Future of Asia

Hong Kong Protests: The View from Beijing

Pollution and a faltering economy are what keep China’s leaders awake at night.

Credit: ArtisticPhoto Shutterstock.com

Takeaways


  • The protests in Hong Kong -- despite the inclination of many in the West to believe otherwise -- are not the burning issue for Beijing.
  • Pollution and a faltering economy are what keep China's leaders awake at night.
  • At the time of the handover in 1997, Hong Kong accounted for about 20% of China’s GDP. Today, it accounts for 3%.
  • The Chinese economy is stuttering and facing the possibility of a sharp downturn as trade with the US is ruptured.
  • China’s economy has to keep growing not just for the betterment of the people -- but to ensure stability.

One country, two systems. One event, two interpretations. The crisis in Hong Kong was sparked by chief executive Carrie Lam’s efforts to champion an extradition bill that would allow both residents and visitors to be sent to China for trial.

It backfired. Beijing is furious for two reasons: First, the massive demonstrations it ignited and, second, the central government insists it gave no instruction or order concerning this issue.

As Beijing officials insist privately, Lam had apparently been trying to curry favor and overstepped the mark.

The mountains are high and the emperor is far away. This is an old saying in southern China. But the reverse is also true. From Beijing, Hong Kong is far away. Anti-government protests in the former British colony are not a cause for emergency meetings, though Lam’s future is under serious discussion.

At the time of the rain-drenched handover in the summer of 1997, Hong Kong accounted for about 20% of China’s GDP. Today, it accounts for 3%.

China’s leadership not losing sleep

This statistic does not cause sleepless nights in Zhongnanhai, the leadership compound off Tiananmen Square. If anything, it provides reason for a good night’s sleep.

It proves, from Beijing’s perspective, not Hong Kong’s decline, but the healthy development of the national economy. The Hong Kong economy has grown since the handover, but mainland China’s growth has been supercharged.

This is the crux. China’s economy has to keep growing, not just for the betterment of the people — but to ensure stability.

Human rights are viewed through a different prism in China than in the West. China is wary of the imposition of what the West considers human rights in the country.

Past U.S. support for the corrupt regimes of South Vietnam, the Philippines under Marcos and the so-called War on Terror are a small but telling sample and proof, in Beijing’s eyes, of a less than fully altruistic approach to human rights by Washington.

Strong government needed

Many in China believe that without strong central government the country would descend into mass violence and disintegration. At the same time, this widespread sentiment does not let the government off the hook.

Chinese people want corruption to be tackled with greater determination and focus. They want to be rid of the scourge of pollution, linked to corruption through the bribing of officials.

They want the ruling party to be more accountable. What they do want from the West is teachers, engineers, specialists and trade.

The unwritten deal between the government and the people is you will be better off, leave the politics to us.

Greening China

If Chinese leaders are worried about one fact, then it is this: With 10% of the world’s arable land, China feeds 20% of the planet. As the Ministry of Agriculture admits, 40% of this land is poisoned by pollution and nutrient rich top spoil is in decline.

Moreover, if China keeps on industrializing, food security could be further eroded. This is one of the reasons why China is trying to turn to green energy — not to lessen dependency on fossil fuels, but to protect its food sources.

This explains why China is in pole position globally in renewable energy production. The world’s largest producer of wind and solar energy, China is also the largest domestic and outbound investor in renewable energy.

The great contradiction

But now for the great contradiction. China has not turned its back on cheap coal. Beijing plans to build at least two large coal power stations a month for the next 12 years. This translates to between 300 and 500 new coal power plants by 2030.

The reason? Beijing needs an energy source it can rely on. Oil imports must navigate maritime choke points, the Strait of Hormuz and the Malacca Strait. Green energy is not yet up to the task. King Coal is economically cheap, but it comes at a political cost.

More coal, more mass incidents

About 1,000 “mass incidents” (protests involving more than 100 people) take place every day in China. Many of these are pollution or climate related.

The Chinese economy is stuttering and facing the possibility of a sharp downturn as trade with the United States is ruptured. Such a downturn would see these mass incidents rising sharply, endangering the basic structures of the country.

Against this backdrop, it becomes apparent why the protests in Hong Kong — despite the inclination of many in the West to believe otherwise — are not the burning issue for Beijing.

Pollution and a faltering economy is what is keeping those who reside in the leadership compound awake at night.

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About Tom Clifford

Tom Clifford is an Irish journalist, currently based in Beijing.

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