Is it too late to save Hong Kong from Beijing’s authoritarian grasp?

“They have very complicated attitudes to Hong Kong people – a complex,” said a man in his late 20s who works in corporate relations for a small manufacturer, explaining his support for tighter restrictions on tourism from the mainland. “They say that Hong Kong people are really just Chinese people, and nothing special. Hong Kong people in the 70s and 80s invested a lot of money in places like Shenzhen, and behaved like tycoons. They say you bought prostitutes there. Now we are rich, and it is the Hong Kong people’s turn to be our slaves. When Chinese people come to Hong Kong now, they like to act like they are operating in their colony. They don’t care what you think and are very free, because they have the Chinese government behind them, and the Chinese government controls everything.”

More than any economic statistics, it is this kind of psychological role-reversal that has unsettled people most. And that feeling is exacerbated by the assertive, even swaggering, manner of Xi Jinping. During his four years in power, Xi has established himself as the country’s most powerful leader in decades. Under his presidency, China’s own fledgling civil society has been under relentless attack. Lawyers working on human rights issues have been prosecuted and universities have been ordered to toe a rigid ideological line. In this climate, Hong Kong’s democracy movement has been depicted as a tool of the west, whose ultimate purpose is to subvert China and undermine its stability by encouraging liberalism on the mainland.

When Britain handed over control to China in 1997, Hong Kong was a beacon of freewheeling prosperity – but in recent years Beijing’s grip has tightened. Is there any hope for the city’s radical pro-democracy movement?


Early one morning in January, under the veil of darkness, a team of undercover police from China quietly entered Hong Kong’s Four Seasons hotel and made their way into a luxurious residential suite. After sweeping aside the billionaire occupant’s private contingent of female bodyguards, they shrouded the man’s head in a white sheet and bundled him off in a wheelchair.

Xiao Jianhua was one of China’s richest businessmen. He had built his fortune over the past two decades through deals involving the cream of China’s political elite, reportedly including close relatives of the president, Xi Jinping. Because of China’s opaque political culture, one can only speculate about the reasons for Xiao’s abduction, but it seems that he had taken careful steps to protect himself. Not only was he residing and conducting his business outside of China, his country of birth, he had a diplomatic passport from Antigua and Barbuda and had adopted Canadian citizenship, perhaps thinking that this might offer him some extra degree of legal or diplomatic protection.

Hong Kong fields its own police, border control and immigration services, each theoretically separate from China’s own vast security apparatus. But when authorities in Beijing decided to come and get Xiao, none of that mattered. Since then, Hong Kong authorities have not dared to publicly protest Xiao’s arrest, nor has China offered any explanation.

The incident was yet another blow to the idea that Hong Kong has control over its own affairs. Just a year earlier, five publishers and booksellers had been secretly whisked away to China for interrogation. From unknown places of detention, where most of them remain, some were forced to make crude televised confessions. Like Xiao’s abduction, this incident remains shrouded in secrecy, but many believe that the five men were targeted for selling lurid books about rivalries and corruption at the highest level of Chinese politics. Such books were particularly popular with visitors from the mainland, who could never find such uncensored material back home. One of the publisher’s books purported to reveal details of President Xi’s secret love life.

For many Hong Kong residents, the abductions were reminders of the sheer flimsiness of the agreement negotiated between Britain and Beijing when China regained sovereignty of the city in 1997. Indeed, Xiao’s abduction had been preceded by an even bigger blow to the promise of self-rule in Hong Kong. In November, a pair of young, telegenic candidates, who had just won election to the city’s Legislative Council, were denied their seats. LegCo, as it is widely known in Hong Kong, is a semi-democratic, 70-member body that makes laws, approves budgets and can hold the city’s governor to account. No one disputed that the two candidates, who represented a new pro-independence political group named Youngspiration, had prevailed at the polls. The pretext offered to reject them was that they had refused to specifically pledge allegiance to China during their oath-taking ceremonies, instead using the phrase “the Hong Kong nation”. (Establishment politicians also complained that they had referred to China with the derogatory term “Shina”, a word once favoured by Japanese imperialists.)

Hong Kong politicians defy China as they are sworn in

Hong Kong’s staunchly pro-Beijing chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, first sought a court injunction to prevent the Youngspiration candidates from taking their seats. This was a worrying move – but then Leung did something unprecedented and, for many locals, far more disturbing. Eliminating any discretion Hong Kong’s independent courts might have had in the matter, Leung put the issue before Beijing, inviting a leading committee of the Chinese National People’s Congress to rule on the dispute. The pair were duly disqualified from office.

Since the handover, Beijing had rarely intervened in Hong Kong politics so bluntly, and anger over this turn of events quickly spread, especially among younger people. The mood remains tense. On the day after I arrived in Hong Kong in January, a delegation of pro-democracy activists flew to Taiwan, led by the city’s most prominent opposition leader, 20-year-old Joshua Wong. At the Hong Kong airport, just before departure, and then in Taiwan, crowds of pro-China demonstrators jostled Wong’s delegation and showered them with threats and insults. Many commentators described the demonstrators as rent-a-mobs pulled together by organised crime groups acting on behalf of Beijing. The mobs were there to send the message that no one from Hong Kong who preaches separation from China is beyond Beijing’s reach.

If that was indeed the intention, the message seems to have been received. But that is not all that was delivered. I have been visiting Hong Kong since the late 1990s, and after more than a week of scheduled interviews and spontaneous encounters with people of many different walks of life and political persuasions, what I found was an unmistakable, shared sense of foreboding among the people of the city. In formal interviews and over meals in crowded, neighbourhood restaurants, the fear people expressed was that their home – one of Asia’s freest and most cosmopolitan cities – is locked on a collision course with the authoritarian system that governs China.

The freedoms and democratic culture that make Hong Kong so special might not survive. As one prominent lawyer put it to me: “If there is a solution to Hong Kong’s predicament, surely no one has imagined it yet.”

For years, Hong Kong residents have looked forward to 2017, the 20th anniversary of the British departure, as a milestone in their political evolution. According to promises made by Beijing, this was meant to be a moment when they would take a critical step toward direct universal suffrage, under the city’s mini-constitution.

Instead, when the city’s next elections are held on 26 March, rather than ushering in a more democratic era for Hong Kong, they will be conducted under the old terms, leading many people to fear a return of the protests and confrontation that have marked the last three years.

Relations between Hong Kong and the mainland haven’t always been like this. At the time of the handover in 1997, the anxiety that many of Hong Kong’s 6.5 million residents felt about the future under the Chinese Communist party was offset, in part, by a strong surge of pride. It is true that thousands of locals emigrated, or sought second passports as a hedge against the uncertainty of this new era. But many others believed that as people on the mainland grew wealthier, political liberalisation would follow. Rather than Hong Kong being remade as China, China would come to look ever more like Hong Kong. For people of this persuasion, there had never been a better occasion to reaffirm one’s Chineseness.

It helped, of course, that the most vital things had not been left to chance. Britain’s final act of decolonisation, which had been negotiated for decades, appeared to cede control over the city not so much to the Chinese state as to the people of Hong Kong themselves. Under an arrangement with Beijing that became known as “one country, two systems”, Hong Kong would be allowed to govern itself for 50 years with minimal Chinese interference. (Even then, however, there were local critics who bemoaned what they saw as a design flaw, or original sin, even: the people of Hong Kong were given no role in negotiating the new terms.)

Hong Kong was so valuable to Beijing’s state planners that optimists convinced themselves the Chinese Communist party would not risk tampering with it in any fundamental way. The city had been the first source of capitalist investment for China – booster fuel during its initial economic takeoff in the early 1980s. Through the 1990s and into the next decade, Hong Kong remained an all-important source of investment, as well as a conduit through which China hungrily absorbed western technology and management techniques. Western-style institutions, such as the city’s impartial courts, transparent financial markets and free press, moreover, made Hong Kong a halfway house for China’s own nascent global companies. It was the ideal place to set up international operations, giving them the extra credibility they needed to win over skittish foreign investors.

One other factor helped reassure Hong Kongers who felt anxious about their future. To many observers, “one country, two systems” seemed partly designed to appeal to the 23 million people of Taiwan, a self-governed democracy off the coast of the Chinese mainland. Bringing Taiwan into the fold of a unified China had been a sacred goal for the Communist party ever since 1949, when Mao defeated China’s Nationalist government, which fled to the island. Now, political commentators throughout the region speculated that if Hong Kong was seen to be prospering as a liberal society under Chinese sovereignty, then perhaps the people of Taiwan might also be gradually won over to the idea of uniting with the mainland under a similar arrangement.

During its early years of implementation, many international observers gave “one country, two systems” good odds to succeed. For some, it even looked like a true “shuang ying” (win-win), one of the most cherished stock phrases of Chinese diplomacy. When one factored in Taiwan, it looked like it could even become a win-win-win: something that all three societies might eventually come to embrace.

man on waterfront in Hong Kong
‘It feels like everything is stacked against you’ … many young people in Hong Kong are pessimistic about the future. Photograph: Bobby Yip/Reuters

Today, though, in the 20th year after the handover, this Sino-British arrangement is charitably described as limping along on life support. Many believe it is in danger of collapsing altogether, even as a pretence. As China has grown richer and more powerful, it has also become less patient and less willing to sacrifice control. In Hong Kong, meanwhile, the idea of “one country, two systems” has been riven by the sudden upsurge of enthusiasm for autonomy. Beijing has found itself confronted by increasingly disaffected and radicalised youths, who are as unwilling to compromise over democracy and civil liberties as China is itself.

For its part, Britain – Hong Kong’s old colonial master – has been reluctant to publicly criticise Beijing, as it eagerly courts Chinese business and investment. Chris Patten, the Conservative peer and last colonial governor of the city, recently said: “I feel very strongly that we let down the parents of this generation of democracy activists. I think it would be a tragedy if we let down these kids as well.”

To read the full article, please click here.


Fantastic commentary by George Packer in the New Yorker about political journalism during the primary season. I’ve been thinking about the vapid entertainment quality of American campaigning a lot these last few months, and wondering both how it looks to the country’s present and future challengers, and what the impact of the emptiness of our discourse may ultimate be on our direction and destiny?

“In the tenth paragraph of a page A15 Times piece, Rick Santorum accuses Barack Obama of engaging in “absolutely un-American activities.” What are they? The article doesn’t say. The quote appears without explanation or comment, in an article entitled “Santorum’s Challenge: Broaden His Appeal Beyond Evangelical Christians.” Nor does the line show up anywhere else on the Web—apparently no reporter in the mob following the candidates through the last days before the Iowa caucuses thought it worth writing down, and no blogger thought it worth repeating. It was just a throwaway line, a hunk of spoiled red meat tossed at the crowd in a Sioux City coffee shop, no more newsworthy than saying, “It’s a great day to be an Iowan!”

Read more

And Once More the World Shrugs at the Congo

The Democratic Republic of Congo’s President, Joseph Kabila, has just perpetrated a massive hoax in order to retain power. Bowing in principle to the Western-driven demands to the famous but nebulous “international community,” Kabila has held just held elections, which he would like the world to believe he has won.

The overall tally, 49 percent for the “winner,” and 32 percent for the first runner up, had a ring to it that at first glance, at least for the uninitiated, sounded both plausible and competitive, which in such matters usually go hand in hand. The results proclaimed the Congo to be the latest African country to have traveled far away from the bad old past of continental elections, which authoritarian rulers once routinely “won” with upwards of 95 percent of the vote.

Closer glimpses reveal immense problems with this exercise, beginning with the fact that Kabila, the incumbent, has carried a number of districts by “old African” margins of 100 percent or close to it, in his favor.

If the problems ended here, this story would be bad enough. Unfortunately, they don’t. As made clear by the Carter Center, in the most authoritative review of the results by an international monitoring organization, in Kinshasa, an opposition stronghold, some 2,000 polling station’s results simply vanished. Another 1,000 or so more disappeared in other parts of the country.

The closer one looks at this electoral exercise, down to the composition of the electoral commission, which was stacked in favor of the sitting president, the more one is obliged to conclude that it was a farce. Such an examination may never suffice to overturn the results in favor of the leading opposition candidate, Etienne Tshisekedi, toward whom the Western diplomatic world has a marked, if rarely publicly avowed, distaste. But that is not the point here.

Why should anyone care? The Congo is a chronic, seemingly doomed basket-case. It takes a very short step to conclude that it would be unreasonable to expect much better from what has so long been a failed or failing state.

This kind of reaction, best described as a resigned shrug, is the international community’s reflexive, almost ritualized response to negative turn of events in Congo. It is typically followed by a fatalistic acceptance of the newest status quo, and if this reliable old pattern holds, that will mean de facto acceptance soon for Kabila’s election outcome, if not the precise details of the vote itself.

But just as it is dishonest to pin all of Congo’s problems on outsiders, it is equally untruthful to pretend that the international community’s silent tyranny of low expectations has nothing fundamental to do with the country’s cursed situation, or more so even than for most African countries, with its long term history of debilitation.

The resigned shrug — whereby powerful and deep-pocketed outsiders, largely concentrated in the West, come to live with and even support a situation they know to be deeply wrong — has been a signal factor of nearly every disaster the country has faced since the Rwandan genocide, in 1994.

This state of affairs began with the housing of armed Rwandan Hutu refugees in United Nations-run camps close to the Rwandan border, in violation of the UN’s own statutes. Things were done this way not because it was right, but because it was the cheapest and easiest way to proceed.

This chronicle of shrugs continued with the overthrow of the longtime dictator, Mobutu Sese-Seko, in 1997, which began with Rwandan mortar attacks against the UN refugee camps, which scarcely raised a peep from the UN. or the West. Here again, one senses that this is because they had decided that for a variety of reasons, Mobutu, whom they had long favored, had to go, and this was the cheapest and easiest way to proceed.

The West shrugged at evidence that, along the way to power, Mobutu’s replacement and the current president’s father, Laurent Kabila, had presided over the extermination (by Rwandan Tutsi-led units) of hundreds of thousands of Hutu refugees. A minority of those refugees would have been perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide and the feeling was that they had to be liquidated. If that meant also killing a distinct majority of people who were innocent women and children, along with men who were not perpetrators, well, shrug, so be it. This is Congo. It’s a tough luck place.

One could go on and on with examples like these. Suffice to say that things have continued much this way down to the present day, with the world giving the same reflexive response at each critical moment. But there must come a time when the international community, and the Western nations that provide so much of its direction, insists on more and better from the Congo, and from their own engagement with it. And that’s what makes this time potentially so different.

Elections are something that the West loudly professes to care about deeply. And here’s where we get to where Congo’s fraudulent outcome should really matter.

For several years now, Africa has been in the midst of both strong economic growth and a quiet democratic revolution. These developments have commanded few of the headlines dominated by subject like terrorists and pirates in Somalia or rape in eastern Congo, but increasingly vigorous democratic competition is becoming the rule rather than the exception on the continent.

There is any number of holdouts, though, and many of them are in Congo’s neighborhood. One might start with Rwanda itself, where President Kagame arranges to prevent opposition parties from competing, and now flirts with changing the constitution to perpetuate his already long rule. Zimbabwe, a near neighbor to the south, would be another case in point of an authoritarian figure, Robert Mugabe, clinging to power by every means possible.

What kind of standing would the international community have to criticize processes in places like these, or in other holdout countries, from Uganda to Cameroon, if it cannot find its voice in Congo?

A fact too easily lost in the election’s immediate aftermath, but unlikely to remain lost in the longer term, is that the shambling, dishonest way the vote was conducted makes a mockery of more than just the Congo. It casts well-deserved ill-repute on the international community as a whole, and particularly on those who financed the vote: the United Nations ($110 million), the European Union (47 million euros), and the UK (31 million pounds).

It’s tempting to conclude that, if this is the best that your money and technical assistance can achieve in the realm of elections, it would be better to invest in such badly needed things as primary health care or schools, and avoid spoiling the name of a good cause.

Here it is worth recalling the international context, which is newly competitive after years of fading Western interest in Africa after the Cold War. A resurgent China has been happy to mock the West’s obsession with elections and governance in Africa, as it touts the more tangible things it builds, such as roads, ports, and stadiums.

As the West shrugs, how much better for China to compare itself to a model that demonstrably doesn’t work and cannot deliver, as with Congo’s fraudulent elections, a bridge to democratization that was paid for but never got built.

The Bastards We Know

They seemed to say it forever during the Mobutu years, how “we” couldn’t get behind, or really even offer any encouragement to any number of individuals (or processes) that reared themselves up as alternatives to the rule of the Guide.
The Guide, you see, was safe and predictable, and everything and everyone else seemed like such a risk.
Even the Guide’s time eventually ran out, but did this get us to change our approach?
Not really, we just substituted a few names while sticking to the same formula.
An armed takeover of Zaire (the once and future Congo) was better than all other known alternatives such as, namely, any idea of democratic transition, some of the groundwork for which had already been laid.
Congo is too chaotic and the Congolese far too boisterous and querulous. Better to accept the “solution” of our friends, their orderly and reliable neighbors, Rwanda and Uganda. They’ll put the country to rights.
Have we already forgotten how well that went?
Today, we see all manner of ahistorical pseudo analysis as ready to accept a sort of corrupt insider’s conventional wisdom as the babbling heads who make the political horserace odds on our Sunday news shows back home.
The authors privilege the antipathies toward Congo’s main opposition leader, which are mouthed with neither courage nor accountability behind the veil of anonymity by Western embassies.
“We can’t really get behind Etienne Tshisekedi because ‘we’ dont like him very much.” The whys are never much explained. One notable recent piece called Tshisekedi angry, without bothering to explore what he might be angry about. Furthermore, after casting its aspersions, it broke the normal rules of our journalism by not bothering to include a quote from someone in the camp just criticized.
I know better than many first hand how frustrating it can be to deal with Congo’s politicians, none less so than Tshisekedi himself, but what is the real argument here?
Is there an argument that Joseph Kabila has delivered anything worth clinging so desperately to during his years of power? Does he offer a greater prospect for development or for rule of law? We’re speaking of a man who has mustered soldiers in the capital to enforce a favorable outcome, after having proven incapable for years of mustering soldiers for national security and territorial integrity.
One would like to hear it.
Is there an argument that the chancelleries of the West should have veto power here because they are comfortable, as always, with a bastard they know? Let’s hear it.
Is it that pushing for the closest thing possible to a genuinely democratic outcome in Congo isn’t worth the trouble, or wasn’t really the point from the start?
The ambivalence, not so much toward Tshisekedi, but toward the process itself is certainly glaring.
There are no easy outcomes in Congo, which has been diddled with as long and as tragically as any place in Africa. But a good starting point might be to insist on the respect of the ballot, of accounting for votes locally, circumscription by circumscription, by being good to “our” word that democracy in such places is important, and by embracing the true outcome, wherever the chips may fall.
Certainly nothing else “we” have tried has worked very well.

The indispensable (on Twitter) @jasonkstearns is the closest foreign observer of today’s #DRC. The post linked here gives insufficient weight, though, to basic questions about integrity of process, w/o which back of envelope calculations are pretty meaningless:

Reference Points

One must simply call things by their name sometimes.
In this day and time, is unacceptable to have newspaper coverage of an African election in which there are few to no substantive comments from Africans of the country in question.
No foreign commentator, no matter how seemingly insightful or well-placed, can make up for this. Foreign-based Africans, even when they are from that country, are scarcely better as substitutes. Nor, for that matter, do random interviews with street vendors stand the test.
One presumably goes to a country to take the time and effort to understand the range of views on a topical situation of the people of that country. This is how reporters work all over the world – except too often, I regret to say, in Africa, where we forget the most basic rules of enterprise and balance.
The point of view of a foreign embassy should not be given pride of place in a political analysis, particularly absent a bilateral crisis with that embassy’s nation.
If a political figure from a nation is treated in a critical fashion by outsiders, we should also have the point of view of locals, both high (civil society, politicians, and in the obvious interest of balance, a response from members of the criticized party) and low (meaning what are often termed ordinary people)