While many New Zealanders remain largely disengaged with civil unrest in other countries, there are compelling reasons why we should take a closer interest in Hong Kong's increasingly confrontational protests, which have now entered their sixth month. Simon Draper, executive director of the Asia New Zealand Foundation, explains why.
One of the reasons I have stuck to public policy rather than venture back to the private sector is because I am attracted to "wicked" problems. If you are unfamiliar with the term, it describes problems that have no really good or tidy outcomes and it is often hard to know – or at least measure – the impact of any decision. Compare that to private sector challenges, where the outcomes of any decisions can at least be measured by the impact on your bottom line.
From many angles, the current crisis in Hong Kong is a wicked problem. The demonstrations began in June and have become increasingly violent in the past month, disrupting transport, turning universities into battle zones, and rocking Hong Kong’s economy.
The protests were initially sparked by a proposed extradition bill (formally withdrawn in October). But there are doubtless many drivers for the dissent, including fears that China is increasingly diminishing Hong Kong’s semi-autonomous status; worries about diminished quality of life and well-being; and a sense that Hong Kong may lose its distinct identity.
Record numbers of people voted in district council elections – the only fully democratic election in the territory – over the weekend, with the results showing a surge in support for pro-democracy parties.
Arguably, Hong Kong’s crisis has really been brewing since 1997, when the United Kingdom’s lease of the city expired and Hong Kong returned to the sovereign jurisdiction of China.
The process of integrating Hong Kong – a vibrant, small semi-democracy (Hong Kong residents do get some rights to vote but don’t get to elect the chief executive) – into a very large Communist country was bound to encounter some problems.
In managing the transition, a lot has rested on Hong Kong’s “Basic Law”, the constitution that came into effect in 1997 and follows the “one country, two systems” principle. That Basic Law is due to expire in 2047.
The hope was that the 50-year transition period would provide time for those two very different systems to come closer together, so that by the time the Basic Law expired, Hong Kong would seamlessly be absorbed into mainland China.
The democratically-minded hoped that by 2047, China would be a more liberal country, closer to the Hong Kong they knew and loved. And in turn, the People’s Republic of China hoped it would be absorbing a Hong Kong that looked more like a Shanghai or Shenzhen – growing in economic might but still very much under centralised control from Beijing – and with the people of Hong Kong loyal to the President.
Both parties are disappointed at the way things are panning out. Younger Hong Kong residents, in particular, are uncomfortable with the idea of being absorbed into an authoritarian China. And Beijing will worry this push-back against centralised control may spread to other parts of China, bringing with it that dreaded word: instability.
Why should this matter to a country like New Zealand? China argues that Hong Kong, being part of China, is a domestic matter and thus no-one else’s business. Beijing wouldn’t give New Zealand advice on its own sensitive issues, and so in turn it would argue New Zealand shouldn’t be publicly dispensing advice on Hong Kong. And, to be fair, there are plenty of global issues that are unpalatable to many New Zealanders that we nevertheless remain largely disengaged with.
In this case, however, we do have connections through our diaspora: several thousand New Zealanders currently live in Hong Kong, and thousands of Hong Kongers live in New Zealand. The issue of Hong Kong-China relations has also played out in our universities.
For decades, Hong Kong has played a vital role in the prosperity, stability and security of the Asia-Pacific. It’s a critical hub in New Zealand’s engagement with Asia; China in particular. New Zealand will be hoping that both the protesters and the Hong Kong authorities exercise restraint, avoiding further deterioration.
In New Zealanders’ day-to-day lives, we rarely (if ever) have to consider what our core values are. Unlike many other countries, we don’t, for example, formally teach our children about civic responsibilities and duties. Voting isn’t compulsory in New Zealand, as it is in Australia, and generally people have minimal engagement in the democratic process unless they have to. Then up pops an issue like Hong Kong, where we see people literally fighting for things that we take for granted.
Ultimately, why New Zealand should care about Hong Kong comes down to our values, and what we think is fair and just. Much comes down to the rights and powers of the individual vs the rights and powers of the state. Among the enduring political values that most New Zealanders believe in are: an open contestability of ideas and the ability to vote for what you believe in; a strong sense of the value of individual rights; the idea that the state cannot tell you what to think; and the idea the government is there to protect.
For Communist China, the state is at the centre of the equation. The state is to provide stability for the nation, even when at the cost of the individuals who reside within it. There is an infallibility about what the State and Party can say and do. That system reflects China’s history and is the system that China’s 1.4 billion people endeavour to live by.
Any accommodation by China to the democratic concerns of Hong Kongers would be read as a signal that it is prepared to be flexible, no doubt raising democratic hopes elsewhere.
For foreign policy wonks, how Hong Kong plays out will be seen as a bellwether for the type of China we are likely to increasingly see on the global stage. A crackdown would send shudders around the region and the globe. If things go badly in Hong Kong, that’s bad for everyone in the region.
So, Hong Kong is important not just because of trade, or how it might impact on our holidays. At its core, it is a tussle between key values and ideas, and ultimately about human rights and freedoms. For such important issues, whether they are framed as “domestic” or not, doesn’t really matter. We all have a stake in building a peaceful, free and prosperous future for our region.
- Asia Media Centre