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Dr Bijan Omrani, Editor of Asian Affairs, the RSAA journal, reports on the latest online expert discussion

On 27th November, the RSAA hosted an online panel discussion about the latest developments in Hong Kong. The panellists were Martin Purbrick, a former HK police officer and writer of several articles for Asian Affairs who has just taken up a new post as director of the Asia Scotland Institute; Professor Steve Tsang, Director of the China Institute at SOAS, and Professor Clifford Stott of Keele University.

The panellists discussed the various factors which, in their view, had led to the recent protests and China’s imposition of the new National Security Law. A number of the underlying causes were social and economic, including the increasingly large disparity of wealth within the territory. It was observed that the Hong Kong government’s own figures showed that around 20% of its population were living below the poverty line, belying its general image of prosperity. Housing is also increasingly unaffordable. Many young people in Hong Kong have no sense of any economic stake in the territory’s future, and feel that the government has failed them in these areas. There is also an increasing gap between the expectations that a well-educated society in Hong Kong has of government, and the understanding of government itself and its agencies about their own role in society – a gap which is particularly seen in the Police force and its understanding of its role in protecting the community.

The perception held by many Hong Kong people that the government and its leaders have performed poorly, and yet they do not have the power to remove them by democratic means, has led to a sense of a “democratic deficit”. This sense led to the anti-government protests moving beyond the sphere of a small group of activists to being something that a wide range of the working population, not to mention students and pensioners.

The discussion looked at whether the protests were inevitable at this time. While the current One Country Two Systems settlement is due to expire in 2047, and the direction of travel for Hong Kong’s governance is inevitably going to be towards this conclusion, the view was put forward that the current protests were not an inevitability at this point. One of the reasons for the situation was the style of leadership adopted by Xi Jinping after his accession in 2012. Previously, under Hu Jintao, the style of leadership was more pragmatic, and that of a “first among equals”. China was more comfortable about accommodating different styles of Chinese identity, particularly in its peripheral areas such as Hong Kong, where people, following the handover, were comfortable with an identity as being citizens of China, but believed that their identity was different to those Chinese on the mainland as governed directly by the PRC. However, Xi Jinping brought in a new and heavy-handed approach. This included not only an emphasis on his own personality and leadership, but also on the greatness of China, and a consequent rigidness and inflexibility in terms of his treatment of diversity and dissent. In particular, with Hong Kong, Xi’s attempts to impose a new “patriotic” education curriculum led to a backlash and the rise of a generation of activists such as Joshua Wong. Moreover, the heavy-handed approach of the police during the early stages of the protest, using force including tear gas, pepper spray, and beatings against peaceful protestors, led to the serious inflammation of the situation, where Hong Kongers had previously been more inclined to follow the rules and work with the Police.

In a wide-ranging question and answer session following the initial discussion, topics discussed included the intentions behind the new Security Law and its effects on Hong Kong, particularly with respect to its intentions for developing the “Greater Bay Area” vision for 2050; the impact of protest and dissent in Hong Kong on the mainland Chinese; the question of Hong Kong people’s sense of their own identity and their relationship with the government; the views of Hong Kong businesses about the political situation; the impact of the Hong Kong situation on the Chinese diaspora, particularly in South East Asia; and also the question of the UK’s response to the situation, as well as the potential impact of the UK’s offer to allow the permanent settlement in the UK of Hong Kong British passport holders (British National Overseas passport holders).

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