lecturer and consultant on international affairs)