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Hong Kong is not Crimea, Thankfully

This year’s long-lasting and still on-going social turbulence in Hong Kong, a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China, reminds me of the Crimea crisis in 2014. There are indeed several similarities between the two events.

First, relatively small issues sparked large-scale protests. Hong Kong’s protests were triggered in June by the Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation (Amendment) Bill 2019. The Bill was largely designed to extradite certain criminal suspects to mainland China but criticized for likely undermining Hong Kong’s judicial independence and endangering dissidents under the “one country, two systems” arrangement. The Bill was subsequently withdrawn in September, but demonstrations have become increasingly violent and not fully stopped even today.

The 2014 Crimea crisis started in November 2013, when the then Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych rejected a pending EU association agreement and chose closer ties with Russia. That led to a series of protests including the occupation of Kyiv’s Independence Square and pushed Ukraine onto the brink of civil war.

Second, big powers are behind both scenes. In Hong Kong’s recent unrests, the two leading political rivals apparently are the pro-establishment (or pro-Beijing) camp and the pro-democracy camp, but the defining powers are in fact China and the West, especially the U.S. Hong Kong has become a geopolitical pawn of power struggles between China and the U.S.

Similarly, in the 2014 Crimea crisis, the two domestic factions within Ukraine — one with the European Union and the other with Russia, were the main fighters on the stage, but the big bosses behind were actually Russian and the West, including the U.S. Ukraine eventually became a victim of cataclysmic geopolitics.

Third, public opinion was against the central government. On 16 March 2014, the Crimean status referendum was held and led to the independence of Crimea from Ukraine and the request to join the Russian Federation. The 2019 Hong Kong District Council elections held on 24 November 2019 was also considered a de facto “referendum” with a landslide victory for the pro-democracy movement, showing deep distrust and dissatisfaction with Beijing.

During the Occupy Central movement in 2014, I published the article “Central is not Tiananmen, thankfully,” saying “Of course, it is also a good thing that Hong Kong’s Central is unlikely to be another Tiananmen, given the tragic events that unfolded on June 4, despite the apparent potential for violent conflict between the authorities and Occupy protesters.” Again, I would like to say today, Hong Kong is not Crimea, thankfully.

One key difference between Hong Kong and Crimea is the people’s will for independence. There were indeed some banners and posters advocating Hong Kong independence, but the majority of Hong Kong have never been seeking to break away from China. The illusion of independence of Hong Kong is not realistic and quite silly, because Hong Kong cannot survive if without the support of mainland China, and no western country will take over Hong Kong. The U.S. has made the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act law, but it will be foolish for the Hong Kong people to fully trust and rely on American intervention.

Another key difference between Hong Kong and Crimea is that China is not Ukraine. Ukraine could not control its own fate among big powers and had no capacity to prevent the annexation of Crimea by Russia. In contrast, powerful China is directly struggling with the West and has firm control over Hong Kong. Just like former foreign minister of Singapore George Yeo said, “like the Monkey King, Hong Kong cannot leave the Buddha’s palm.”

Tragically, the 2014 Crimea crisis caused many deaths and injuries. Although in recent months, Hong Kong has experienced unprecedented violence and chaos, large-scale casualties will unlikely happen, as both China and the West have no plan to physically intervene Hong Kong’s current turmoil via military forces. That is the luck of Hong Kong.

Hong Kong was seen as a successful business hub and mature society based on the rule of law, but recently it shocked the whole world by showing how violent and chaotic it could be. Hong Kong should regain its good reputation, but the future stability and prosperity of Hong Kong ultimately lies in its own hands.

This article was originally posted in The Business Times.