Pearl of the Orient or Pawn in Chinese Chess?, By Osmund Agbo

It remains to be seen whether Hong Kong will return to its former glory as the Pearl of the Orient or continue to be a pawn in the chess game of China and other world powers. But one thing is clear, Hong Kong’s new leader is largely responsible for stifling dissent in an iconic city once known for its vibrant civil society and freewheeling press.

Just two weeks ago, precisely on Sunday May 8, John Lee was “elected” as the fifth Chief Executive of Hong Kong, as the leader of this island territory in China is called. This was an “election” in which Mr Lee was the only candidate and we were told he won over 99% of the votes cast by members of the election committee in a secret ballot. But China is not fooling anyone. The caricature of Hong Kong’s largely pro-Chinese election committee was just an elaborate ploy to present Beijing’s choice to the world.

Mr. Lee’s pedigree made him an ideal candidate to pursue China’s intentions in Hong Kong. After joining the police at the age of 19, he rose through the ranks, eventually becoming security secretary in 2017. It was in this position that he led the heavy-handed crackdown on anti-government protests that rocked the city in 2019 and many believe that his “election” is a reward for doing the bidding in Beijing at the time.

Before the arrival of the British, the area now called Hong Kong was a small fishing community located on the southern coast of China and surrounded on all sides by the South China Sea, except in the north. The Spaniards who first visited the area named it Ladrones, meaning an island of thieves, fitting Hong Kong’s bad reputation at the time as a pirate’s paradise. But it is also where the British came to buy certain Chinese products, such as porcelain, tea and silk.

The Chinese, on the other hand, had little or no interest in European manufactured goods. So, over time, Britain found itself facing a huge trade deficit with China. Britain decided that the best way to remedy this imbalance was to smuggle opium into Hong Kong.

This decision of course reversed the trade imbalance, but came with a high price for China, which had to deal with an epidemic of opium addicts. Enraged by this development, China went ahead and destroyed British opium and refused to pay any compensation for it. This would eventually lead to the First Opium War which ended in 1842 in favor of Britain. China was forced to cede Hong Kong Island to Britain as spoils of war, under the terms of the Treaty of Nanjing, signed by the two nations in 1898. China would regain control of Hong Kong after eighty -nineteen years, whose lease expired on July 1, 1997 at midnight.

Under British control, Hong Kong became completely westernized in almost every facet of life, from education to culture, and even adopted the Christian religion. The island flourished as mainland China faced periods of great instability. During the Second World War, the island was invaded by the Japanese who occupied it for three years. This was later ceded to the British after Japan’s defeat by Allied forces.

In all of this, Hong Kongers have become helpless against a belligerent China. The media, unions, political parties and human rights groups have all been subjected to intense government censorship. Many pro-democracy activists have been arrested and are in detention on charges bordering on treason.

Hong Kong operates a large capitalist service economy, marked by low taxation and free trade, which partly explains why it has become the city with the highest concentration of ultra-wealthy individuals, more than any city ​​in the world. The Hong Kong dollar is also the eighth most traded currency in the world.

The main difference between mainland China and Hong Kong is the system of government. The former is communist and controlled by a single party, while Hong Kong has what is called limited democracy. While the president of China is the head of states that governs both places, each still has its own head of government. The Prime Minister in the case of Mainland China and the Director General at the head of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.

When the lease expired in 1997, China demanded the repossession of Hong Kong. In an attempt to reassure the international community and the people of Hong Kong, China’s Supreme Leader Deng Xiaoping and Britain’s Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher agreed to implement what has been called the “one China, two systems” policy. This meant that Beijing would assume sovereignty, but Hong Kong would retain its rule of law and capitalist ways for 50 years, with its own economy, currency, etc.

Implementation of the policy, however, has remained problematic, as China continues to aggressively assert its power, relentlessly interfering with and dictating Hong Kong’s political direction and governance. The political rules were established to ensure that pro-Beijing forces control the local legislature, known as Lego. But what’s even more baffling to Hong Kongers is that no one can guarantee what would happen to Hong Kong the day after the handover ends in 2047.

In all of this, Hong Kongers have become helpless against a belligerent China. The media, unions, political parties and human rights groups have all been subjected to intense government censorship. Many pro-democracy activists have been arrested and are in detention on charges bordering on treason.

China, once considered a poor cousin, has now become the world’s second-largest economy and on the fastest road to first place. With this in mind, many global leaders and multinational CEOs are scrambling to please China and hopefully gain access to its estimated consumer market of 1.4 billion people, while turning a blind eye to the atrocities that she commits.

The fate of Hong Kong today should offer a lesson in sobriety to Biafran secessionists who are confident that in a war with Nigeria the international community will somehow rally to the rescue and that the pendulum of victory will turn in their favor. Such a notion is rooted primarily in the belief that the Ndigbo are fighting a just and worthy cause, which is indeed true. But the reality is that having such hope is like living in a lunatic’s paradise.

One of the biggest disappointments on the whole Hong Kong issue has been Britain’s silence, or at best the lukewarm responses to China’s dominant influence, which is worse than silence. Former British Prime Minister Sir John Major promised before the transfer that Britain would do everything possible and use its influence to defend Hong Kong and its freedoms, but that is not happening now. British businessmen just want things to continue as usual, in order to maintain good relations with China. They want the Hong Kong protesters to go home and not be seen again, which seems to be in the political interest of the British government. The simple truth is that money rules and China has plenty of it.

The Americans, who pride themselves on being the defenders of democracy, do no better. When China’s top internet regulator visited Facebook’s CEO in Silicon Valley, Mark Zuckerberg reportedly kept a copy of a book containing selected speeches by President Xi Jinping on his desk. Even former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg funded Harvard University to establish a research center in Shanghai. Everyone literally bends over backwards to please the Chinese in order to get a slice of the pie.

The fate of Hong Kong today should offer a lesson in sobriety to Biafran secessionists who are confident that in a war with Nigeria the international community will somehow rally to the rescue and that the pendulum of victory will turn in their favor. Such a notion is rooted primarily in the belief that the Ndigbo are fighting a just and worthy cause, which is indeed true. But the reality is that having such hope is like living in a lunatic’s paradise. Nations are primarily looking for what is in their own interest, rather than whether certain actions would earn them moral points.

On July 1, when John Lee begins his five-year term, replacing outgoing chief executive Carrie Lam, he will become the first former police officer to lead Hong Kong in more than a century. He plans to push through a series of new laws on secession, treason, sedition and subversion, known collectively as Article 23, exactly as China wants.

It remains to be seen whether Hong Kong will return to its former glory as the Pearl of the Orient or continue to be a pawn in the chess game of China and other world powers. But one thing is clear, Hong Kong’s new leader is largely responsible for stifling dissent in an iconic city once known for its vibrant civil society and freewheeling press.

Osmond Agbo, a public affairs analyst is the coordinator of the African Center for Transparency and organizer of the Save Nigeria project. E-mail: [email protected]


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