Pro-democracy activists take part in a protest on China’s National Day in Hong Kong on Sunday. Picture: REUTERS
Pro-democracy activists take part in a protest on China’s National Day in Hong Kong on Sunday. Picture: REUTERS

When protests broke out in Hong Kong on June 9 2019, very few would have imagined that three months after the march that attracted 1-million people events on the island would still be dominating headlines across the world.

It’s been with a mix of admiration and trepidation that people have observed developments ever since.

One could reasonably assume that these are not the type of headlines likely to be welcomed by those in power on the mainland, though the reaction has been relatively restrained. That doesn’t mean there haven’t been reports of local police brutality — just not the kind of reaction one would have expected in another era in China’s history.

For some thinking back three decades to the Tiananmen Square protests and the deadly response, a sense of unease can only be heightened when they see reports such as the one from the Xinhua state news agency promising that “the end is coming for those attempting to disrupt Hong Kong and antagonise China”.

Protesters have also been characterised as “terrorists”, language that does very little for optimism that a way to a peaceful compromise can be found. At one point it was said that as much as 25% of the region’s population took to the streets. That kind of turnout, comprising all sectors of society from students to public servants, makes it hard to dismiss it as the work of a handful terrorists or troublemakers.  

In most aspects, China today is unrecognisable from 1989, mainly as a result of its phenomenal economic growth, which not only transformed the country and pulled millions out of poverty but also made it a diplomatic and economic powerhouse.

Rather than a recipient of aid, today’s China is a major source of credit and investment that is indispensable to the world’s biggest economy, irrespective of what Donald Trump has to say.

It’s not inconceivable then to imagine, and hope, that leaders in today’s China will be more sensitive to international public opinion and that this would make a violent crackdown in Hong Kong less likely. Surely the use of force would be the last resort for the government? Though the longer the situation lasts, the more likely that scenario is.

The question that’s harder to answer is at what point do the authorities decide they have no choice but to take decisive action?

The “one country, two systems model”  imposed by the British as a condition for transferring Hong Kong back to China in 1997 was always going to come under some strain as Beijing sought to increase its hold over the region. In the new age of the internet and easy flow of information, how easy is it going to be to maintain a system that gives those in Hong Kong more democratic rights than those on the mainland?

As it is, those in Hong Kong feel they don’t have enough of those rights.

The protests started in opposition to an extradition bill that would have made it easier for suspects in Hong Kong to be transferred to the mainland. It has since morphed into something broader and the protests have become bigger, forcing the closure of the main airport over the weekend.

The economy has already taken strain, with hundreds of billions of dollars wiped off the city’s stock exchange. It’s not in anybody’s interest for this to go on any longer, though with every day of violence and counteraccusations, the window of opportunity for a peaceful resolution is getting ever narrower.

It’s of course not without irony that such a powerful show of hunger for democracy is happening in a global context where those who have traditionally enjoyed such freedoms are seemingly growing complacent and in some cases are turning away from democracy.

Even in a relatively new democracy like ours, evidence of this complacency is becoming more obvious, with increasingly loud attacks on institutions, such as the judiciary and the media, that are meant to hold those in power accountable.

From the US to the UK, populism and dislike of allegedly elitist “globalists” mean the appeal of “big men” politics, at the expense of undermining long-held instruments of accountability, is on the up.

Whichever way the Hong Kong protests end, they are a timely reminder of what’s at stake.