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Hong Kong: Pearl of the Orient or  Pawn in China’s Chess game?

By Osmund Agbo

Barely two weeks ago, precisely on Sunday, May 8th, John Lee was elected (insert selected) the 5th Chief Executive of Hong Kong, as the leader of that Island territory of China is called. This was an election where Mr. Lee was the sole candidate and we were told he won over 99% of votes cast by members of the election committee in a secret ballot. But China is not fooling anyone. The caricature by Hong Kong’s largely pro-China election committee was only an elaborate scheme meant to present Beijing’s choice to the world.

Mr. Lee’s pedigree made him an ideal candidate to prosecute China’s intentions in Hong Kong. After joining the police force at the age of 19, he rose through the ranks, eventually becoming the security secretary in 2017. It was in that position that he led the heavy crackdown on anti-government protests that shook the city in 2019 and many believe that his election is a reward for doing the bidding of Beijing. 

Before the arrival of the British, the area that is today referred to as Hong Kong, was but a small fishing community, located on China’s southern coast and surrounded by the South China Sea on all sides except the north. Spaniards that first visited the area named it Ladrones which means an island of thieves, consistent with Hong Kong’s bad reputation at the time as a haven for Pirates. But it was also where the Britons came to buy certain Chinese goods such as porcelain, tea and silk.

The Chinese on the other hand, had little or no interest in European manufactured goods. And so over time, Britain found herself facing an enormous trade deficit with China. Britain decided that the best way to deal with this imbalance was by smuggling opium to Hong Kong. 

That move for sure reversed the trade imbalance, but came with a steep price for China which had to contend with an epidemic of opium addicts. Infuriated by this development, China went ahead and destroyed the British opium and refused to pay any compensation. This would ultimately lead to the first opium war that ended in 1842 in favor of Britain. China was forced to cede Hong Kong Island to Britain as a spoil of war, under the terms of the Treaty of Nanking signed by both nations in 1898. China would regain control of Hong Kong after ninety-nine years, the lease of which expired on midnight of July 1, 1997.

Under British control, Hong Kong became fully westernized in almost all facets of life ranging from education to culture and even Christian religion. The island prospered at the time that mainland China was facing periods of great instability. During the second World War, the island was invaded by the Japanese who occupied it for a period of 3 years. This was later ceded back to the British after Japan lost to the allied forces. 

Hong Kong operates a major capitalist service economy marked by low taxation and free trade, part of why it became the city with the largest concentration of ultra-high-net-worth individuals more than any city in the world. The Hong Kong dollar is also the eighth most traded currency globally.

The major difference between mainland China and Hong Kong is the system of government. The former is communist and controlled by a single party while Hong Kong has what has been referred to as limited democracy. Whereas the President of China is the Head of States that governs both places, each has its own head of government. The premier in the case of mainland China and the chief executive as the head of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.

At the end of the lease expiration in 1997, China demanded to repossess Hong Kong. In an attempt to reassure the international community and Hong Kong people, China’s paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping and Prime Minister of Great Britain, Margaret Thatcher agreed to implement what was called the one China, 2 system policy. This meant that Beijing would assume sovereignty, but Hong Kong would keep its rule of law and capitalist ways for 50 years with its own economy, currency etc. 

The policy implementation, however, has remained problematic as China continues to aggressively assert her power, continually interfering and dictating the policy direction and governance of Hong Kong. The political rules were made to ensure that pro-Beijing forces would control the local legislature, known as Lego. But even more disconcerting to Hong Kongers is the fact that no one can guarantee what would happen to Hong Kong the day after the handover is completed in 2047.

In all these, Hong Kongers have become helpless in the face of a belligerent China. News outlets, trade unions, political parties and human rights groups have all been under intense government censoring. Many pro-democracy activists have been arrested and are in custody on charges bothering on treason.

China, once looked upon as a poor cousin, has now become the world’s second largest economy and on the fastest route to the number one spot. With that in view, many world leaders and CEOs of Multinationals are falling on top of each other to please China and hopefully gain access to an estimated 1.4B consumer market while looking the other way to the atrocities it commits.

One of the biggest disappointments about the whole Hong Kong issue has been Britain’s silence or at best tepid responses to the Chinese overbearing influence which is worse than silence. Former British Prime Minister, Sir John Major made a pledge before the handover that Britain would do everything possible and use its clout to defend Hong Kong and its freedoms but that is not what is happening here. British business people just want things to carry on as usual so as to maintain good relations with China. They want the Hong Kong protesters to go home and not be seen again, which seems to align with the British government policy interest. The simple truth is the fact that money rules and China has lots of it.

Americans who pride themselves as defenders of democracy are not doing any better. When China’s top internet regulator visited the Facebook CEO in Silicon Valley, Mark Zuckerberg was reported to have kept a copy of a book containing selected speeches of President Xi Jinping in his desk. Even the former New York Mayor, Michael Bloomberg provided funding for Harvard University to set up a research center in Shanghai. Everyone is literally bending over backwards to please the Chinese in order to get a piece of the pie.

The fate of Hong Kong today should offer a sober lesson for Biafran secessionists who are convinced that in a war with Nigeria, the international community will somehow rally to the rescue and the pendulum of victory will swing in their favor. Such notion is anchored mostly on the belief that Ndigbo are fighting a just and worthy cause which indeed is true. But the reality is that entertaining such hope is akin to living in a fool’s paradise. Nations look out mostly for what is in their own best interest rather than if certain action would fetch them some moral brownie points. 

On July I, when John Lee begins his five-year term, replacing the outgoing Chief Executive Carrie Lam, he will become the first former police officer to lead Hong Kong in over a century. He plans to push through a series of new legislations on secession, treason, sedition and subversion, known collectively as Article 23, just the way China wants it. 

It remains to be seen if Hong Kong will win back her old glory as the Pearl of the Orient or will continue to be a pawn in the chess game of China and other world powers. But one thing is clear, Hong Kong’s incoming leader is largely responsible for stifling dissent in an iconic city once known for its vibrant civil society and freewheeling press.

Dr. Agbo, a Public Affairs analyst is the coordinator of African Center for Transparency and Convener of Save Nigeria Project. Email: [email protected]

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