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Bill Emmott: Invite HK protesters to nominate leaders to discuss a brighter future

Bill Emmott. (Mainichi)

If lists had been kept of the words most used in past decades to describe Hong Kong, "unsafe," "violent" or "disorderly" would never have appeared. The likely winners would have included "exciting," "commercial" and "uncorrupt"; perhaps some visitors might have added "hot" or "humid"; and, especially since the handover of the former British colony to China in 1997, others would have said "Chinese," though wits with knowledge of Deng Xiaoping era Communist Party slogans might have said "Chinese with British characteristics." Increasingly, however, unsafe, violent and disorderly are taking over.

    The conflict between protesters and the Hong Kong police, and in the background the Hong Kong government and the Chinese government in Beijing, is approaching some sort of a denouement: possibly not the final outcome but a real crunch point. The Hong Kong government and their mainland Chinese superiors are going to have to make a decision on whether to crush the violence by military force or to negotiate.

    So far, the surprise to those who assume the Chinese Communist Party leaders cannot stomach dissent, especially a dissent that challenges their legitimacy and authority, has been how restrained China has been. It has chosen to keep the People's Liberation Army troops in their barracks or over the border and instead to leave it to the Hong Kong government, who have in turn relied on the Hong Kong police.

    During the six months that the protests have now gone on, both the Hong Kong and Chinese governments have presumably hoped that the protests would gradually fade away and that public support for a movement that has caused great disruption to transport systems, to city streets and to the Hong Kong economy would gradually decline. Yet neither has happened.

    The determination to protest and if necessary to fight back against police violence has, if anything, got stronger. There is no noticeable diminution in the numbers of people willing to join protests or to march in big demonstrations. Moreover, public support has also remained strong, even among businesspeople (except for the richest elite, who have opposed the protests all along). It is that public support that creates the biggest problem both for the Hong Kong Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, and for President Xi Jinping.

    Fundamental to the success of Mao Zedong's guerrilla army in the 1930s and 1940s was public support in the areas he occupied or marched through. Within modern China too, successive Communist Party leaders since Deng Xiaoping have been very sensitive to the need to retain public support and legitimacy, as the only reliable providers of both stability and prosperity. That public support has further been reinforced by the message, and widespread belief, that under Communist Party leadership China is regaining its rightful status as a global superpower.

    The instability of Hong Kong violates this relationship between public support, Chinese national pride and Communist Party leadership. Perhaps most worryingly for the Party, it demonstrates that it is possible for there to be a Chinese sense of identity and pride that is in direct opposition to the Chinese identity personified by Beijing. In the future, the worry must be, there can be many Chinese identities, in Hong Kong, in Taiwan, and potentially in other cities and regions of mainland China. In Maoist language this is known as "splittism," the tendency to divide into opposing groups rather than staying united as Chinese.

    The trouble is, that such splittism was in effect institutionalised in the agreement struck between China and Britain before Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997, summarised by the slogan "one country, two systems." In the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984 and then the Hong Kong Basic Law which was finalised by agreement in 1990, Hong Kong is guaranteed to retain its laws, way of life and administrative autonomy for 50 years after 1997. Furthermore, Article 45 of the Basic Law promised that the chief executive would be elected by universal suffrage, following candidates' nomination by a "broadly representative nominating committee according to democratic procedures."

    Initially, the protests concerned a proposed law that would have allowed Hong Kong citizens to be extradited to face trial in China, which would have meant that Chinese law would in effect have become supreme in the territory, contradicting the pledge to maintain Hong Kong laws until 2047. This plan was suspended in June and formally withdrawn on Oct. 23. But now the protests -- and public support for them -- are focused on demanding that China abide by the Basic Law, which Hong Kongers consider to have the status of a constitution, and fulfil the promises contained in that law to introduce universal suffrage and proper democratic accountability.

    This poses a clear but difficult choice for China. The choice is either to sit down and discuss a timetable and procedures for implementing Article 45 of the Basic Law, thereby accepting that the Basic Law must be followed and can be amended only by the agreement of Hong Kong citizens rather than by instructions from Beijing. Or to use some kind of declaration of an emergency as a pretext for taking full military and political control over the territory.

    The current situation is unsustainable. Law and order is collapsing and the territory has become unsafe either for citizens or for visitors of any nationality, especially mainland Chinese. The smartest approach would be to invite the protesters to nominate leaders and to establish a procedure through which such leaders, along with more moderate pro-democracy politicians, would be able to discuss the future of Hong Kong. It may be difficult to persuade protestors to trust such an offer, but it would nevertheless be worth making and then repeating for as long as it takes.

    Otherwise, the only solution will involve bloodshed, on a large scale. And even then, the protests might simply resume. Protesters, it is clear, are willing to risk their lives. For while they believe in the idea of "two systems," they do not accept the notion of "one country" as long as China remains a party-controlled dictatorship. Their country is Hong Kong.

    (Bill Emmott is an independent writer, lecturer and consultant on international affairs)

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