The official flag of Hong Kong since the British handed back the “leased” territory to the China was designed specifically to reflect a way forward under the new political, economic and administrative “one country, two systems” principal.
The five-petaled white orchid is based on the Bauhinia blakeana, also known as the Hong Kong Orchid Tree, but the flag’s stark red background, such a massive departure from the colonial British-inspired flag that once represented Hong Kong, was no doubt meant to send a clear message to the world that the full reunification of Hong Kong with the China was not to be ignored.
Fast-forward to 2019, 22 years later and nearly halfway through the fifty-year period of grace before the full reunification is meant to occur by, and this flag takes on a more troubled meaning.
The red of outrage of locals wanting to retain a more democratic system of government.
The red of spilled blood during violent protests for nearly nine months.
And the red-hot (if still mostly simmering) determination of the Chinese Commmunisty Party leadership to bring Hong Kong back into the fold.
None of these “reds” is to be ignored, but what is being ignored by much of the Western media are some simple facts on Hong Kong.
Let’s clear that up.
First, a history lesson.
Who does Hong Kong actually “belong” to?
Hong Kong is old. Like, super-old, with some historians believing it has been inhabited since the Old Stone Age.
It has also been part of China — or Zhongguo, the “Middle Kingdom”, so named c1000BC because the Chou Empire believed it to be the middle of the earth — for literally thousands of years since the Qin Dynasty claimed it in around 200BC.
Fast forward nearly two millenia, and the British, in the guts of their expansionary imperialist phase, were ceded Kowloon “in perpetuity” by the Chinese to end the devastating first Opium War — during which it is estimated between upwards of 20,000 Chinese were killed or wounded — via the 1842 Treaty of Nanjing.
The British engaged with the Chinese in the Opium Wars primarily due to the trade imbalance between the two countries (sound familiar Donny?) but also because the Chinese wanted to stop the illegal flow of narcotics (opium) from the British via Bangladesh into China.
The second round of the Opium Wars from 1856–60 saw the French join the fray (and for a short period, the USA) once more around disputes over trade and opium…and once again, the Chinese were defeated and forced into a 99-year lease of the New Territories to the Brits as part of the agreement to end the conflict.
What this gives us is context around the current “troubles” in Hong Kong…a word I use specifically because the British have form around similar “troubles”….or interventions in foreign jurisdictions, Ireland and Israel/Palestine, to name just two.
It also tells us that Hong Kong, despite nearly a century of British rule, was always part of China.
It was merely on loan.
And in 1997, the terms of the loan fell due.
1997: The Hong Kong Basic Law
In the lead-up to the “lease” ending, the PRC worked on a policy to try and smooth the way for the eventual complete take-back of Hong Kong.
Titled “One country, two systems”, the policy recognised that nigh-on a century of democracy could not be erased or undone in a short timeframe without creating mayhem for locals, although cynics would argue it was more about economic mayhem than anything else given the important place Hong Kong held within global financial markets.
So, a position of “Chief Executive” was created (held presently by Carrie Lam), elected by a 1200-member “electoral college” working within a political system roughly mimicking the Westminster System, albeit with only one legislative chamber and based on ongoing promises of “universal suffrage” (never fully offered by the British, and not since by the PRC), which is the right of adults to vote in political elections.
Since the 1997 handover, several attempts have been made to cement the notion of universal suffrage and also to reform the judicial system, which locals felt was not independent in the way they had been promised.
These attempts have all failed.
2014: The Umbrella Movement — A Prelude to Dissent
Following yet another refusal for reform of the electoral system, a series of sit-in street protests occurred from 26 September — 15 December 2014.
Coined on Twitter by Adam Cotton as “The Umbrella Revolution” due to umbrellas protestors used in defence against police action, the rolling protests, numbering in the tens of thousands, were supported by many others globally.
And while they continued until mid-December 2014, unlke the current nine-month stand-off, the protests eventually dwindled, ending with more a whimper than a bang.
2019: The Art of War
Sun Tzu (孫子), author of The Art of War (孫子兵法), wrote…
Supreme excellence consists of breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.
It is this, more than anything, that is maybe guiding the PRC through the current “troubles” in Hong Kong.
What started as a peaceful protest in March 2019 over the Anti-Extradition Law Amendment Bill (Anti-ELAB) (ironically to send a criminal back to yet another disputed Chinese territory in Taiwan), morphed into a major state of emergency for the people and government of Hong Kong: a rebuke to Carrie Lam and her leadership, and a warning to China that a more “softly, softly” approach to “one country, two rules” might be necessary.
The impact of this movement has been nothing short of devastating. While, luckily there have been few casualties (or deaths, at least, only three in number at the current time), the greatest casualty has been Hong Kong itself.
Large tracts of the city have been essentially shut down due to at-times violent street protests. The MTR, Hong Kong’s main public transport artery, has been attacked and strangled, with sections of it being reduced to a standstill. The airport and once-steady flow of happy HK holidaymakers has dwindled. And the economy has taken a massive hit, slipping into recession.
While the Anti-ELAB was withdrawn with the hopes this might bring an end to the protests, it only emboldened them (along with rallying support from many democratic nations) to stay the course.
As of the time of writing, and following local elections that saw a record turnout of voters repudiate PRC party officials in a rousing show of support for the pro-democracy movement, there has been a period of relative calm and quiet.
But how long will this last?
What next for Hong Kong? Look to Shanghai.
For the PRC, it cannot be denied that the optics of HK 2019 aren’t great, especially with the West’s ongoing focus also on human rights around “re-education” of Uighurs in Xinjiang, and with the long shadow of Tiananmen Square still in the minds of many.
Although the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has stayed mostly on the sidelines throughout the protets, leaving Lam as the target for much of the criticism of how the situation has been handled, a telling quote fom Chinese president Xi Jinping warning against separatism, should not be ignored.
Anyone who attempts to split any region from China will perish, with their bodies smashed and bones ground to powder
A stark reminder of the potential power China might call upon and unleash to end the protests, but maybe not in the way many in the West are framing it.
While on the surface it has the clear undertones of the possibilty of China using military force to literally stamp out the movement, the current CCP leadership is smarter and very cognisant of the “PR” damage Tiananmen did to the country.
Dig a little deeper and the message is more nuanced.
The PRC just celebrated the 70th anniversay of Mao’s (in)famous “Long March”. Symbolically, however, the March continues for Xi and the CCP even as the once-powerful West falls, most notably the flailing, failing empires of the UK and USA (burning to the fiddle of Trumpian screeches — or is that Tweets — and Brexit-ian stupidity), while the likes of China (and India and Indonesia) are not just rising, but risen.
China will not allow Hong Kong to “fail”.
It will steer a course over the next months…years even…of continuing to bring the orphaned territory back into its welcoming arms.
And, if you want to see the future of Hong Kong, take a trip to Shanghai.
In this thriving city of 23 million (and nearly 500,000 expats eager to tap into this commercial nirvana), you will see a city that straddles the worlds of communism and capitalism, of democracy and autocracy, of East and West.
You will see the bright, technicolour, multi-faceted face of the future China.
And maybe the world.