For nearly six months, people around the world have watched the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong with one question in the back of their minds: When will Beijing lose patience and the repression begin? Journalists expecting to cover Tiananmen II flew in for the most promising global story of the year, its allure bolstered by the protesters’ ability to speak English and the easily digestible narrative of David vs. Goliath, democracy vs. authoritarianism, right vs. might.
This perspective was reflected in coverage of this past weekend’s district council elections. Although these usually hinge on intensely local issues, they were pegged as a chance for voters to give a verdict on the protests. And, in fact, a record 71 percent of eligible voters turned out to crush pro-Beijing parties, which won just fifty-eight seats compared to the 300 they previously held. The international headlines proclaimed a triumph for the pro-democracy movement.
Beijing, though, will spin recent events as another staging post in its policy of “strategic patience”: that despite protesters’ having launched Molotov cocktails and set up petrol-bomb production lines, China didn’t send in the People’s Liberation Army; it didn’t dump the territory’s chief executive, Carrie Lam; and it even allowed the district council elections to take place.
But all these arguments, honed and debated endlessly on social media, obscure a bleaker fact: that we are witnessing Hong Kong’s descent from leading international city to collateral damage in Beijing’s rise to a strident superpower. While the activists have made their mistakes, the Hong Kong protests are mostly an epic failure of China’s soft power.
China has sought to explain the unrest by blaming socio-economic reasons for tensions that could be defused by technocratic solutions—and indeed this is what Ms. Lam implied in a statement Monday, referring to “people’s dissatisfaction with the current situation and the deep-seated problems in society.” This reasoning holds that if certain public policy issues, especially unaffordable housing, could be solved then many of the protesters could be won over. A few conspiracy theorists, or those inside China’s Great Firewall, might buy Beijing’s other line of argument—that “foreign forces” are behind the protests (whereas systematic opinion surveys show most protesters to be well-educated, middle-class people motivated by fear of losing their liberties).
These arguments, however, obscure the fact that when China took over Hong Kong in 1997, it gained a global metropolis, thriving and crucial to the world economy. Now, Hong Kong has been eclipsed by other Chinese cities, especially Shanghai. One can say this is due to China’s rising prosperity and that this is a good thing, but it also means that Hong Kong has failed to keep pace.
This decline is about more than economics. Hong Kong once had a cachet that few cities could match: the home of Bruce Lee, Wong Kar-wai, and Eileen Chang—a bucket-list destination perched on a fault line of global politics. Played right, it could have been a perfect tool for China’s desire to project a better image of itself around the world. And Beijing likely believes that its policies are allowing Hong Kong to still fulfill this purpose.
In reality, the city has lost its global allure. Tourism is booming but only because of Chinese tourists, who now account for nearly 80 percent of arrivals. These aren’t savvy Chinese travelers—that rising class has long since written off Hong Kong as a backwater—but people for whom a visit is their first “foreign” experience. As for the rest of the world, despite a global tourism boom, the number of non-Chinese visitors this decade has stagnated or declined.
One feels this just by walking around Hong Kong. It is still a thrilling setting—the islands, the jutting mountains, the sparkling ocean, the skyscrapers. And its airport—which the British built before they left to show confidence in Hong Kong’s future, and China foolishly criticized at the time as part of a nefarious British plot to bankrupt the colony before leaving—is still world-class. But much of Hong Kong now feels about as exciting as a Chinese provincial capital.
The urban core remains filled with crumbling concrete housing blocks built in the 1960s and 1970s. Many streets are dirty and chock-a-block with low-margin shops hawking fake iPhone cases and cheap SIM cards, while anodyne malls sell global consumer brands that can now be found anywhere in mainland China. Instead of belonging to the twenty-first century, it feels trapped in the 1980s.
Again, one can argue that if Hong Kong feels left behind, it is because China’s rise made wealth and prosperity flow elsewhere in the region. But this is another indictment of China’s stewardship: it failed to install visionary leaders who might have helped Hong Kong retain its place among the handful of truly key global cities. Instead, the city has been run by a series of Beijing-approved mediocrities, all of whom have either resigned in disgrace or been engulfed in crises. All the city’s chief executives were fatally hampered by having to defer on all important decisions to Beijing, making them more like colonial governors than autonomous rulers of a dynamic metropolis.
This is reflected in the government’s mishandling of the current protests. Ms. Lam’s series of miscalculations—from introducing the infamous bill that would have compromised Hong Kong’s judicial independence, to belittling protesters, to withdrawing the legislation too late, to refusing an inquiry into questionable police tactics—have exacerbated conflict, making it impossible for wiser, moderate voices to be heard. As the pro-Beijing lawmaker Jasper Tsang said in a recent interview, “it seems the government is unwilling to do anything until it is too late.”
As for the protesters, from a coldly logical point of view, their decision to use violence was a mistake. They might have hoped that their bitter street battles would raise the cost of any other effort to compromise the territory’s independence and force the government to think twice.
Protester violence, though, also justifies harsher treatment. Over its nearly one hundred years of existence, the Chinese Communist Party has always insisted on total control and it has rarely compromised. In the long run, we can expect Beijing to use the street violence as a justification for tighter control, stronger police powers, and selective arrests of people it sees as ringleaders. In other words, what people in Hong Kong are calling the xinjianghua, or “Xinjiangification,” of Hong Kong, in reference to the draconian police-state tactics being used to pacify China’s restive northwestern region, are now more, not less, likely to become part of Beijing’s policy of “restraint.” Instead of slowing Hong Kong’s annexation, the violence will have sped it up.
Debating these contingent points, though, may cause one to miss something more important: that the protesters’ anger stems from the structural violence that Beijing has stealthily inflicted on them over the past decade. This includes the gradual but steady erosion of liberties, from putting Chinese customs officers in the territory and limiting use of the local dialect to the kidnapping of critical book publishers. Combined with Beijing’s unwillingness to follow through on written promises of universal suffrage, these measures make clear that China intends to assert control now and not in 2047, as promised in the 1997 handover agreement with Britain.
Many Hong Kongers have realized this for decades. Since the deal was originally struck in 1984, tens of thousands have emigrated, helping to fuel a debilitating brain drain. Although many stayed on, hoping that the handover agreement’s explicit promise of democracy would be honored, this weekend’s vote underlines the fact that Beijing has reneged on the commitment to true democratic control and autonomy for Hong Kong. Today, faced with an absolute rejection of their demands for a more open and fair political system, voters’ disillusionment will be complete—as will Hong Kong’s decline.
In light of this betrayal, we can see the past half year’s violence for what it is: not a battle between good and evil but the death throes of a great city, played out on its own streets for the world to see.
Ian Johnson is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who lives in Beijing, his home for more than twenty years. His most recent book is The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao. (October 2019)