My good friend Professor June Dreyer at the University of Miami calls it Hong Kong’s “Bauhinia Revolution,” a cognate of Taiwan’s “Sunflower Revolution” of 2014. I agree. Like the game-changing “Sunflowers” of five years ago which reversed Taiwan’s slide into China’s gravitational field, Hong Kong’s “color revolution” has game-changing potential.
No offense to the “Sunflowers,” but Hong Kong’s revolution is far more dangerous. “Sunflowers” had the protection of Taiwan’s constitution and the fortuitous indulgence of his excellency, the President of the Legislative Yuan. Hong Kong’s citizens have neither. Over the past several months, millions of Hong Kong people have taken to the streets, repeatedly, in frustration that their city is disappearing; once the “Pearl of the Orient,” Hong Kong is gradually being absorbed under full Chinese sovereignty. Hong Kong’s people, particularly its youth, cannot watch their vibrant and unique civic culture being smothered year after year by China without seeing a future of drab despair.
Worse, it is not an accidental future. When he was alive, Comrade Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) worried that once Hong Kong retroceded to China, its liberal, entrepreneurial society could undermine the Chinese Communist Party’s legitimacy throughout interior China. To forestall this, Deng vowed that “well water shall not pollute the river water” (井水不犯河水). A prominent Hong Kong journalist (who shall remain unnamed) reminded me in 1992, after Deng’s famous Southern Progress (南巡), of the Party’s plan to “internationalize Shenzhen, China-ize Hong Kong” (“把深圳國際化，把香港中國化”).
At the time, I was the senior American diplomat responsible for reporting on South China’s economic and political development. As I often motored between Guangzhou and Shenzhen, I reported on the gradual hardening of the “soft border” at Shenzhen’s Songgang (松崗鎮) checkpoint, one of many, where a large toll plaza and border police stations materialized and carefully screened all traffic into the “special economic zone.” Less visible was a sturdy Shenzhen border fence to keep undocumented Cantonese migrants out of the SEZ. Travel to Hong Kong, however, was increasingly easy, particularly by train. I also noted that Pekingese Mandarin was the most common dialect in Shenzhen, Cantonese was a minority tongue. Shenzhen was a “northerners” colony in proud Guangdong.
At the time, I speculated that Beijing’s long-term policy was to populate Shenzhen with thousands of reliable cadre families from northern China, to interpose a buffer zone between the wily Cantonese of Guangdong and their wealthy cousins in Hong Kong. Beijing encouraged a “soft border” at the Lowu (羅湖) and Shatoujiao (沙頭角) crossings into Hong Kong. In a few decades, no doubt, Shenzhen would be integrated with Hong Kong, thus strengthening Beijing’s hold on both Guangdong and Hong Kong.
You may ask, “Why would China not want to preserve Hong Kong’s dynamism?” My theory was that at the time of Deng’s “Southern Progress” Beijing harbored no particular love for Hong Kong beyond the vast amounts of investment coming from the city each year. In 1992, Deng Xiaoping asked why the rest of China could not be like Guangdong. Or like Hong Kong, which he viewed through a telescope from the top floor of a Shenzhen hotel at the border. Stung by this rebuke, Jiang Zemin (江澤民) and Zhu Rongji (朱鎔基) in Beijing spent the 1990s intent on establishing their native Shanghai as China’s financial center with the collateral effect of marginalizing Hong Kong and diminishing its attractiveness as a capitalist success story.
Understandably, Hong Kong’s people have been horrified and angered by Beijing’s Machiavellian rule. In 2003, Hong Kong rebelled against proposed laws that would implement “Article 23” of the city’s “Basic Law” to “prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion” against China. The public outcry forced the city’s government to withdraw the bills. Again, in September 2014, Hong Kong demonstrators filled the streets by the tens of thousands in protest of China’s decision to permit only Beijing-approved and prescreened candidates to stand in the city’s elections for chief executive, Hong Kong’s top government position.
Like Taipei’s yellow “Sunflowers” earlier that year, Hong Kong’s 2014 demonstrators adopted yellow umbrellas as their symbol and confronted police for three months. Beijing accused foreign forces of instigating the rebellion, and likened the yellow umbrellas to a “color revolution.” Eventually, the issue faded but was not forgotten. As if the yellow umbrellas never happened, a new Beijing-anointed Hong Kong civil servant was named Hong Kong’s chief executive in 2017.
Hong Kong’s 2019 revolution began in April to oppose an “extradition law” to legalize deportations to China. The bill was withdrawn on July 9, but the revolution continues, with even greater popular support than the 2003 or 2014 movements.
Hong Kong’s new “Bauhinia Revolution” (as I call it) has five demands, four of which want amnesty for demonstrators. But the fifth demand is for free elections and universal suffrage as stipulated in Articles 45 and 68 of Hong Kong’s “Basic Law.” The ultimate aim of Article 45 is the “selection of the chief executive by universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures.” Article 68 says the “ultimate aim is the election of all the members of the legislative council by universal suffrage.”
This, apparently, is too much for Beijing. The Communist Party now sees the current revolution not simply as “foreign inspired” or as a “color revolution,” but as “terrorism.”
To my chagrin, Washington now professes to believe the Chinese leadership intends to invade Hong Kong with the several mechanized divisions of “People’s Armed Police” poised in Shenzhen. Perhaps the Trump administration doesn’t remember how earlier Hong Kong revolutions fizzled in exhaustion after months of exertion. And truly, that is how the current movement is likely to end. But in its alarm, Washington proffers trade incentives, promises of noninterference (and who knows what else) to dissuade Beijing from overreacting. All this is unnecessary. China will do what it will, regardless of Washington’s blandishments.
To maintain its self-respect, Washington should simply demand Beijing’s adherence, in its own sovereign jurisdiction, to the “Basic Law” principles of free elections and “universal suffrage.” And, behind the scenes, the Trump Administration should work to ensure that Taiwan never befalls Hong Kong’s fate.
John J. Tkacik, Jr. is a retired US foreign service officer who has served in Taipei and Beijing and is now director of the Future Asia Project at the International Assessment and Strategy Center.
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