Image Credit: The Guardian.

Hong Kong’s democracy trials are worrying for democracies–but not for the reason we think.

Democracy is once again in decline, many have cried. But the implications of the trial go beyond simply Hong Kong. Instead, it’s what these trials represent that should be given serious thought – the challenge to long-held liberal ideas of capitalist democracy.

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Between 2019 to 2020, Hong Kong’s residents took to the streets in protest over a new law that would allow its government to extradite accused persons to China to stand trial. 

For weeks, citizens marched in the streets to show their opposition to the new law, criticising the Chinese government for interfering in Hong Kong’s affairs. Among their many fears were that Chinese courts would be unfair and that the rule of law and freedom of speech would be curtailed. These changes would, in effect, mean the end of democracy in Hong Kong. 

As the protest crowds grew, further demands were made, and police were deployed to ensure that order was maintained, but to no avail. The conflict escalated, and the government instituted a crackdown, complete with tear gas and mass arrests.

The Aftermath Of The Protests

This month marks another momentous occasion: the start of the largest national security trials in Hong Kong. On the stand are 47 individuals, who have been called the city’s most high-profile democracy activists. They stand accused of conspiring to seriously interfere, disrupt, or undermine the functions of the Hong Kong government. 

But what did they actually do, aside from protesting the extradition law? They were opposing the Hong Kong government, and in 2020, held an unofficial pre-election primary to see if they were capable of winning a majority in the legislature. 

Naturally, these trials have received their fair share of criticism from international rights groups and media outlets, and for good reason. The national security trials are seen as a trial of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement itself and are an example of China’s increasingly heavy-handed attempt at reintegrating Hong Kong into China. Many outside of China see this as an example of democracy in retreat as China reasserts its dominance and expands the domain of its iron fist. 

Democracy’s supporters are right that this trial is an example of democracy in retreat, but it’s worrying for different reasons. Instead, the reason why many should be worried is that China’s rise, and Hong Kong’s fall, is a further example of how democracy and capitalism do not always reinforce each other and that this could be the beginning of the end for democratic capitalism. 

How Democratic Is Hong Kong?

Hong Kong’s history with democracy is complicated, as should be expected from a country with an equally complex identity. 

It was described as a “barren rock” by the British, and taken as part of the British’s spoils after the First Opium War. After several further conflicts and treaties, the borders of Hong Kong reached the point that they are now. Aside from Hong Kong Island itself, the Kowloon peninsula, New Territories area and other outlying islands merged and became a colony of the British Empire. 

Under British rule, Hong Kong developed into a trading hub, and by the time they returned to Chinese rule in 1997, the country had developed into one of the Four Asian Tigers. This “barren rock” had been transformed into a global centre for finance and trade that accounted for 20 per cent of China’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) despite having less than 0.1 per cent of its land. 

During this time, it can certainly be said that a democratic culture developed in Hong Kong – freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of association, were allowed in the colony. After 1997, electoral freedoms were also extended to Hong Kongers, allowing them to vote for candidates in the Legislative Council. 

Certainly, many Hong Kongers value these freedoms, which were extended to 2047 based on the one country, two systems principle. 

Composition of the LegCo before and after the 2021 overhaul | Image Credit: Wikipedia

But one only has to take a look at the very same Legislative Council that Hong Kongers voted for to see how limited this democracy is.

Even from the start, the Legislative Council was not composed purely of candidates who were directly elected. Seats were reserved for business communities to represent their interest, and after the 2021 overhaul, less than half of these seats were directly elected. The highest office in Hong Kong’s government is the Chief Executive, and there are no elections for this position. 

Universal suffrage – and election based on such suffrage – has not been part of Hong Kong’s political system, though many in the pro-democracy camp have pushed for it. Through this lens, the reason for the detention and trial of the 47 pro-democracy activists makes far more sense. 

Though the argument that winning a majority of seats in order to effect policy change is what is naturally expected in any other democracy, it is precisely because Hong Kong is not like any other democracy, that the trials are taking place. The Communist Party of China (CPC) has stood idly by while Hong Kongers held vigils commemorating the Tiananmen Square incident, and allowed Hong Kong, for the most part, to continue its business activities unimpeded. 

A Tiananmen Square vigil in Hong Kong | Image Credit: The Guardian

This degree of social and political freedom is not seen elsewhere in China, where the Great Firewall prevents many from discussing issues deemed sensitive or harmful to national interests. However, forcibly attempting to take control of the legislature was a step too far. China has never been a fan of multiparty politics and universal suffrage or of smaller groups pushing their interests at the expense of others. If the CPC ever needed an excuse to step in, the protests and illegal primaries provided the perfect excuse.

In reaching too far, the pro-democracy movement has attracted the ire of the central government which will, without a doubt, put an end to their antics. 

Hong Kong’s Shrinking Importance To China

In the 26 years since Hong Kong has been returned to China, China has continued to develop. As it stands, Hong Kong is being dwarfed by other Chinese cities. Shanghai, Beijing, Shenzhen, Guangzhou, and Chongqing contribute more to GDP than Hong Kong, and cities like Suzhou and Chengdu are catching up as well.

The city of Hong Kong now contributes around 2 per cent of China’s total GDP, where it once commanded 20 per cent.

Hong Kong’s GDP as a percentage of Mainland China’s GDP | Image Credit: World Bank

Hong Kong’s preeminence is in decline, and it leaves Beijing with a freer hand to deal with Hong Kong as it wishes. After all, the promise made was a necessity of yesterday and the promise broken is a necessity of today. There is also the very pragmatic concern that by 2047, the One Country Two Systems principle by which Hong Kong retains its autonomy will be scrapped. 

Pushing for greater democracy and a fully representative parliament does not help Hong Kong in its integration into China. While Hong Kongers may not identify as being part of China, unless they have the military muscle and international backing to change the status quo, they will remain part of China’s sovereign territory, whether they like it or not. 

The trial of the democracy activists, while it seems bizarre to those who see democracy as the ultimate stage of political advancement, is not so strange when considering where Hong Kong stands currently and where it will need to be in another 24 years. 

Instead of allowing Hong Kong to simply go its own way and potentially have a far more difficult time getting used to being “just another city” within China, the CPC is moving in steps to ensure that the 2047 transition will be as smooth as possible. They have signalled what they are willing to allow, and are signalling what is not. 

Encroachment on democratic freedoms may be one way to look at it, but conditioning and foresight is another. Does that mean that democracy is not on the decline? Perhaps not to most people. To Hong Kongers, it clearly does.

Taiwan, for now, remains de facto independent. It is able to defend itself and has international backing to stand its ground. For Hong Kong, not so much. They host a People’s Liberation Army barracks on the island itself at Admiralty, a short march from Central and Wan Chai where many government buildings and offices are located. 

The End of Capitalist Democracy?

As political scientists, one of the theories that we focus on is Lipset’s modernisation theory. It argues that as societies develop economically, their citizens acquire post-materialist values and clamour for more political freedom. Thus far, this theory has held up considerably well in the West. Countries like Britain, France, and many others developed economically, leading to the rise of the middle class and the overthrow of monarchies.

As the theory went, economic power was used to obtain political power, and the middle class demanded security for their gains- private property, protection from unreasonable taxation, and the like. 

Modernisation Theory | Image Credit: Semantic Scholar

But China has not seen the same development. State capitalism and red tape have meant that the state is more powerful than ever, and Hong Kong, if it is to integrate into China, must change with the times as well. 

In China, political interests supersede economic ones, but that does not mean that it ignores economic needs and economic realities. Instead, economic interests are able to flourish, as long as they do not run counter to political interests. And political interests are determined through considered political dictates, not by an aggregation of individual desires. It is this system that has produced cities that dwarf Hong Kong, and it is into this system that Hong Kong must integrate, sooner or later. 

The democracy trials are important, but not for the reasons many think. They are important not because democracy is in retreat, but rather because it reveals the stark difference between what liberals have claimed to be the ultimate stage of political, economic, and social development, in contrast with what is actually happening before us. 

To argue that China is cracking down on democracy in Hong Kong may seem natural to liberals but Hong Kong is, without question, Chinese territory. And China is free to choose the political system that operates there. The argument is also, as I have shown, slightly disingenuous, and masks the political reality of the past 26 years. 

The Hong Kong democracy trials are an example of China’s authoritarianism, for sure, but we must also remember that it would not have been able to do this in 1997 when the risk of destroying the most productive city under its control would have been too great.

Instead, the Chinese model of economic development is now proving its might.

The democracy trials are important, therefore, because they represent the clearest challenges to long-held assumptions of democracy’s sacrosanctity and the belief that capitalism and democracy are inseparable. 

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The IAS Gazette is a news site run by undergraduates from the Singapore Institute of Management’s International Affairs Society (IAS). Founded in 2018, it traces its roots to The Capital, a now defunct bimonthly magazine previously under the IAS.

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