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Why Hong Kong's protesters must stop now.

Peter Lee

What were once peaceful demonstrations against a Hong Kong Bill that would, incidentally to its main purpose, have facilitated extradition to China for a wide range of offences, have become expensive, disruptive and divisive. Every day seems like a new turning point where protesters increase the lengths they are willing to go to, often seemingly with the specific intent of provoking a reaction from the police which the protesters then claim was unduly harsh. And the UN and the USA aren't helping.

The question of democracy in Hong Kong has been an ever-present issue since before 1997. No serious commentator in Hong Kong thinks that Hong Kong should be independent. Ignoring the legal aspects, there's the fact that it is surrounded by Chinese territorial waters, that much of its air traffic flies through Chinese airspace, that it needs both electricity and water from China and that, since the development of the district formerly known as Canton, much of its wealth is generated over the border. Economically, it is also a conduit for China's economy, both physical and fiscal, and China's interface with a wider world, largely because HK is a liberalised western economy and China remains relatively closed to western financial institutions. Hong Kong needs China more than China needs Hong Kong. Chinese companies can do things in, and through, Hong Kong that they would not be able to do in China but if China wanted, it could simply set up HK2.0 somewhere else.

The democracy movement has a long history. It periodically gets members elected to LegCo because there are many people who would like to have a right to self-determination. They wanted it under the British and they want it post-1997. However, China doesn't want a fully fledged democracy within its territorial borders. At least, not yet. Ironically, it may be that China can use HK to test out democratic reforms but that is a long view. It's important to remember that the Communist Party has gone from ultra-hard line to (in relative terms) moderate in only fifteen years or so. It is moving away, albeit in faltering steps, from the totalitarian regime that it was. Yes, control remains a huge thing but many of the things that the west criticises (facial recognition, etc.) are in use by commercial companies around the world: only last week someone suggested using facial recognition in airports to target messages about flights to individual people. Like it or not, we are, to a point, living in the world predicted in 2001 by the film Minority Report.

But that control almost always relates to, at its heart, maintaining public stability. China has introduced remarkable economic reforms, it has freed people to trade in a wide range of industries - some might say too free, because of the scandals over food quality and counterfeits. The outside world cannot get to grips with what an enormous problem it will be to introduce democracy to a thousand million people across millions of square miles, dozens of cultures and socio-economic standards. The change to totalitarianism is relatively easy: comply or suffer the consequences. The change to individual responsibility and rights and the power to determine the direction of a country is far more difficult: for one thing, how do you police freedom? The change from prescriptive laws to flexibility requires an extraordinary degree of education of a type that is very different to what many Chinese are used to.

Regardless of the desirability of democracy in Hong Kong, and it is true that it very widely supported even though no true Hong Konger has ever lived, there, under a democracy and, as in China, may not know what to do with it, the simple fact is that it's not going to happen in the foreseeable future. The correct thing to do, now, is to take heart in the fact that their voice has been heard, that China is aware of it and it's on the agenda (although a long way down) and to acknowledge the realities that exist.

The protests are not, cannot and will not result in an immediate change of heart in China, not the least because if protests are seen to produce results, China will fall into chaos and that's an even more scary prospect than the current situation in Hong Kong. It's far better to pull back and make points, peacefully, periodically in the future.



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