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Hong Kong Protests: In Hindsight, China Must Be Cursing Itself

Most political crises in the world are self-inflicted. The people versus establishment conflict is triggered largely due to a Government or a regime’s tendency to impose itself upon the society, justifying the act as a necessity for larger good. While sometimes it is and it’s unfortunate that the society sees it otherwise, it’s mostly done by a self-serving clique. But when State coercion becomes unbearable and rightful freedom is infringed, crisis erupts.

China’s message is clear and undeniable, though. Hong Kong will never be allowed to achieve freedom that it is now loudly beginning to push for and anyone coming in China’s way to prevent it will be crushed. But the question is not whether China would let the Hong Kongers chase freedom or not. The question is, was there really a need for the Extradition Bill? Hong Kongers were going about their lives without causing any headache to Xi Jinping and the Communist regime. They may not have been happy, but they weren’t causing any trouble, either.

What is happening in Hong Kong is a classic case of a Government inviting the wrath of the people, unwittingly. It didn’t expect retaliation on such a huge scale, but China should have known better. It should have remembered the Umbrella Movement. It should have remembered the pact with the British and the terms and conditions at the time of handover in 1997.

The Fugitives bill, if approved, would have allowed extradition of Hong Kongers not only to China, but to any jurisdiction in the world with which Hong Kong has no existing formal agreement. Hong Kong currently has longstanding extradition treaties with 20 countries, including the US and the UK.

With China, Hong Kong has no agreement on extradition since under “One Country, Two Systems” framework, the territory enjoys civic freedoms, judicial independence and substantial autonomy for 50 years.

Although the Bill is dead and buried now, the damage has been done and the latent need for freedom re-awakened. And with the death of Hong Konger Alex Chow during the clash with the police, the will to carry on appears stronger every passing hour. Perhaps, it’s irrevocable now.

China clearly risks being suckered into a Tiananmen Square-like situation, something the Chinese would hate to get into. The world has already forgiven them once, it might not the second time, never mind how powerful they are today. Tiananmen Square 2.0 will also alienate the people in the Mainland itself. Xi has worked very hard to become entrenched as an unchallenged leader. He wouldn’t want to rock his own boat and invite whispers of resentment by his own people.

Had the situation been handled more gently and with tolerance, China wouldn’t have had to deal with a Hong Kong that has become radicalized in a short span of under six months.

This has become bigger, much bigger, than any of China’s many other problems. Trade war with the United States or the challenges the Belt and Road Initiative faces pales in comparison. This is an unending nightmare for Xi Jinping and there is hardly any solution that does not come with far-reaching damages for China.

Hong Kongers will not back down, so the final option would be to mobilize the military to crush the rebellion. If that happens, Hong Kong will lose its status as a multipurpose global destination and with it, so might China. To make matters worse, it would strengthen Taiwan’s resolve to continue to defy China and oppose China’s proposal to come under the gambit of its own “One Country, Two Systems” framework. The final and most telling blow would be when the Chinese people themselves are forced to have second thoughts about their indomitable leader.

When China looks back, it will regret the Extradition Bill. But Xi Jinping will do well to use his mistake as a teaching tool. He should also learn the art of embracing impermanence.

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