Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party. He runs TRD Policy.
Dublin’s 1916 has rising always presented a mystery: why were the leaders summarily court-martialled and executed by firing squad when it was blindingly obvious this would provoke sympathy for a group of rebels who had until then stood condemned by Irish public opinion because of the violence and disruption they had caused?
Ronan Fanning supplies the answer in his excellent Fatal Path. The executions were ordered following in camera summary courts martial set up by General Maxwell, the commanding general in charge of suppressing the rising, to the horror of Asquith’s government. They proved a disastrous miscalculation by the man on the spot, who took his orders to suppress the rising too literally, that set up the eclipse of the constitutional Home Rule movement by violent Irish nationalists who went on to win independence in 1921.
That the overzealous application of orders often proves counterproductive is not a lesson appreciated by Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive. Where Maxwell blundered by sweeping the rebel leaders into a secretive military justice system, Lam made a huge mistake in trying to allow the extradition of Hong Kongers to mainland China.
The opportunity to blunder came because of a controversy that arose because Taiwan sought the extradition of a man who had admitted to murdering his girlfriend while in Taiwan. Hong Kong acceded to demands to amend the extradition law to allow him to be tried, but drafted the law in order to allow extradition to mainland China as well.
We don’t know whether the expansion was a power grab by Beijing or an attempt by Lam to please her superiors, but it has laid bare that China’s indirect rule over Hong Kong is based on the threat of coercion, not consent.
Lam is now trapped. She can’t withdraw the bill without angering Beijing; but failure to withdraw it (she has only suspended it so far) is making Hong Kong ungovernable. Prosecuting any of the demonstrators who broke into the LegCo (legislative council) building will only create martyrs – and reinforce fears that if extradition is allowed they might handed over to the People’s Republic’s secret police.
More importantly, Beijing is trapped too.
The central government hopes to play for time, and buy Hong Kongers’ acquiescence with economic and social improvements. If it avoids the temptation to make further power grabs while strengthening increasing the Hong Kong business community’s economic dependence on Beijing, it may be able to hope the demonstrators tire.
But unrest and stagnation in Hong Kong reflect badly on a more important Chinese priority – Taiwan. One of the main justifications for allowing the Hong Kong “special administrative region” its semi-democratic government was to reassure the Taiwanese that reunification with Beijing need not undermine their freedoms. This reassurance is now obviously worthless.
Taiwan is a standing rebuke to China’s political and economic system. The freest, happiest, most prosperous Chinese society isn’t the one ruled by the Chinese Communist Party, but one that rejects their rule completely. Taiwan goes to the polls next year, and any crackdown in Hong Kong can be expected to boost support for the Democratic Party, which is sympathetic to independence, and weaken the Kuomintang who prefer the current ambiguous arrangements where both Taipei and Beijing pretend to be the sole government of China.
The pro-democracy protest movement in Hong Kong in this way finds itself in a surprisingly strong position. If it can keep the pressure up, Beijing would be wise to offer them concessions, most obviously by having all LegCo seats elected by universal suffrage. It would be foolish to attempt a crackdown now, when the United States will pounce on any excuse for a trade war.
Nevertheless, Hong Kong’s democrats shouldn’t be left to confront Beijing on their own. The survival of ‘One Country, Two Systems’ should be morally imperative for all democratic powers. Even as we sometimes struggle to keep our faith in liberal democracy, in Hong Kong millions of people are ready to defend their rights.
Ben Rogers, founder and Chair of Hong Kong Watch has told me he wants a “Hong Kong contact group” of likeminded democracies from Europe, Asia and North America to be established. He would like to see the new Prime Minister establish such a group. He says it’s an area where other governments are very keen to support a British lead. This would a strong message to the international community that Britain intends, after Brexit, to continue to fight for democratic principles and human rights.
Such a group should make it clear that further attempts to encroach on Hong Kong’s freedoms and rule of law would have consequences for China and cause further reconfiguration of the group’s trade and security policy. Acting as one, it would have the heft to give Beijing pause.