Nothing better captures the difference between Hong Kong and mainland China than the annual commemoration of the Tiananmen Square massacre that takes place on June 4 every year in Hong Kong’s Victoria Park.
In mainland China the memory of the crushing of the pro-democracy movement in 1989 is ruthlessly suppressed. But Hong Kong has been allowed to continue to mark the anniversary. That kind of freedom matters not just to the 7.4m inhabitants of Hong Kong. Potentially, it is also of great importance to the future of China itself.
Put simply, Hong Kong is acting as a guardian of China’s memory and of the hope that a more liberal China could one day replace the current one-party state. The “one country, two systems” arrangement put in place when Britain handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997 has allowed the territory to continue to preserve vital freedoms, such as an independent judiciary and a free press.
Hong Kong is not a full democracy. Its chief executive is elected by a tiny group from a Beijing-approved list. But, nonetheless, since 1997 the territory has provided room for ideas, people and organisations banned from mainland China. I know of well-connected Beijing families who have taken their children to Hong Kong for the June 4 commemoration — just to ensure that the memory of Tiananmen is passed down through the generations.
Hong Kong’s peculiar role within China makes the current struggle over its legal system of global significance. If Hong Kong’s freedoms can be protected, that will also help to preserve breathing room for liberal ideas within the Chinese state. That matters not just to the Chinese people, but to a wider world that will increasingly be shaped by the power of a rising China.
At the moment, the situation is finely poised. Mass demonstrations on the streets of Hong Kong have led to the temporary withdrawal of a proposed law on extradition from Hong Kong to China. That law had threatened to break down the firewall between the territory’s independent judicial system and the one-party state in Beijing.
The announcement by Hong Kong’s chief executive Carrie Lam that she was suspending the proposal surprised many China-watchers, who had assumed that President Xi Jinping in Beijing would be reluctant to back down and lose face. The fact that Mr Xi decided to hit the pause button suggests that the Chinese president and the Hong Kong government have collectively realised that the greatest risk facing them now is not perceived weakness, but chaos and violence on the streets of Hong Kong that could have significant domestic and international repercussions.
Their restraint is wise. But it could well just be a tactical retreat. On Sunday demonstrators took to the streets of Hong Kong again, to press for the definitive withdrawal of the extradition law.
One reason that Hong Kong citizens have demonstrated in such numbers is the growing evidence, in recent years, that the “one country, two systems” settlement is being eroded in dangerous ways. Students who led pro-democracy protests in 2014 have been given jail sentences; elected members have been barred from the Hong Kong legislature; a political party has been outlawed; and a bookseller and a billionaire have been abducted to the mainland. The fact that the Chinese government is pressing for Hong Kong to push through new national security laws has increased fears about the future of freedom of speech.
The increased pressure from Beijing on Hong Kong is of a piece with increasing authoritarianism within China itself. Over the past two years, “Xi Jinping thought” has been incorporated into the Chinese constitution and presidential term-limits have been abolished, potentially allowing Mr Xi to rule for life.
The belief that Hong Kong’s freedoms are under threat from the growing authoritarianism of Mr Xi’s China is supported by the increasing pressure that Beijing is exerting on Taiwan. The People’s Republic of China has always claimed that Taiwan is an integral part of its territory. But for decades it has had to tolerate Taiwan’s continuing existence as a de facto independent country that is also a prosperous and vigorous democracy.
Over the past year, however, Beijing has ratcheted up the pressure on Taiwan, flexing its military muscle and moving to curtail any form of international recognition for the Taiwanese government. One common theory in Beijing is that Mr Xi has decided that finally achieving reunification between Taiwan and the mainland should be his legacy. Some hotheads in Beijing even talk of invading Taiwan in the next five years.
Fortunately, geography and politics ensure that Taiwan is much better placed than Hong Kong to keep Beijing at arm’s length. Its continuing political and economic success is vital because it serves as a potential model for modern China, demonstrating that, whatever the Communist party says, there are no cultural or historical reasons why an ethnic Chinese society cannot also be a democracy. Some of the many millions of Chinese tourists who have visited Taiwan and Hong Kong must return home with new ideas about politics and press freedom.
With luck, persistence and international support, Hong Kong and Taiwan may be able to keep the flame of a more liberal China alive until the mainland itself begins to change.