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The Hong Kong Protests: The International Response
By: Editorial Board
Hong Kong holds a special and strategic position in the geopolitical realm. After the British handover to China in 1997, Hong Kong became subject to the ‘one country, two systems’ policy enabling Hong Kong to pursue free trade and liberalization policies. With this freedom, Hong Kong attracted foreign investment as they remained separate from China’s legal system. Over several decades, China has begun to reign in Hong Kong’s autonomy and increased its influence over the Special Administrative Region. The current protests now are a direct response to these transgressions.
During these events, the international response has been mixed. On one spectrum, many countries and corporations have remained silent or supported China’s conduct over an “internal matter”. Their silence highlights China’s growing economic and political power, and China’s ability to shape the international narrative. However, many other entities have not towed the line with China. Many international organizations and human rights observers have openly criticized the ongoing conflict. These parties are concerned about China’s violent restrictions on liberal and democratic values including assembly and freedom of expression. While pundits, countries, organizations, and corporations are all forced to take a position on Hong Kong, it will be insightful to examine China’s political economy and how the rest of the liberal world has responded.
The protests in Hong Kong erupted in June after a proposed extradition bill was introduced allowing criminal suspects to face extradition back to mainland China. In September, the bill was formally withdrawn from consideration. However, the protesters now have further grievances. Many protesters have a slew of demands including an independent inquiry into alleged police brutality, universal suffrage for the elections of the chief executive and Legislative Council, and the resignation of Carrie Lam (the current chief executive). These demands serve as stark contrasts to China’s desire to limit Hong Kong’s autonomy. The political fissures are further exemplified as China celebrates its 70th anniversary of communist rule. The events in Hong Kong directly contradict China’s desire to illustrate stability and control during the celebration. "Beijing [now] sees the unfolding crisis as something that is really destabilizing and challenges its rule, its control." says Adam Ni, a China specialist at Australia's Macquarie University. As the protests continue, the issue has begun to spill into the international realm.
Support For China
Daryl Morey, the General Manager of the Houston Rockets sent out a tweet saying, “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong.” The tweet was subsequently deleted, and China’s national broadcaster CCTV refused to broadcast two NBA preseason games in China and then blacklisted the Rockets. The NBA responded by condemning the tweet and discouraging players from commenting on Chinese policy. This one example illustrates a general trend with multinational corporations’ response to Hong Kong. From Apple to Blizzard gaming, companies seek to gain a foothold in a booming Chinese consumer market. However, to gain access, these companies repeatedly must wade through a minefield of pitfalls that could see them ousted from the market. Therefore, to ensure profits these companies have remained largely silent regarding the Hong Kong controversy.
Many state actors have also remained silent during the protests. Countries including the U.S have opted to avoid taking a strong stance on the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong to ensure positive trade negotiations. China is a major trade partner for the United States as U.S. goods and services traded with China totaled an estimated $737.1 billion in 2018. CNN sources reported Donald Trump actively promised Chinese President Xi Jinping that the U.S would remain silent on the protests during trade talks. The U.S is not alone, Thailand sided with China after a picture emerged between a Thai opposition leader and a Hong Kong pro-democracy leader. China criticized the move and Thailand referred to a previous statement that Thailand regards the situation in Hong Kong as China’s internal affairs. These instances highlight a general trend. Countries and corporations that want to do business with China have faced the fact that China has a much lower tolerance level for disagreement and criticism.
Support for the Protesters
Civil society has established a large and organized response to the protests. Recently, pro Hong Kong rallies have taken place in New York and Washington. During June there have been 39 other planned protests that took place around the world. Along with protests, the world has seen increased Celebrity supporter, crowdfunded media campaigns, and continuous support from Twitter. With increased interconnectedness, at the individual level, people have been able to amplify the issue. In June, a crowdfunding drive raised hundreds of dollars comprised of 20,000 donors who printed full page ads in more than 10 major international newspapers. International organizations have also addressed the issue. Recently the UN Human Rights organization commented, “We're concerned by ongoing events & escalation of violence. We condemn any form of violence & urge restraint. There must be prompt investigations into the use of force by law enforcement plus open/inclusive dialogue to resolve issues peacefully.” Other organizations such as Amnesty International and Freedom House have observed the protests and actively documented unnecessary and excessive uses of force against protesters. Together with civil society these entities have attempted to support and bring awareness to the situation. These entities fear that Hong Kong is facing a democratic crisis and the international community is responsible to intervene.
Political Science Outlook
Over the last few decades, China has accumulated power both politically and economically by exercising a new form of capitalism coined “Sino-Capitalism”. China’s GDP on average has doubled every eight years and has lifted some 800 million people out of poverty. As China develops into an industrialized society, it has sought out future growth through globalization and economic interdependence. Via the belt and road initiative, China has looked to expand foreign direct investment and access new markets. These factors have led China to be an integral part of the international economy. Their economic rise has explained why many states and corporations have remained largely silent during the Hong Kong protests. The term Sino-capitalism is a political science term used to describe the Chinese political economy. Sino-capitalism operates under several spheres. First, this form of economy relies heavily on interpersonal relationships. By replacing well defined legal codes, companies operate based on cultural norms and reciprocal personal relationships. Beyond these personal interactions, development is largely controlled by the Chinese state. The state directs capital accumulation and allows for state guided capitalism. Finally, the economy can operate under a hybrid structure. China can join many international economic organizations and operate as a quasi-market driven state economy. These characteristics help explain the difficulty many entities face when operating within China. While corporations and states wish to negotiate lucrative trade deals with China, they face increased pressure to stay on China’s good side. Opposed to contemporary capitalism, the firms have ill-defined relationships and immense pressure is placed on avoiding conflict with the state. Therefore, under Sino capitalism, the state has increased ability to sway trade partner’s responses and statements. While the Hong Kong protests continue, many actors will remain silent as they are forced to operate under this new version of capitalism.
Questions to Consider
- International Organizations serve as forums to enhance cooperation and dialogue between states. What mechanisms have China and the Protestors used to sway international opinions within the context of the U.N?
- With the creation of social media, the world has become interconnected. Has China utilized social media to shape the narrative behind the Hong Kong Protests?
- Will the Hong Kong protests continue or lose attention over time? Is it possible to keep China and Hong Kong operating under two systems?
- Will the protests influence foreign investment?