In the wake of dramatic protests that Western media have covered extensively over the past two years, Keith Zhai and Chun Han Wong, writing for The Wall Street Journal, report that changes are about to take place in Hong Kong. Whether the planned changes will appease last year’s protesters remains to be seen. The practices they denounced concerned the system of government, the structure of authority. They worried that civil liberties were being threatened by Beijing’s interference in the governance of the former British colony.
Coverage by Western media of the street battles that took place generally condemned what was perceived to be a betrayal by Beijing of “pledges to allow Hong Kong’s governance to remain semiautonomous until at least 2047.” Western politicians and pundits seized on China’s aggressive crackdown on the protesters as a pretext for denouncing the People’s Republic for its anti-democratic, authoritarian methods.
Ken Burns’ Misunderstanding of Pronouns
With the help of the coronavirus pandemic that helped to clear the streets, the government finally managed to quell the protests. Profiting from the calm, the Chinese are now planning a number of reforms. The WSJ quotes Bernard Chan, a member of Hong Kong‘s cabinet, on the nature of the intended effort: “What Beijing ultimately wants to address in Hong Kong is ‘not the politics, but the deep-seated issues’ including the lack of affordable housing and the city’s deeply polarizing income gaps.”
Today’s Daily Devil’s Dictionary definition:
The kind of issues that developed nations with a modern, free market economy refuse to address directly due to their belief that private enterprise will step up as soon as they discover how solving such problems can become profitable
Chan distinguishes between “politics” that fascinate the elite (as well as the media) and “deep-seated issues” that affect all citizens. The WSJ provides some indication of the nature of the struggle to come, particularly concerning housing: “Land-policy reforms can help improve access to cheaper homes, although officials must overcome the entrenched influence of local property tycoons whom Beijing regards as too passive in their support of government goals.”
With its focus on how the economy works, The WSJ is well placed to understand the impact of “entrenched influence” exercised by “property tycoons.” For the past four years, the US itself was governed by a property tycoon specialized in wielding influence. The example of Donald Trump, the former president, may serve to demonstrate that the only effective way to “overcome” tycoons’ influence is to eject them from their position of power. But when the tycoons are legion and anonymous, as they are in Hong Kong, the struggle will be bound to last a certain time.
The debate this has provoked in Hong Kong is fraught with the hypocrisy everyone would expect when the stakes are so high. The Chinese government appears to be focusing on soft power as it promises relief for a struggling population to distract from the issue of democratic representation. The policy may reflect the Marshall Plan approach that worked so well to consolidate America’s soft power in Europe following World War II.
The Beijing government’s narrative attributes the discontent of the protests to the very concrete social issues, deviating attention from the political issues the protesters themselves highlighted. Chan bluntly explains: “They want us to fix it.” He may be right. Just as the Americans fixed Europe with the Marshall Plan and nobody complained about their encroaching power.
Not everyone is convinced. Opposition politicians have expressed skepticism “that Beijing can overcome the decades of policy inertia and infighting that beset Hong Kong‘s political and business elite.” So long as those by virtue of their assets and cash wield actual power, the inertia is likely to continue.
Emily Lau, a former chairwoman of Hong Kong‘s Democratic Party, complains that former leaders appointed by Beijing in the face of the social challenge “never bothered to solve it.” She believes the new ones appointed after the showdown with protesters are unlikely to do any better. This could be interpreted as an excuse for maintaining the status quo. But there are reasons to believe the new policy will force change. One member of a think tank dedicated to Hong Kong policy claims that if those in charge “can’t serve the people well, they must step down.”
Keith Zhai and Chun Han Wong remind readers of what Western media prefer to ignore: that Hong Kong is not just a glamorous, glitzy coastal resort, but has a history. Without returning to the dramatic historical events that made it a British colony, they cite examples of how things worked during the colonial period that only ended in 1997. Hong Kong has maintained a “low-tax regime, largely unchanged since British rule,” with no “duties on sales, consumption, capital gains, dividends or inheritance,” the journalists write. The British designed this to draw Western finance, multinational companies and tourists to the enclave, turning it into a free-wheeling platform for global capitalism with a commanding seaside view over all of eastern Asia.
The writers also cite Hong Kong’s “land policies, another legacy of British rule, which have long been criticized for artificially inflating real-estate prices that boost government coffers and developers’ profits.” This system “effectively imposes shadow taxes on residents through sky-high housing prices and rent.” As in practically every modern democracy run less by representatives of the voters than by the forces of the free market, assets are privileged long before governments can even begin to consider the people’s needs. The journalists give the details of some of the proposed reforms but conclude by evoking a potential battle to come: “Such changes could see officials take on the city’s influential property tycoons, who have wielded outsize influence over land policy.”
An article in The South China Morning Post suggests the real motives behind China’s new policy. The author cites “a historical moment rooted in the Chinese collective consciousness, and central to the very concept of national identity, that set the trend of that relationship [between Beijing and Hong Kong].” The historical narrative “cuts across various layers of society and is shared by both opponents and supporters of the Communist government.” The Chinese remember it as the “century of humiliation.”
The Opium Wars stand as one of the most shameful episodes in the annals of British imperialism, an act of aggression that saw London apply the proverb, “to kill two birds with one stone.” The two birds were China and India, which together now represent approximately a third of the world’s population. Under British direction, India produced the opium that the Brits themselves, playing the role of the neighborhood drug dealer, incited the Chinese to get hooked on, which, according to mercantilist logic, produced the means to pay for the Chinese exports of silk, porcelain and tea that the British themselves were increasingly addicted to.
A major prize in the settlement of the First Opium War was the cession of Hong Kong to the British in 1841. That marked the beginning of the century of humiliation. For the British, the acquisition of a delicious Asian bauble was the reward for their military planning and valor. Contemplating the spoils of war, Queen Victoria famously boasted that her husband, Prince Consort Albert, “is so amused at my having got the Island of Hong Kong.”
The South China Morning Post article explains the sense of injustice felt by the Chinese after their treatment by the British. Many of them, and not just the government, see the question of Hong Kong as a question of national pride and part of their anti-colonial mission. “Deep down, Chinese nationalist sentiment is based on the hope of correcting and overcoming the legacy of imperialist invasion of Chinese lands,” The Morning Post reports.
When the Chinese speak of “deep-seated” issues, their notion of depth includes the reality of the lives of working people in Hong Kong, many of whom can no longer afford rent even for a few square meters of living space. The issue no longer concerns preferences or superficial claims. It is even less about being “amused” at possessing a piece of coastal territory with a strategically situated harbor. These are indeed deep matters. The Western powers and their media, as they attempt to deal with the rise of China, would be well advised to break free from their addiction to shallow reasoning as they seek to defend their waning hegemony.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.