Editor's Note: Protests in Hong Kong, which have been going on for months, have evolved into riots ravaging the city. Are the young rioters really pursuing democracy? What are the root causes of Hong Kong's problems? Global Times (GT) London correspondent Sun Wei talked to Martin Jacques (Jacques), a senior fellow at the Department of Politics and International Studies, Cambridge University, about these issues.
Martin Jacques. (Photo: Sun Wei/GT)
GT: Hong Kong has witnessed violent protests. We know that after the Ukrainian revolution, many street protests in various countries turned violent. Do you think this is what democracy needs?
Jacques: No, I think that demonstrations in Hong Kong have got completely out of hand and violent. I think in many respects they can be described as nihilistic. The destruction of public property has a very bad effect on Hong Kong's economy and the viability and harmony of Hong Kong society. I think that it's quite different from the huge demonstration by three million people who earlier demanded the withdrawal of the Extradition Bill. I think that clearly reflected a very, very widespread view in Hong Kong society. One has to respect that. But these violent demonstrations are an entirely different matter.
GT: If similar violence took place in a Western country, how would the policymakers treat the protesters? What would be the reaction?
Jacques: If these violent demonstrations were happening in, for example, Britain or any Western society for that matter, they would be immediately clamped down on. There was an example of this several months ago with Extinction Rebellion, the anti-global warming campaign, which was overwhelmingly composed of women. They occupied some streets in central London in an entirely peaceful manner. They were first met in a relatively peaceful way, the police didn't try to move them.
But as it went on for several days, there was a kind of growing outrage, particularly in the right-wing press. If it had continued over a longer period, and this was without any violence at all, there would have been a big clampdown on these demonstrations. No society is going to tolerate what's happening in Hong Kong. Having said that, I think that the authorities have basically adopted the right tactic: intervention from the mainland would be disastrous.
GT: Do you think the protesters are hoping for something realistic or living in an illusion of Western democracy?
Jacques: The young demonstrators, and they are very young, including, it would appear, large numbers of school students, are fundamentally unrealistic. Hong Kong has to find a way out of this situation. And part of this is the kind of dialogue which has been proposed by the Hong Kong government. If that kind of dialogue is conducted in a relatively open and harmonious way, it can begin to heal.
Discontent and pain afflicts Hong Kong society. The dialogue should include the behavior of the police; I am not criticizing the behavior of the police, but clearly it is an issue for some of the demonstrators. So that should be reviewed. So should the behavior of the demonstrators, which has been totally out of order, the wanton destruction of public property, the use of petrol bombs, attacks on other citizens and so forth.
There are deeper factors behind the discontent among these young people. There's a sort of a feeling of discontent within Hong Kong society. I think that goes well beyond China. In fact, in some ways China is a proxy for their discontent on these underlying issues. What are the underlying issues? Well, my guess is that a lot of Hong Kong youth feel that there's not too much hope and future in Hong Kong.
GT: Many in Hong Kong are proud of the Western democratic norms and values they're upholding. Will this help them solve their current social problems? What do you think are the root causes of the current inequalities in Hong Kong?
Jacques: Well, I think there's a certain irony here, because if they champion democratic values, then Hong Kong never had democracy under the British. For 156 years, it was ruled from Britain and was a British colony. There was never universal suffrage in Hong Kong. In fact, it was only right at the end of British rule that they even began to mention these things because basically it was being handed over to China. So Hong Kong's never been democratic. It had the rule of law, it had a relatively free media, but it never had any kind of democratic system.
Hong Kong can't look back in that sense to the romantic days of democracy, because they never had any democracy. This is a complete illusion. Democracy in the sense of universal suffrage and so on, actually, what the Chinese offered was much more advanced than they had during the British period, which was universal suffrage and a limited number of approved candidates. This was opposed in 2014, and never happened. But that was certainly the most advanced proposal.
I think the demonstrators are very frustrated, very angry, very disappointed, but living under an illusion. Are they dreaming of Britain? Britons are in the midst of the country's biggest political crisis for 200 years. Indeed, democracy is under threat of serious erosion in the UK. The young demonstrators are possessed of an idealism that has little or no grasp of reality. But there are deeper causes behind this discontent, which need to be tackled by the Hong Kong government and by the Chinese government.
You see Hong Kong has not really done well economically since the handover. What are the problems? Well, first of all, income inequality. Hong Kong is one of the most unequal societies in the world and it has got worse since the handover in 1997. Inequality means there are a lot of people in Hong Kong who are doing very badly. They're earning very little. They feel very frustrated by that. And they feel, in a sense, trapped. That links to the question of property prices.
Property prices in Hong Kong are sky high. This is often blamed on the density of the population. This is nonsense. Parts of Hong Kong are densely populated but a lot of Hong Kong is not densely populated. The problem is that the land supply is controlled by the tycoons. This is a legacy of British rule. Their power over the supply of land needs to be ended. There needs to be a massive building program, especially of public housing for ordinary people.
What has transformed China so brilliantly since 1978? The strategy of reform and opening-up. What is the reform strategy in Hong Kong? It can't be the same, because the Hong Kong economy is different. But there are deep flaws in the Hong Kong economy which need to be addressed. One of them is the fact that it's often claimed the Hong Kong economy is very free. It's not free at all. It is an oligopolistic economy, a colonial-style economy, which is a hangover from the colonial period. It is dominated by a few tycoons. The Hong Kong economy needs to be liberated from tycoon control.
Now, if you want to understand the distress and anger in Hong Kong, you have to look at these kinds of questions. And it really is now the responsibility, I think, of the Hong Kong government to address such questions. There needs to be a major reset in Hong Kong. And I'm sure that these questions can be successfully tackled.
GT: You mentioned in your previous interviews that Hong Kong's future lies with the mainland. Can you elaborate?
Jacques: There is a widespread illusion in Hong Kong that during the very prosperous period from the late 1970s until the handover in 1997, Hong Kong somehow did it on its own. Of course, they made a contribution, but by far and away the most important reason for HK's success in this period was China. Deng Xiaoping began to open up China in 1978 with Hong Kong in effect becoming the front office of China. So a huge amount of the business that Hong Kong did during that period was a result of China's opening-up. Hong Kong got lucky because of China between 1978 and China's accession to the WTO in 2001.
In other words, Hong Kong didn't do it simply by its own efforts. It made a contribution, but really it was a function of China's reform and opening-up. The Hong Kong economy is absolutely and completely intertwined with and dependent upon the Chinese economy. So the future of Hong Kong is intimately linked with the future of the Chinese economy.
To look West in this situation is a joke. America has a declining economy, Britain is in a very bad state politically and economically. If you look at the world, where is the growth? Everyone is looking eastward. Everyone's looking to China and the countries around China and Hong Kong's future must be part of that. There is no alternative to that. There has hitherto been some hesitation on the part of Hong Kong to become part of the Southern Chinese economy, which is arguably the most dynamic economy in the world. I welcome in this context the Great Bay Area project because this is going to be extremely important for the whole of southern China and Hong Kong.
Just over the border from Hong Kong is Shenzhen. It has been an extraordinary success in a way that Hong Kong hasn't been so successful over the last 20 years. Its GDP is now larger than that of Hong Kong. Shenzhen has gone from, relatively speaking, being a small backwater at the time of Deng Xiaoping's reforms in1978 to becoming today one of the most dynamic and attractive cities in the world, and remarkably, in a very short time, a global rival to Silicon Valley. That show you what the possibilities are.
GT: What's your advice for the young people of Hong Kong?
Jacques: My advice to the young people of Hong Kong is to understand what Hong Kong is, where it comes from, and where it is. If it was still linked to Britain, Hong Kong would be in precisely the wrong place at the wrong time. The possibilities for Hong Kong are terrific if it understands where it is and what it is and what it needs to do. I think the Hong Kong SAR government and the Chinese government can do a lot more in helping them to understand that and give them new kinds of links, connections and opportunities. Young Hongkongers should be given internships and opportunities in the southern Chinese economy outside Hong Kong. So they can see that they're part of something much bigger, not just part of something smaller, which seems to be contracting in importance.
GT: How do you see the Western attitude toward the Hong Kong issue? Some politicians and media are trying to criticize the handling of the Hong Kong protests.
Jacques: The British media's take on Hong Kong has been disgraceful and irresponsible. It has made no attempt to distinguish between the big peaceful demonstrations and the small, very violent demonstrations. There was great sympathy for the huge demonstrations against the Extradition Bill. I understand this. They clearly reflected the view of much of Hong Kong society. That's one issue. But the small violent demonstrations, the blatant and wanton destruction of property, are absolutely inexcusable. But the British media has taken the position of indiscriminate support for all the demonstrations, peaceful or violent, which is pure hypocrisy. They would never do that in relationship to something like this in the UK.
As far as the British government is concerned, I think that it's actually incumbent on the British government to adopt a supportive attitude toward "one country, two systems," and not simply to criticize the Chinese. Everyone can see that the problems of Hong Kong are quite difficult. And the causes are quite complex and they also have to do with the British legacy in Hong Kong. To reduce it to the argument that what's been happening is an erosion of "one country, two systems," in my view, is nonsense. I do not agree with that. I'm not saying the Hong Kong government hasn't made some serious mistakes, they have. But to talk about the erosion of "one country two systems" or as some people say "one country one and a half systems," is nonsense.
If you look at the legal system, the political system, and the media in Hong Kong, it's very different from the Chinese mainland. This is a mischief-making attitude. I'm not saying the British government should support everything that's going on. But it should be within a supportive framework. Why? Because the UK was and is a party to the Basic Law and the "one country, two systems" framework.
GT: What's your comment on the democratic systems in the UK and the US? Take Brexit for example, the current political crisis is described as dysfunctional and messy, and there is growing inequality in the US. Do they need to mend their systems?
Jacques: I think that the West is in a state of existential crisis, which is getting deeper and I think personally will get deeper in the future. The crisis is really about Western decline. It matters less and less in the world. It is losing the kind of influence and following that it used to have. The center of gravity of the world is shifting decisively from the old West as it were to the new East, by which I mean, above all, East Asia and China.
And the West is trying to come to terms with this, unsuccessfully, I think by and large, because this kind of huge historic change is very difficult to address. And they are essentially irreversible. It is similar to the period from the late 18th century, early 19th century when China went into decline and Europe rose. Look how long it took China to get its act together. It wasn't really till the revolution in 1949. So I think this is eating away at the political fabric of countries like the US and Britain.
My own country, Britain, has been in an extraordinary situation over the last three years, voting to leave the EU, but absolutely divided. The reason why this crisis cannot be resolved is because the country's split down the middle, the political parties, institutions, regions, and many families are split down the middle, so the country is virtually paralyzed by this situation. And it has no sense really of where to go as a result of this. This is the greatest political crisis Britain has faced for 200 years and it is also now an extremely serious constitutional crisis. I do find it ironic that in a situation like this, a lot of Hong Kong youths are looking to Britain. That is a very peculiar situation.
GT: What do you think is the main reason for the growth of populism in the US and Europe?
Jacques: There's no question that the root cause of populism is disillusionment with Western societies and Western economies, they feel let down by the elites.
They're disillusioned with the political parties, the political systems, and the government, they think they have failed in a profound way. The major reason for this dates from the Western financial crisis in 2008. Ever since then, most Western economies in Europe have barely grown at all.
America's done a bit better, but not very well. So there's a sense of failure. And I think that in the long run, this is going to put a lot of pressure on the democratic systems in these countries and even potentially undermine them.
GT: What's your take on the current Brexit process?
Jacques: Over the last three years, on my travels around the world, including not least in China, of course, I have frequently been asked the question: What is going to happen over Brexit? And I can always reply in a consistent way: I don't know. I don't know the answer to this question because there have been so many twists and turns that you could not possibly have been predicted that even now, after all this time, I still don't know the answer to the question. And the reason why it's so difficult is because what's happening really is a kind of meltdown, a kind of dissembling of the political system, political values, the norms of society and so on. And so things which you could not possibly have anticipated have been happening and continue to happen. This is not the Britain that people are really used to, either in Britain or elsewhere.