It’s not surprising that thousands of people are demonstrating in Hong Kong. The real wonder is that they took so long.
After 150 years of British rule, the colony reverted to China at the end of June, 1997.
It was the last major colony of the British Empire. It was also one of the Empire’s greatest success stories. Chinese entrepreneurship was combined with British administration. The result was one of the most prosperous pieces of real estate in the world.
The British exported democracy to every one of their colonies. As Hong Kong was leased from China, democracy came rather late to the territory. But Hong Kong residents clearly got a taste for it. This seems to have taken Beijing by surprise.
According to the agreement the British made with China before the handover, an agreement known as the Basic Law, Hong Kong can preserve its separate way of life for fifty years, until 2047. It’s in China’s best interests to honor the agreement. The reason for this is that China wants Taiwan back in the Chinese fold. Any repression of HK’s way of life will likely stop that from happening.
An election is due in HK next year, for a new Chief Executive. The present crisis began because Beijing is insisting on vetting all candidates. They want submissive, co-operative people ruling the territory.
This is a classic clash of civilizations, East vs. West.
The last British Governor, Chris Patten, wrote years ago (and repeated on the BBC yesterday) that, when he sought Beijing’s opinion on holding an election before the handover, the Chinese replied that they had nothing against elections – they just wanted to know the result in advance!
This is the crux of the problem. The Chinese do not understand democracy. They do not envy the United States or any other western country. Rather, they see the West as morally corrupt and degenerate. They have no desire to see western values in their own country. As far as they are concerned, westerners have too much freedom. Henry Kissinger once asked the Chinese leader what he thought of the United States. His response was that “it’s too early to tell.”
The Chinese have shown that it’s possible to have free enterprise without the other freedoms – of speech, religion and government by the people.
At the same time, the West does not understand China. Reporting from HK shows that there is a naïve optimism in the West, that this is the start of China becoming like us. People should not hold their breath – the average lifespan of a Chinese dynasty is about 300 years. The Chinese Peoples’ Republic celebrated its 65th anniversary two days ago. Western style democracy is not likely in the near future.