Why Hong Kong disturbs Xi Jinping's vision for China
The FT's chief foreign affairs commentator Gideon Rachman says the violence and protests in the territory raise questions about leader Xi Jinping's 'one China' policy
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- China's president, Xi Jinping, has made the restoration of his country's power and dignity the central theme of his presidency. But Hong Kong, a part of China's sovereign territory, has descended into violent anarchy. Universities have turned into battlegrounds. Protesters are hurling Molotov cocktails at the police. But they appear to retain a strong letter of support from the population. Chinese troops have appeared on the streets but, so far, only to help clear the roads.
The spark for the first demonstrations in June, was the introduction of a bill allowing extradition of criminal suspects from Hong Kong to mainland China. By most accounts, that was an idea pushed by Carrie Lam, Hong Kong's chief executive. But Mr Xi bears a broader responsibility. In the seven years since he came to power in Beijing, the Chinese state has become significantly more authoritarian. Preparing the ground in Hong Kong, for a backlash against rule from Beijing.
An anti-corruption drive has seen prominent figures disappear from public life on the mainland and a rash of suicides among Communist Party officials. And more than a million people have been interned in reeducation camps in the province of Xinjiang. The treatment of Xinjiang is often cited by demonstrators in Hong Kong as a sign of just how far Beijing will go to crush cultural and regional diversity. During the Xi period the mainland's intolerance for free speech and thuggish attitude towards the law, has seeped into Hong Kong itself. The case of some Hong Kong booksellers who were kidnapped then detained on the mainland sent a chilling message.
So did the decision to ban elected lawmakers from the Hong Kong assembly for mangling loyalty oaths to China. Prominent anti-Beijing political activists, such as Joshua Wong, and Edward Liang were imprisoned. Mr Wong is now out of gaol while the still inprisoned Mr Liang finds his slogan, "Free Hong Kong Revolution Now," chanted on the streets. During the Xi years China's gone backwards politically. Maoist era slogans have been revived and Xi Jinping thought has been written into the Chinese constitution. Free speech has been further restricted. Civil rights lawyers have been locked up. And nongovernmental organisations have been closed down.
So it's hardly surprising if Hong Kong now regards the prospect of full integration with the mainland with horror. And that date no longer seems impossibly far off. The most radical demonstrators are often in their teens or early 20s and they'll be in the prime of their lives when the second handover takes place in 2047. The current revolt raises questions, not just about Mr Xi's handling of Hong Kong. But about his entire political project. The president's mantra is the great rejuvenation of the Chinese people. And central to that, is the restoration of national territorial integrity.
Just as disturbingly for Mr Xi's vision, the rebellion in Hong Kong undermines a central tenet of the patriotic education pushed by the Communist Party. Namely, that there is one China and that all Chinese people long for nothing more than to be united. It's now clear that millions of Hong Kongers do not feel that ethnic solidarity overrides their political concerns about mainland China. On the contrary, they're increasingly asserting a separate Hong Kong identity that's often tinged with prejudice against mainlanders.