Francis Moriarty: Hong Kong: A pox on both their houses?

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WILLIAMSTOWN — Who should be blamed for the pro-democracy upheaval in Hong Kong?

Angry youth? Local government? Police? Outside agitators? Greedy developers?

Or the city's chief executive, Carrie Lam? In a move out of the BBC's "Yes, Minister" satire, Lam has just created a "dialogue office" to engage 200 citizens (out of seven million-plus) in the search for a response. Blinded perhaps by the billowing smoke and tear gas outside her office, Lam has apparently failed to see that "dialogue office" is the job description of a responsible government.

No, the fingers of blame point jointly at China and Britain, who separately and together have conspired to deny democratic self-rule to Hong Kong.

2047 IS NOW

Britain brought no democracy until late in its 150-year rule. China then promised that after the 1997 handover Hong Kong would retain its way of life for at least a half-century and there would be progressive steps toward democracy.

But for the young people throwing Molotov cocktails today, that 50-year grace period is over and 2047 is now.

China, the colonial victim, and Britain, the colonial aggressor, have not always been antagonists over Hong Kong. When individual interests overlapped, they collaborated, especially leading up to the territory's transfer.

Geoffrey Howe, Britain's foreign secretary during the negotiations, once recounted that when he and Chinese counterpart Wu Xueqian discussed the handover, they would imagine carefully exchanging "a precious vase" — an appalling condescension toward the millions whose lives were at stake. Someone must have found it distasteful: Howe said the image later morphed into "a vase containing a precious plant."

This shared image reveals the negotiators' disregard for the humanity of those living inside the "vase" and their feelings about the place they now called home. For Britain and China, it was about physical possession. But the "plant" had sent down emotional roots.

Today's street demonstrators stem from these refugees, who had fled China's civil war and the upheavals under Mao. For them, Hong Kong was a haven. Their house might have been a shack clinging to a hillside and vulnerable to fire and flood. But shantytowns like Diamond Hill and Lion Rock were a proud part of local identity, birthplaces to professionals, factory owners and laborers. These places were precious toeholds on the path to a better life. (Until recently the song "Under the Lion Rock" was the closest thing Hong Kong has had to its own anthem.)

There was an unspoken compact between the ruler and the ruled: Leave politics to the officials and focus on your own lives. This was the deal that Beijing hoped to inherit along with the "precious vase. "

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Britain and China developed a mutual interest in stability and wealth. They agreed not to rock the boat that for so long had risen higher with every tide.

This economic success deflected the drive for self-rule. Otherwise, mass unrest could have happened long ago — and likely would have, if London and Beijing had not conspired to manipulate Hong Kong's emotions from the start of negotiations in 1983 right up to the 1997 handover.

During those years, both governments engineered their confrontations, ratcheted tensions up and down, each side calibrated its responses and reassured its loyalists, constantly adjusting the worry level and deftly wringing anxiety out of the system — a kind of handover kabuki.

Business was gradually reassured, stock market fluctuations smoothed and investors' worries eased as the inevitability of China's takeover sank in.

But the price for this order was democracy. British officials who had negotiated the Joint Declaration now worked to stunt local demands for greater self-rule, which might endanger the deal. Any accessions were grudgingly made and in consultation with China. When the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre threatened to blow up everything, Britain made 50,000 full British passports available to the senior Hong Kong civil servants and their families who wanted an escape hatch. China acquiesced.


The then governor, Sir David Wilson, could have seized that moment to seek greater self-rule for Hong Kong by maximizing the number of directly elected seats in the coming legislature. Instead, he sought to find the fewest number that pro-democracy forces would be willing to accept. Hong Kong's democratic possibilities were sacrificed to preserve the sovereignty deal.

For its side, China responded to Tiananmen — and to Hong Kong's massive outpouring of support for the Beijing demonstrators — by making unilateral changes to Hong Kong's Basic Law that would restrict elections and assure that future legislatures would be a rubber stamp.

China did not stop there. Although it originally promised fully democratic elections to the legislature by 2007, it scrapped that vow. When eventually it unveiled a proposal for selecting a Hong Kong chief executive, critics dubbed it a "birdcage" because the process was tightly controlled by Beijing, which also retained a final veto on any successful candidate of whom it might not approve. China really hates surprises.

Today, the British government can criticize Beijing, but it cannot absolve itself for having ruled Hong Kong for more than a century, all the while denying the people there a chance to freely determine their own governance. Today, China continues this shameful legacy.

Both powers have shared the precious plant's benefits. Let them now share blame for its bitter fruit.

Francis Moriarty was the senior political reporter for public broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) covering the return of Hong Kong from British to Chinese sovereignty in 1997.


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