Of all the gestures calculated to provoke the Chinese government, protesters in Hong Kong chose one particularly bitter insult this week. The old British colonial flag, one quarter of it occupied by a splendid Union Jack, was draped across the furniture of the city’s legislative council as masked, helmeted activists smashed the place up and sprayed slogans demanding freedom.
One can see why the average Communist Party cadre might not like the flag very much. Apart from the emblem of an imperialist foreign power, it is adorned by a rather charming coat of arms which shows a lion and a dragon, a crown, a fortress and two trading junks in sail on a tranquil sea. Serene and proud it is.
It is not the first time this banner, in use from 1959 until 1997, has appeared at demonstrations since the handover of sovereignty from Britain to China. I noticed it some years ago when local people assembled to complain about crowds of day traders from mainland China who were buying up goods, blocking the pavements and clogging public transport in the humdrum northern suburbs where few expatriates go. At the time I dismissed it as a curiosity: the protests were small, the issue parochial, and the Chinese authorities quietly tightened up the immigration rules to stop the grumbling.
The flag has been adopted as a symbol by a small group called the Hong Kong Autonomy Movement, whose demands include complete democracy, better housing and support for local industry and agriculture. The vocal but minuscule Hong Kong independence movement has taken to waving it from time to time outside the building which houses the central government’s liaison office.
Few of the Special Administrative Region’s seven million people actually advocate independence from China. In Hong Kong itself, the novelty of the flag drained away several demonstration-cycles ago and it is no longer of incendiary political significance. Nobody is demanding a return to British rule, however benevolent that may seem in hindsight.
None of that, of course, deterred the party’s propagandists from having a field day. It also has the handy effect of putting the British through an excruciating diplomatic reminder of the Opium Wars, a hundred and fifty years of humiliation and so on and so forth.
But herein lies a key, I suggest, as to why this week’s events are more theatre than crisis. Martin Lee, the Roman Catholic barrister who has personified the democracy establishment for decades, suggested that agent provocateurs may have instigated the violence. Only a few hundred fought the police and broke into the legislative council, compared to hundreds of thousands who marched peacefully earlier on the anniversary of the handover.
In short, the democratic conspiracy theory holds that violence frightens the public, paints protesters as wild radicals, justifies harsh reprisal and thus serves the interests of Beijing. The Communist party, which remains an underground organisation in Hong Kong, has form on this sort of thing. Its United Front Work Department boasts a wonderfully innocuous title and a pedigree of rallying loyal Chinese to the cause of the motherland. Running dogs of British colonialism are its stock in trade, infiltration a tactic taught to all its adherents.
Then there are the hydra-headed organs of state security and military intelligence, whose links with Triad organised crime syndicates in Hong Kong – which the party deems “patriotic” – are well documented. At the last mass demonstrations in 2014, students said gangsters attacked them in Kowloon, which is a Triad redoubt. The Triads were also blamed for turning a protest by street traders into a riot, helping to discredit the mass campaign.
But nobody does conspiracy theory quite like the Communist party of China, so it is worth examining a few gems from this week which might mislead observers.
China’s favourite line is that “hostile foreign forces” and the overseas media are behind the democracy movement and individuals like the articulate young Christian, Joshua Wong, who is one of its principal figures.
In fact, the new movement is deliberately leaderless, is rallied by social media and acts as a floating mass. In so far as they are influenced by anyone, Hong Kong youngsters watch YouTube for climate change stunts, theatrical LGBT parades and innovative non-violent protests from all over the world. It’s called globalisation.
As for the “black hands” of foreign subversion, anyone who watched the mass movement of 2014 could see it was rooted in Cantonese language, music and culture; enjoyed its own poetry and satire and created street art owing more to manga than Hollywood. Its leaders, including Wong, often barely spoke English.
None the less, China has been smart to play the British card. It led to a testy exchange between the foreign ministry in Beijing, which instructed Britain to “stop gesticulating,” and the Foreign Office, which insisted that the Joint Declaration of 1984, guaranteeing Hong Kong’s rights and freedoms until 2047, remained in force.
Jeremy Hunt, the foreign secretary and Tory leadership candidate, went on television to say that the Joint Declaration was a binding treaty signed by Margaret Thatcher and Deng Xiaoping (ahem, foreign secretary, it was actually signed by prime minister Zhao Ziyang, but let’s not fuss over the details). “We stand behind that agreement,” he said.
Mr Hunt did at last pinpoint the real issue, which is that regardless of any British role, China committed itself by signing the declaration to this:
“Rights and freedoms, including those of the person, of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of travel, of movement, of correspondence, of strike, of choice of occupation, of academic research and of religious belief will be ensured by law.”
“The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region will be vested with executive, legislative and independent judicial power, including that of final adjudication.”
The proximate cause of the protests was an extradition bill that would have sent people for trial by courts in China. It has been shelved. But it is the sense that these freedoms are dissolving like sandbars in the South China Sea that brought hundreds of thousands of law-abiding Hong Kong people onto the streets.
I suspect that for the moment, politics will stay in the realm of theatre, like a clashing and discordant Cantonese opera. China’s rhetoric has been hard but metrical: the foreign ministry, for example, has talked of a brazen challenge to “one country, two systems,” not to the Chinese government or to Xi Jinping.
The most strident words have come from the Global Times, a periodical which is owned by the People’s Daily but which maintains just enough distance to allow its editor, a safe controversialist, to fulminate against backsliders and foes without committing the leadership to its line.
Then there is the evidence of seventy years of Communist party practice. Early documents have Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai talking of Hong Kong purely in terms of “how useful” it will be. At every step, from the Cultural Revolution to Tiananmen Square, the handover and the protests, the party has practiced patience and restraint. It favours erosion, not a fight.
As for the People’s Liberation Army, it moved into Hong Kong with a great show and then confined itself to martial displays and making itself “loved” by the populace.
In 1997, it picked a clever line-up: the commander was a seasoned major-general who got on with the British. He was backed up by a commissar who had fought the Vietnamese and trained at the PLA’s political academy. Among their vice-commanders was a colonel who graduated from the Beijing Foreign Languages Institute and spoke fluent English. These were not men prone to rash action.
“You could always lose a lot of money betting against Hong Kong,” an old adviser to Chris Patten reminded me last week. Indeed, a council flat just sold to a private buyer for a record sum of more than £500,000. The stock market closed up 1.17 per cent on the day after the worst violence. Investors cared more about Trump, trade and tariffs than they did about a spot of local bother.
Yet Hong Kong is a complex society and there may be dragons’ teeth, sown underground. On the English-language Facebook page of the Hong Kong Autonomy Movement – the folks with the colonial flag – someone has posted William Butler Yeats’s poem Easter, 1916.
This is best known to us for its echo that “a terrible beauty is born.” To a Chinese sensibility, however, these lines may be more appealing:
Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart
Michael Sheridan’s book on Hong Kong The Mirror is to be published by Harper Collins in 2021. He covered the handover of 1997 and was Far East correspondent of the Sunday Times for two decades.