Hong Kong was always going to be China’s acid test. Thatcher, Britain’s last conviction PM, was never keen on returning it to China. She never trusted Beijing to abide by its commitments further than to interpret the Anglo-Chinese Joint Declaration whichever way suited it best. Originally inclined to hold onto the colony, she relented only because the Chinese were prepared and able to starve and dehydrate Hong Kong into submission.
Hong Kongers knew what they could expect. Some, such as Carrie Lam and Jackie Chan, sold their souls to the Party. Both have done well out of it. Carrie Lam, for all her uselessness and incompetence, was appointed Chief Executive of the territory. Jackie Chan is the CCP’s poster boy. He is the model that Beijing wants all Hong Kongers to emulate. Speak Cantonese if you wish, be a Hong Konger if you must, but never forget that Xi Dada is your lord and master and that you must bow to Beijing’s whims without complaint or question.
Of course, much of Hong Kong’s business elite have taken this position. So, frankly, has the greater portion of Hong Kong-based criminal syndicates. When there were protests, frequently heated, a singular, obvious fact was pointed out by many advocates of a liberal Hong Kong. The vast majority of thugs and troublemakers could not speak or understand Cantonese. They were Mandarin-speaking. That is, they were brought in from the Mainland to do the Triads’ and Chief Executive’s dirty work for them. The odds of someone recognising a Hong Konger would be too great.
By taking this approach, Beijing ensured that the movement would be crushed without having to use the People’s Liberation Army. The consequences within Hong Kong, however, have been profound. The Hong Kong Police, until recently a well-respected institution, are now hated and seen as an extension of Beijing rather than a community-based institution. By effectively banning the pro-democracy bloc from the LegCo (legislative council), Beijing via the LegCo and HK Chief Executive has effectively rendered Hong Kong elections moot. They will, of course, proceed but they will be no different than East German elections. In theory there will be multiple parties, in theory elections will be contested but in reality, it will be a Hobson’s choice.
This leads one to wonder if it was truly worth it to have the uprising to begin with. After all, the ultimate consequence was that Beijing simply cracked down even harder on Hong Kong than it did on neighbouring Macau. Macau, never particularly attached to Portugal and the Macanese, never particularly nostalgic about Portuguese rule, have had an easier go of it. Portugal permitted all Macanese adults to retain Portuguese citizenship. Those who made use of it generally settled in the UK, Ireland, Sweden or elsewhere in the EU. Some, of course, did settle in Portugal as well. Domestically, Beijing has never perceived Macau as a threat or disloyal. But this would miss a simple detail. Whatever laws Beijing imposed on its two SARs, the moderate version would be given to Macau, the more severe to Hong Kong. Whatever criticism Beijing had of Macau would be tempered and discreet. Whatever criticism Beijing had of Hong Kong would be shrill and malicious.
Hong Kongers, in short, knew that they were doomed. Those who could obtained full British citizenship prior to 1997. A singer I rather like, Alfred Hui, is British by citizenship despite never having lived in the United Kingdom. Not even a year younger than I, his case is far from unique. This situation was made possible by a simple legal quirk. Hong Kong residence was based on having a residence permit. Prior to 1 July 1997, Hong Kongers were British Nationals Overseas. After 1 July 1997, they were Chinese citizens with Hong Kong residence permits and no right of abode on the mainland. Their unique status was further enhanced by having the prerogative to hold special Chinese passports reserved for Hong Kong residents and/or British BNO passports. Both could be used until recently for travel as the residence permit was more important than the passport itself.
Others left. My Cantonese teacher has Hong Kong parents and has spent a significant amount of time in Hong Kong, but she is Canadian by birth, citizenship and residence. There are large populations of Hong Kongers in Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand. The United States similarly has a large population of Hong Kong émigrés. Not all had this option. Most had to make due and hope for the best and hold out as long as possible. Once it was clear that the writing was on the wall, they did what they could to tear the veil. Hong Kong was doomed from the moment the Anglo-Chinese Joint Declaration was made. If Britain could do nothing for Hong Kong, then Macau was in an even weaker position. What could a poor Portugal, utterly reliant on Chinese largesse, hope to do? No… The one place that could still be saved was Taiwan.
Taiwan, of the three territories that China coveted, was destined to be the toughest one to obtain. Lisbon had wanted to wash its hands of Macau since 1975. Britain’s lease on the New Territories was running up and China was in no mood to renew it. Once London and Beijing had hammered out a framework for Hong Kong, Lisbon and Beijing simply had to agree on a few cosmetic changes and copy-paste a few details into it and call it well enough for Macau. Taiwan, on the other hand, was in effect its own country. Once Chiang Ching-kuo, the son of Chiang Kai-shek died, control was passed into the hands of native Taiwanese. Li Teng-hui started the “Taiwanisation” process. Taiwan’s language, culture and education would become localised. It was fitting that Li, himself a member of Chiang’s KMT, never learnt to speak Mandarin with full proficiency. He spoke his native Taiwanese and fluent Japanese, a product of his upbringing in Japanese Taiwan.
After Chen Shui-bian was elected president in 2000, he further moved Taiwan away from China’s sphere. Although not a particularly brilliant president, he did leave Taiwan one great and lasting gift. Taiwan’s fate cannot be decided by Taiwan’s politicians. Taiwan’s fate can only be decided by Taiwan’s people. By rising up, Hong Kongers knowingly hastened Hong Kong’s inevitable demise. There was only going to be one outcome and they knew it. By rising up, however, they showed exactly what “one country, two systems” really meant: one county, one system and a bit of garnish. The international business class and diplomatic establishment had hoped that Taiwan would, gradually, become a third Special Administrative Region. After all, for some years it seemed to work okay for Hong Kong and Macau — at least from the outside looking in. Even in Taiwan, a significant minority of the business elite were inclined to at least consider throwing their weight behind that. Now, no serious person in Taiwan can even countenance that and hope to be taken seriously. Global businesses have been forced to hedge their bets. China, for all its sweetheart deals, is not the promised land they thought it was even 5 years ago. Most importantly, the liberal world has been forced to face up to what China really is. Between Hong Kong’s ultimate sacrifice and the recent pandemic, China has come out far more badly damaged than anyone expected.
Hong Kong might not have only saved Taiwan, but it might have saved us, too. We have been forced to pay attention at long last to Beijing’s pernicious influence in universities, in investments and in business deals. Do we really want to be another Sri Lanka, Portugal or New Zealand? Especially after China showed its hand in its dealings with Sweden and Australia (fortunately possessing rather more significant a spine outside of Comrade Kim Jong-Dan’s People’s Republic of Victoria) this isn’t anything we can risk.