Is smashing a window in Hong Kong any different from doing it in Paris? It is for a certain school of thought of Western media: the French “casseurs” have an air of hooliganism, while Asia’s insurgents are the emblems of freedom, human rights and the like. The same happened in the past with the “Arab Spring”, with the protests in Venezuela; and more recently with the demonstrations during the municipal elections in Moscow… We should perhaps be more aware of the fact that information, and the manipulation of information, are part of politics – especially when it comes to making a massive impact on public opinion.
The extradition law that spawned last spring’s protests has been withdrawn. Governor Carrie Lam’s position appears to be watered down further: the people of Hong Kong continue to see her as an obliging executor of orders from Beijing; and promises of new investments in “social spending” have not sufficed to defuse the uprisings.
The reasons for the protests in Hong Kong are complex. First of all, there is a delicate balance in a territory “without a future.” In fact, following the transfer of the sovereignty to the People’s Republic in 1997, the next deadline is 2047, with the full handover of the former colony to mainland China. In the first 22 years of implementation of the “One country, two systems” agreement, Hong Kong continued to grow: its gross domestic product per capita was USD 46,109 (Italy’s was USD 32,000, France’s USD 39,000 and the People’s Republic USD 8,643: 2018 figures from the International Monetary Fund). But there are major inequalities: 20% of the population of the former colony live below the poverty line. Indeed, the poor are not the ones who are protesting, but the bourgeoisie, who see their prosperity threatened, not so much because of the “interference” of the People’s Republic as because of the changed international economic scenario. When the “poor” took to the streets, like the Filipino women coming to Hong Kong as maids, hundreds of thousands of them, nobody thought of addressing the issue – in the Western world and in the Eastern world alike.
The many billionaires (in US dollars) and the vast financial milieu of the island seem to be more concerned about the island’s trade and financial global ranking than about the “freedoms” and the human rights of its 7 million inhabitants. When they were subjects (never citizens) of the British Crown, the possibilities of unlimited enrichment were guaranteed, and no one protested… In 1997, 27% of commercial transactions to and from the People’s Republic passed through Hong Kong: today, this percentage has dropped to 3%; Shanghai’s financial market has grown at exponential rates. Shenzhen – the satellite city built from nothing on the border of the New Territories – has absorbed a large part of the manufacturing process. This is where, inter alia, the head office of Huawei, the Chinese mobile phone giant, is located.
Hong Kong is fragile also as a result of current international politics. The former colony is a pawn, and not the least important, in the global confrontation between China and the United States: a challenge that is equally of an economic and financial, geopolitical and military nature, where neither of the two superpowers seems willing to recognize that the bottom line is the growing interdependence of the two systems. There is the question of US Government debt, almost half of which is in the hands of Chinese investors (i.e. the government of the People’s Republic). Similarly, Beijing is attempting to maintain “double-digit” economic growth even when world markets appear to be saturated with Chinese products and global demand is decelerating. Thus Beijing applies these sovereign State rules that the United States has adopted for decades, and that were previously the prerogative of the European powers: to devalue its currency inorder to increase exports competitiveness. More specifically, Beijing has started to allow modifications in the yuan’s fixed parity rate, and fluctuating exchange rate has already brought some “respite” to the economic system. On top of this, there is the economic – and political – issue of the dollar. Since 1919 (or 1945, depending on the reasoning behind it) the US currency has been the main international trading currency: for example, the price of oil is referred to in dollars. For various reasons, the euro has failed to undermine its primacy (and thereby reap related benefits). However, Beijing might want to propose its own currency for this role. Or it could – the plan has been disclosed in the last few days – launch a digital sovereign currency, such as the ” Facebook Libra”, to replace the dollar in international payments… The weight and scope of these issues help explain the extent of the US President’s media frenzy, and China’s corresponding silence…
Territorial disputes are another sensitive issue. Since the 1958 crises, the United States has been formally committed to guaranteeing the freedom and independence of Taiwan and the other small islands, which are very close to the coast of mainland China; and Taiwan has virtually unlimited military forces. The People’ s Republic of China has also been playing a delicate game of territorial claims in the South China Sea, notably with regard to the Paracel Islands, also claimed by Vietnam and the Philippines. The disputes have been ongoing for decades, but from one day to the next they could become a pretext for anyone who wished to take advantage of diplomatic weakness. Thanks to Trump, the world has lost touch with multilateralism and with a supranational vision of the problems, relying on “bilateral agreements” that have not yet yielded great results: neither in the Middle East nor in Afghanistan, nor in the confrontation with North Korea. Not to mention Iran.
How is Hong Kong involved in these scenarios? The island and the New Territories are present in each of these scenarios; at the moment they appear to be the ground where indirect clashes of global policies and financial interests can be conducted without too much collateral damage. If the new Cold War is mainly economic, Hong Kong is indeed – unfortunately – the ideal battlefield.