Has Hong Kong's Legal Status Indirectly Provided Refuge for Pro-Democracy Protestors?

When questioned about a possible crack down by the Chinese government, Joshua Wong, one of the leaders of Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement, argued that the importance of Hong Kong to the Chinese economy removed the likelihood of a violent suppression. In a interview with Matt Frei, from Channel 4 news, he stated, “For a lot of people from Beijing or even (those) who are the party members of the CCP, the Communist Party of China, they need to rely on the global financial centre, which is Hong Kong, to generate more capital.”

In 1997, the CCP vowed there would be “one country, two systems” for certain regions, including Hong Kong. This meant that Hong Kong retained common law which was established when Hong Kong was a British colony. With the courts in Hong Kong perceived to be more transparent and fair, international business has thrived. Wong’s views suggest that the different legal system in Hong Kong and its subsequent status as a gateway to Chinese business has influenced the response of the CCP to the Umbrella Movement. The possibility of economic turmoil, which would follow a violent crack down seems to have created a space for protest that simply did not exist in 1989.

With changes to monetary policy in the US and the IMF projecting a flat lining of Chinese growth in the next few years, perhaps the CCP do fear that challenging the protestors directly will pose an economic threat. Currently, the growth of the financial sector in Hong Kong has remained largely unaffected by the protests. Instead, sectors such as retail and tourism have taken the brunt of negative economic impact caused by the protests. However, with two thirds of China’s foreign direct investment coming via Hong Kong, in part due to its legal system, the CCP cannot afford to react in the same manner as they did twenty five years ago in Beijing.

However, this view may be underestimating the historically draconian nature of the CCP. The protests in Tiananmen Square lasted for six weeks before the June 4 Massacre, whereas, the Umbrella Movement is entering its third week of protests. It is plausible therefore that the CCP may be biding its time, with hopes that the protests will disintegrate over time, once the novelty is lost. It may also be posed that the CCP are performing a balancing act, taking a non-interventionist stance as the effect of the protests on the financial sector are minimal, when compared to the effect forceful repression would have. If the protests prolong, they are likely to have a long-term economic effect anyway, thus tipping the balance towards intervention. For now, it seems the CCP’s opportunity cost of not acting is lower than if they were to intervene.

Although Wong feels that the heavy international presence through commerce will prevent another crackdown against protestors, the CCP still has the capacity to present its absolutism in Hong Kong. This is reflected through its proclaimed devolution with regards to the rule of law in Hong Kong, yet a committee in Beijing still hold the ability to make final judgements on politically sensitive cases. Therefore, whilst Hong Kong does have a distinct status, it does not mean the protestors are free from persecution. Even though Wong does not believe there will be a repeat of 1989, he was keenly aware that “some time later I will be arrested again”.

Image from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hong_Kong_Umbrella_Revolution_-umbrellarevolution_-UmbrellaMovement_(15292823874).jpg