The story of Hong Kong is a Shakespearean tragedy

An anti-government protester throws back a tear gas canister at the police during a demonstration near Central Government Complex in Hong Kong, China, September 15, 2019. REUTERS/Jorge Silva - RC14CEE90590

Richard Bush’s recent piece on how and when Hong Kong went awry provides a superb, balanced description of the current situation there and the role — for better or worse — of the various actors. What is unfolding is a Shakespearean tragedy in five acts.

Act 1: The United Kingdom creates a fantastically dynamic, business-friendly economy based on rule of law, respect for basic rights and property, and proximity to China. Chinese migrants from Guangdong province and Shanghai build it from empty rocks into one of the world’s most dynamic and prosperous cities. But the British prevent any political development or democracy to take hold, and allow the city’s taipans (tycoons), along with the governor, to run the colony.

Act 2: The People’s Republic of China takes over in 1997, and decides they are comfortable with the way the British ran the place for the previous 50 years. But, they don’t like what the last governor, Chris Patten, tried to do by introducing democratic reforms. The Chinese preserve the structure of the city, run by a chief executive with the help of the taipans, and constrain indigenous political development while maintaining the fundamental elements of Hong Kong’s autonomy. They accept the British notion that Hong Kong’s people care about economics, not politics, and they like it that way.

Act 3: As China becomes richer, Chinese officials, businessman, and tourists begin to penetrate and influence Hong Kong in ways large and small. Non-taipan Hong Kongers start to get uncomfortable with the realization that their high degree of autonomy doesn’t keep mainlanders — and mainland habits — out. The cozy relationships the taipans enjoyed with the British government are transferred to a Chinese government less shy about corruption and nepotism. The Communist Party begins to move slowly toward absorbing Hong Kong in 2047 by taking incremental steps that evade or infringe on Hong Kong law.

Act 4: Ordinary Hong Kong residents, especially young people, feel trapped in an economy where housing is too expensive, jobs are fewer and of lower quality, and future prospects are dim. The freezing of the political system in 1997 ensures there is no popular confidence that concerns and grievances will be addressed by an effective or responsible Hong Kong government, seen widely as a proxy for Beijing. Mass protests of staggering dimensions ensue, ostensibly over a proposed extradition law that would allow Chinese courts jurisdiction over violators of People’s Republic of China (PRC) law but more deeply over generalized unease over Beijing’s creeping domination of Hong Kong. The Hong Kong government lacks the capacity, will, or trust to respond effectively to the demonstrations. Beijing moves from passive brooding to threats and targeted measures against companies seen as helping the protesters and aimed at punishing, on their own or through the Hong Kong government, the more radical and violent protesters.

Act 5: Richard Bush has outlined the kinds of compromises sensible people should undertake in Act Five. But remember, Shakespearean tragedies do not end well.

What should the United States do as this great world city implodes before our eyes? The U.S. objective should be to urge Beijing, the Hong Kong government, and Hong Kong people to accept that a properly implemented “one country, two systems” approach — under which Hong Kong operates with a high degree of autonomy — will provide the best outcome for Hong Kong. This means, among other things, that the jurisdiction of Hong Kong — not PRC — law, Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong, an independent judiciary, a separate currency, vigorous protection of civil rights, and independent immigration and customs control. It means adopting a competitive system for electing a chief executive by universal suffrage after the kind of vetting process for candidates that Richard Bush described, and a short timetable for direct election of all members of the Legislative Council. It also means that Hong Kongers accept that Hong Kong is part of the People’s Republic of China and they do not seek a different status.

In the short run, it means chief executive Carrie Lam should resign. A commission should be convened to hear from representatives of the protesters, the business community (rich and less so), professionals, and others on the way forward in terms of political governance, economic, and social issues. To help restore public confidence in a badly overstretched police force, a few outsiders could be added to the internal police commission to review the performance of the police over the last several months. There should not be amnesty for protesters who committed violent acts, but the targets of prosecution should be kept to a bare minimum.

The U.S. government should publicly voice support for the “one country, two systems” model, for the high degree of autonomy promised to Hong Kong, and for Hong Kong’s democratic development within the PRC. When leaders of the protesters visit the United States or U.S. officials meet with them in Hong Kong, we should make crystal clear that the U.S. supports the right of peaceful protest, opposes violence, and believes the protesters need to find an exit ramp that allows their just demands a chance of being implemented. If they go too far and provoke a violent response by Beijing, there will be lots of sympathy for them in the United States but no action that effectively shields them from Beijing or advances their cause. To lead protesters to believe otherwise would be an error increasing the chances of a tragic outcome.

We need to speak frankly with Hong Kong’s political democratic parties, conveying that they need to show leadership in finding a realistic solution instead of making the perfect the enemy of the good. We should tell Hong Kong’s business elite that they cannot live like Louis XIV’s court while young people no longer enjoy economic benefits in their system, and that the erosion of Hong Kong’s special and separate status will ultimately hurt their ability to do business in the West. We should tell Beijing that it should encourage the Hong Kong government and people to work this out themselves, and that a heavy-handed Beijing intervention will profoundly affect the West’s relations with China and do untold damage to the Hong Kong that so benefits China and the international community.

The U.S. Congress should reinforce these messages. It should avoid the temptation to posture in ways that oversimplify Hong Kong’s complexities, feed the Communist Party’s incorrect perception that the United States is the “black hand” behind the unrest, or encourage heightening a crisis where Hong Kongers, not Americans, stand to pay the price in case of escalation.