Hong Kong: a Battleground in a Clash of Political Civilisations

By Prof Sonny Lo, Professor and Deputy Director, School of Professional and Continuing Education, University of Hong Kong

The future of political and legal rights in Hong Kong has become central to the rivalry between the US and China. While for some the issue is purely one of power and realpolitik, respected Hong Kong observer Prof. Sonny Lo argues there are deeper currents at work – a clash between two culturally-distinct political systems that is likely to condemn Hong Kong to many years of turmoil.

Political developments in Hong Kong since the summer of 2019 have fully demonstrated that this Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is a central battleground in the clash between Chinese and American political civilisations.

When the late Samuel Huntington published his The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, he was criticised by some scholars for exaggerating the concept of civilisation and its clashes in different parts of the world.

However, Huntington’s emphasis was on the clash of political civilisations, including the Sinic (Chinese) and Western ones. In Sinic civilisation, political values embrace hierarchy, state authority, and mass obedience. Western civilisation, to Huntington, cherishes pluralism, civil liberties and individual rights. Developments in Hong Kong have shown that Huntington was quite far-sighted and accurate in his bold predictions.

United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s speech on 23 July was testimony to the existence of a clash between the two political civilisations. Pompeo stressed the importance of freedom and civil liberties in the “free world,” pointing to the tendency of Marxist-Leninist regimes to seek “hegemony”, to the PRC’s “violations” of intellectual property rights in the US, and to its  “aggressive hostility to freedom everywhere”.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library, Yorba Linda, California, USA – July 23, 2020. Image credit: @SecPompeo, Twitter.

Pompeo’s speech harked back to the late US President Ronald Reagan’s criticisms of the former Soviet Union for its totalitarian rule. Interestingly, Pompeo used the term “totalitarian” to refer to the PRC under President Xi Jinping. He also mentioned the need for the US to form a “new alliance of democracies” with other countries to deal with China, and the necessity for the US administration to support Chinese political dissidents, like Wei Jingsheng, Wang Dan and Hong Kong youngster Nathan Law.

The eruption of the 2019 protests in Hong Kong is a concrete illustration of the clash of political civilizations. The PRC was keen to introduce an extradition bill into the HKSAR to pursue its corrupt businesspeople and cadres who stayed in the city to launder their money and engage in illicit activities. The people of Hong Kong firmly believed that the bill would send Hongkongers back to the mainland for trial.

In the protests between June and December 2019, the clash of values between the two sides was on display within Hong Kong itself. Many Hong Kong people supported civil liberties, transparency and Western-style democratic operations, but the pro-Beijing and pro-PRC forces supported limited civil liberties, state power, and a more authoritarian approach to dealing with Hong Kong.

The imposition on Hong Kong of a national security law by the PRC government and its Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress in early July demonstrated that, under the sovereignty of a Marxist-Leninist regime, the HKSAR is expected to be politically loyal to Beijing, economically convergent with the Greater Bay Area, and socially more compliant with the central state in the PRC and the local government in Hong Kong. The national security law is a classic example of what Pompeo referred to as the ruling strategy of a “totalitarian” regime.

The PRC’s utilisation of the national security law has acted as an effective deterrent for many protestors, whose activities have declined significantly since early 2020, and especially following the enactment of the law. However, in a society which is pluralistic and where many Hong Kong people support and cherish the Western values of liberalism, civil liberty and democracy, the imposition of the national security law will not necessarily deter protests in the long run.

A range of deep-seated social issues, from poverty to housing inadequacy, and political issues, from the lack of political reform to the absence of political trust between the masses and the ruling elites, could provide triggers for a renewed commitment to public protest.

The crux of the problem of the HKSAR regime is that its legitimacy has declined substantially since the onset of the 2019 protests. In particular, the incidents of 21 July, a night in which some triad members went out to attack ordinary people in the Yuen Long Mass Transit Railway without effective control by the local police, shattered the hearts and minds of many Hong Kong people. No independent commission of inquiry was set up to investigate the incident.

The refusal to call an inquiry has compounded the legitimacy problems of the Hong Kong government and police. Moreover, there are suspicions the absence of an inquiry is in part due to opposition from Beijing. No matter how “positive” Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing elites are about PRC intervention, it has made the legitimacy of the HKSAR government much weaker.

The loss of the Hong Kong of old fuels talk about emigration and interest in the offer of British National Overseas (BNO) passports. Some Hong Kong people will vote with their feet.

Still, this might not overly trouble the PRC. Even as Hong Kong people emigrate, there are ample numbers of mainlanders able and willing to settle in the HKSAR. At the same time, Hong Kong is being encouraged to integrate economically and socially with the Greater Bay Area (GBA). The end result will be to make the HKSAR more like a mainland city, integrated into the GBA economically. Those Hong Kong people who work in the GBA area are and will be required to observe mainland laws, including the need to uphold the mainland’s socialist system and political leadership.

HK and PRC flags
Flags of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) and the People's Republic of China. Image credit: Kapi Ng, Shutterstock.

Twenty-three years after the handover of Hong Kong from Britain to China, it is apparent political space is limited and declining under the authoritarian and Marxist-Leninist regime in Beijing. Civil liberties are destined to be further restricted and the rule of law—the foundation of Hong Kong’s historic success—also is at stake.

Critically, the national security law erodes the independence of the judiciary by requiring cases concerning national security to be heard by a panel of judges selected by the local chief executive. The chief executive may consult the chief justice, but the selection of judges can be overruled by the adviser to the national security commission, who is the director of the PRC’s Liaison Office in the HKSAR.

This empowerment of the chief representative of the central government alters the institutional design of the HKSAR, such that it is now politically and legally mixed with the mainland political-legal system. No wonder some foreign countries believe that, after the imposition of the national security law, the “one country, two systems” arrangement in Hong Kong is under tremendous threat, if not dead.

In fact, “one country, two systems” is gradually drifting toward “one country, two mixed systems”, in which Hong Kong’s political, economic, social and legal systems are all interacting with the mainland visibly and prominently.

As a consequence, US policy toward the HKSAR has steadily changed since the summer of 2019 with enormous implications for the US-PRC bilateral relationship. Washington has especially irritated Beijing with moves to implement the 2019 Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which enables the imposition of sanctions on mainland or Hong Kong officials deemed responsible for human rights violations in Hong Kong.

HK protesters
Protesters make the famous "eye for an eye" symbol while demanding US support against the PRC and HKSAR governments – August 23, 2019. Image credit: Jimmy Siu, Shutterstock.

Although it remains to be seen whether this law is implemented to full effect, it ultimately will be the people of Hong Kong who will be on the frontline of the struggle for democracy. It is they who under the national security law can be regarded as “subversive” if they collaborate with foreign political forces to challenge the political systems of either Hong Kong or the mainland.

In terms of the clash of two political civilisations thesis, political developments in Hong Kong will increasingly be in the international spotlight.

The degree of space in Hong Kong for free political expression, the exercise of civil liberty, and the independent and impartial implementation of the rule of law remain key indicators by which we should assess the performance of the PRC and HKSAR governments.

If China maintains its current authoritarian style of governance, Hong Kong’s uniqueness will surely be diluted, albeit while some of its people will continue to resist and fight for their liberal values and ideology. If China shifts from its current authoritarian mode of governance to one that is more open and tolerant of difference, Hong Kong will be able to preserve its unique way of life and unique contribution to the development of the PRC, as an integral part of the Chinese state.

But these two scenarios are likely to be heavily shaped by the ongoing US-China ideological struggle, their technological-economic rivalries, and their civilisational political clash.

Given the fact that the Chinese political civilisation remains deep-rooted and entrenched, and that the American liberal political tradition has gained the support of many Hong Kong people, it can be anticipated that Hong Kong between now and 2047, when the one country, two systems guarantee expires, will be characterised by fierce political struggles, incessant political disputes, and polarised ideological contention.

Prof Sunny Lo
Sonny Lo is Professor and Deputy Director at the School of Professional and Continuing Education, University of Hong Kong. His new books will be The Dynamics of Peaceful and Violent Protests in Hong Kong: The Anti-extradition Movement (2020) and Casino Capitalism, Society and Politics of China's Macau (2020).

Banner image: thousands of protesters march on the US Consulate to call for help from the US Government and the passage of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act 2019 – September 8, 2019. Credit: Joseph Chan, Unsplash.