A New Imperial Power? The Hong Kong Debate at The Cambridge Union

Darren Wong 24 February 2020
Image Credits: BBC

This House believes China is the new imperial power in Hong Kong.

While mainstream media attention on the protests in Hong Kong has been shifted to concerns over the novel coronavirus outbreak, tensions between Hong Kong and China continue to simmer, a settlement hardly in sight. Triggered by the introduction of the Fugitive Offenders amendment bill by the Hong Kong government, protestors continue to fight for democracy and autonomy nearly a year on, including the establishment of an independent commission of inquiry into police brutality and universal suffrage for elections.

Promising a spirited debate, the Cambridge Union brought together key players on both ends of the debate — Martin Lee, a Hong Kong politician and barrister who founded Hong Kong’s major pro-democracy party, the Democratic Party; Evan Fowler, a regular contributor on social identity and generational issues for the South China Morning Post, China Daily and other press agencies; Joshua Wong, a Hong Kong student activist and politician who first rose to international prominence during the 2014 Hong Kong protests; and Victor Gao, Chairman of the Yale Law School Association of China,  who used to serve as an English interpreter for Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s and the China Policy Advisor with the Hong Kong Securities and Futures Commission in the early 2000s. Two student speakers joined the debate panels, with Issac Fung speaking on side proposition and Margaret Zheng on side opposition.

As proposition and opposition sides presented impassioned, well-argued ideas, it quickly became clear that the debate was shrouded in ambiguous or inconsistent understandings of notions like citizenship, democracy and imperialism. Just like the protests on the ground, there was a clear divide in ideologies and values, to the extent that neither side seemed to fully engage with the opposing side’s arguments, unfortunately.

Side proposition argued against the inconsistency on China’s end for “promising direct election of the Chief Executive but then taking it back” and called for the right to “govern [themselves]”, maintaining that “the people of Hong Kong are not pushing for independence”. This goes back to the core of democracy, where the elected Chief Executive in Hong Kong is chosen by and accountable to the people.

Democracy holds a different meaning for side opposition, however. Victor maintained that he is a “firm believer and pursuer of democracy”, seemingly ascribing China’s modernisation to democracy as he praised China for “lifting 800 million people out of poverty”. But he then nuanced his understanding of “democracy” by establishing “the rule of law” as a necessary prerequisite. “The rule of law and democracy are Siamese twins — they cannot live without each other. You cannot achieve democracy by smashing the rule of law. The better way is to promote democracy and protect human rights by committing to the rule of law.” Democracy is appreciated, but not essential to side proposition — it is naive “that once you achieve electoral democracy, you can solve fundamental problems in Hong Kong, such as the housing issue.”

There was much disagreement over the definition of “new imperial power” — first, if China’s prominence today is unprecedented or simply a resurgence from its illustrious past; and second, what kind of political moves are constituted as imperialism?

While Joshua defined imperialism as “acts of extensive influence and authority over a territory ruled through political, military or economic means”, the opposition focussed on the fact that Hong Kong is legally part of China, which makes imperialism a misnomer for characterising Hong Kong-China relations.

China’s control over Hong Kong’s autonomy could very well be deemed a form of nationalism; after all, Hong Kong is part of China’s administrative regions and this could be a “continuation of China’s 2000 years of history”. One speaker humorously likened it to Scotland proposing a referendum to seek independence from Britain. While it is morally reprehensible for Hong Kong to restrict people’s freedoms and retaliate harshly through police action, it does not circumscribe China’s involvement or support as imperialistic.

Yet, a “neo-imperial” view that frames citizens as subjects of the state could also be considered. If one is a citizen of the territory, does it mean the state cannot perform imperialistic actions on its own people and the territory? And to add in a refreshing dose of self-reflexivity, “what is the fun of being an empire in today’s context?” Victor drew on Paul Kennedy’s book on “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers”, challenging the implicit assumption that China has imperialistic agendas behind its actions, or lack thereof, with regards to the protests. Pointing out the dangers of “the over-reach of an empire”, Victor asserted that “China does not want to be an empire”.

Ending the debate, Evan first apologised for “sounding like a British diplomat” as he began dissecting the debate topic sensitively from a more balanced perspective. “The word [imperialism] is not helpful — nuance is being lost, and it is unnecessarily provocative.” He reminds the audience that “it is not China that the Hong Kong people are rejecting or the Chinese identity or Chinese civilisation. It is very specific: authoritarianism.” Moreover, he argued that politics today should not be grounded on ethnic and civilisational identity, in this case, being Chinese or part of China’s long history should not subject Hong Kong to China’s influence. In fact, an increasing number of people in Hong Kong are beginning to identify themselves as Hong Kong citizens and not Chinese.

The word [imperialism] is not helpful — nuance is being lost, and it is unnecessarily provocative.” He reminds the audience that “it is not China that the Hong Kong people are rejecting or the Chinese identity or Chinese civilisation. It is very specific: authoritarianism.

As Isaac succinctly described, today’s situation is not just “about asserting old prerogatives of sovereignty, but tyranny and oppression too and we must fight against it.” I sat with Victor and Evan after the debate to elicit their opinions on resolving the stalemate between Hong Kong and China. I referred to the seemingly irreconcilable divide — how can we move forward in a constructive way when not one party appears to be listening?  How should, and how will, the stalemate with China end?

“I would say, our top priority is to put a stop to the attack on the rule of law.” Victor urged everyone in HK, regardless of political affiliation, regardless of pro-China or pro-democracy, to condemn violence and put a stop to such violent acts. Evan agreed, “I think there is compelling evidence on both sides that there have been incidents where the police has acted inappropriately. I have sympathies for both front line protestors or policemen — you run on emotions if you are beaten or see your friends beaten, and it is difficult to not allow that to affect you. To be fair, a lot of people who are influential in the protest movement recognise this but can’t come up to say anything because people are hurt.”

However, protestors resort to violence only when their voices are not heard and rely on more visible forms of activism and movements to amplify their concerns. Evan highlighted that both “the Hong Kong government and Beijing seem to not want to acknowledge the legitimate reasons and grievances that people have, but we’ve always received their condemnation and frankly, lies”, referring to concerns of foreign interference. “These are your citizens but you are not treating them as such.” Herein lies yet another ideological struggle – what does it mean to be a citizen for the Hong Kong citizen and the Chinese government?

These are your citizens but you are not treating them as such.

In the long run, Hong Kong’s fortunes are inevitably entwined within that of China’s. As Victor argued, “How can Hong Kong separate itself from mainland China’s economic and political development? Hong Kong’s future lies in engaging with mainland China, fully utilising its position as a conduit in the Greater China Area and as a platform between China and the rest of the world. Being a former British colony could become a strength that Hong Kong can draw upon, providing it with a lot of connectivity with the other Commonwealth countries.”

When I suggested that this essentially co-opts Hong Kong into China’s spheres of influence, Evan laughed. “China’s already done it. Hong Kong has been increasingly economically integrated into China, but the issue is not that. It is much more on history, identity, politics, memories… We’re not talking about integration; we’re talking about assimilation against Hong Kong’s spirit. How can you have a high autonomy if you assimilate a city?

Citing the annual St Gallen Symposium that was founded in 1969 as a response to international student unrests, Victor raised the possibility of organising student-sponsored, student-led forums in Hong Kong. “I would say students in Hong Kong’s universities should consider holding a forum, not to further polarise society but to engage in a constructive manner what the younger generation of Hong Kong can do.” Quoting J.F. Kennedy, he said Hong Kong’s students should “ask not what the country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”.

“ask not what the country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”.

But how can these dialogue platforms be transparent and go beyond serving as tokenistic measures to preserve the status quo?

I asked Victor if it could be possible for China to make concessions in terms of legal frameworks or political constitutions because Hong Kong’s fight involves a top-down systemic change. Victor replied with some scepticism, “First of all, if anyone in Hong Kong or the world believes that they can force China to make changes by putting pressure of China, that is indulging in fantasy. I don’t think China is afraid of pressure from anyone in the world even in the US. Second, I think China should be flexible on many points that do not involve matters of principles, especially in terms of housing situation and enabling the younger generation to find jobs and integrating their economic development into One Belt One Road initiative — lots of new initiatives that can be undertaken for the betterment of Hong Kong.”

if anyone in Hong Kong or the world believes that they can force China to make changes by putting pressure of China, that is indulging in fantasy

Once again, Victor boasted China’s economic prowess, although economic incentives are likely to be poor stop-gap measures in tackling the deep-seated unhappiness amongst the populace. “But if the pressure point is aimed at the political system of the ‘one country, two systems’ principle, or the basic law, then I don’t think the central Chinese government is in a position to budge at all.”

On the other hand, Evan felt that “it’s much better and constructive if you say we understand that we have challenges when it comes to human rights and the rule of law in China but we acknowledge our weaknesses and own limitations and therefore you can build some trust. If you say China is democratic and China has human rights, it becomes difficult to engage them with genuine sincerity. If China is prepared to acknowledge some core facts, that would go well to building up some trust and potential for dialogue.”

I left the debate and interviews feeling rather divided. Side proposition won that night’s debate with 44% of the vote. It is not difficult to see the underlying reasoning of both parties, yet reconciliation looks unlikely given the dogged determination, or unyielding stubbornness, however you see it, exhibited by both sides. There are no true winners in war, physical or ideological.

There are no true winners in war, physical or ideological.