Over the summer, one frequently saw a black flag with a flower in the Hong Kong protests. The flower is the bauhinia, which has also graced the red flag of Hong Kong since the handover from Britain to China in 1997. The black bauhinia flag emerged in force this year and has come to symbolize Hong Kong independence. It is highly controversial in Hong Kong, shunned by older and more establishment protesters, and hated by the government.
Communist leader Xi Jinping ominously warned on Oct. 14: “Anyone who attempts to split any region from China will perish, with their bodies smashed and bones ground to powder.” Xi apparently ill understands the concept of reverse psychology. His ham-fisted approach to governing China is aggravating the centrifugal political forces that threaten to either disaggregate the country, one of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) worst fears driven by the example of the breakup of the Soviet Union, or continue the process of turning China into the ever more totalitarian state required to permanently band its disparating parts together.
The fasces was a symbol of Mussolini’s fascism and Rome’s imperialism, a bundle of sticks bound with iron and axe. It fits the strategy of Xi Jinping well. Tibetans, Uyghurs, and now many young Hong Kongers on the frontlines of protest, have all sought independence from Beijing. Only the iron of military and police action, directed from Beijing, keeps the fasces of China together.
Indeed, China spends more on domestic security than on its military, and most of that domestic security expenditure is in its rebellious “autonomous” regions of Tibet and Xinjiang. If People’s Liberation Army forces cross the Rubicon into Hong Kong, “domestic” security expenditures will increase yet more in what could well evolve into an urban battle zone.
The U.S. and European countries, eager to reward special interests by expanding exports to China for politically influential corporations, have allowed Hong Kong to devolve to this state by generally ignoring human rights issues. U.S. President Donald Trump reportedly promised Xi to remain silent on Hong Kong issues during trade negotiations. That seems like a bad strategy for the U.S., as it incents Xi to draw out negotiations interminably.
The U.S. and Europe’s policy of allowing China’s human rights issues to fester and boil until they reach the current state of violence has long ceded the moral high ground and invited instability. Despite what CNN claims, Trump’s prioritization of trade over human rights in China has a long history that stretches back through both Democratic and Republican administrations. Independence movements in China have been taboo as an object of support in the U.S. since failed Tibetan separatism in the 1950s resulted in over a 1.2 million deaths between 1951 and 1984. Russia has not seriously supported separatism in China since the East Turkestan governments in the 1930s and 1940s. Soviet Russia was ideologically aligned with Communist China, so double-crossed separatists in China, and today’s Russia is too dependent on the country, as is the rest of the world, to risk its trade relations.
Mainstream and older Hong Kong activists shun the concept of independence, I would argue not from a lack of interest in such, but from a fear of provoking Beijing. Uyghur activists have a similar split, with the mainstream activists in Washington D.C. having a “congress” but not advocating for independence despite 1-3 million of their people placed in concentration camps.
Many in Taiwan also fear provoking Beijing, and so have not declared independence. They have gone from claiming all of China in 1949, to simply hoping they will be left alone by Beijing 70 years later, in 2019. Following pressure from Washington in the 1980s, Taiwan did not obtain a nuclear deterrent, and has seen U.S. conventional military sales dwindle over the years as the U.S. increasingly panders to China. Taiwan is now relatively defenseless against China’s much superior mainland forces.
Hong Kong mainstream activists, and their defensive strategy of seeking autonomy and democracy, are strategically underlining for the world the CCP’s violation of the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration. As opposed to declaring support for independence, which risks immediate suppression by China, their autonomy strategy works well if time is on Hong Kong’s side. Once universal suffrage is achieved in Hong Kong, it will be hard for Beijing to remove it in the future. Democracy can be used to increase autonomy or even gain independence at some later date, according to this strategy. Universal suffrage in Hong Kong, if successful, could even be another positive example along with Taiwan, for the mainland’s future development towards a democratic status.
But time is not on Hong Kong’s side. China’s relative economic and military power is fast gaining, and in some cases exceeding, its only near-peer competitor, the United States. China’s influence in Europe is increasing, and Trump is focusing his political capital with Beijing to extract better trade deals, rather than to address the many geopolitical threats that Beijing imposes, including in Hong Kong.
Were China to grant some autonomy to Hong Kong, it is still making autocratic advances elsewhere, like Xinjiang, Tibet and globally through influence campaigns. There is no guarantee that a more powerful China, in 2047, will not completely absorb Hong Kong as just another Chinese city. This is, indeed, the plan of the 1984 agreement. Demanding that China observe it is therefore a stop-gap measure for Hong Kongers that allows them to live to fight another day, but does not solve the underlying problem of long-term lack of political participation.
While the limited goal of autonomy might bring some immediate stability to Hong Kong, if it puts a positive veneer on, or otherwise enables China, for example through Hong Kong continuing to be a door for investment capital or illegal transhipment into China, or adding to China’s revenue base while China expands autocratic power elsewhere, it could be a net negative globally. From that global vantage, an autonomous Hong Kong should not be allowed to continue to enable authoritarian China’s rise as it has in the past. To the extent that it does, it will join China on its path to becoming an enemy of the free world. That is not safe for Hong Kong, if military conflict between the U.S. and China were ever to emerge.
An independent Hong Kong is less likely to help China, and if it does, can more easily be held accountable. Therefore, countries like the U. S., Japan, India, and even Russia, should want to see not just autonomy for Hong Kong, but independence. It would weaken China economically and therefore militarily, decrease China’s concentration of power, and make it more difficult for China to hide its purchasing, GDP, and influence activities behind the Pearl of the Orient’s relatively friendly facade.
Hong Kongers, too, should support independence rather than mere autonomy. The latter will erode over time, if the protests lose steam, the CCP’s power continues to grow, and mainland immigrants continue to seep into the city. Only 18 years away, 2047 will arrive all too soon. Hong Kong should not have as its greatest goal, the joining of other “autonomous” regions such as Tibet and Xinjiang. “Autonomy” as granted by the CCP is not really autonomy at all, can easily be eroded over time, and is therefore a less than worthy goal. For the good of the world and Hong Kongers, Hong Kong should rather seek ever greater independence.
Anders Corr holds a Ph.D. in government from Harvard University and has worked for U.S. military intelligence as a civilian, including on China and Central Asia.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of LICAS News.