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/// EVENTS
The panel from left to right: Jonatha Hatwell, Piet Steel, Fraser Cameron, Reinhard  B├╝tikofer and Eddie Cheung

The Future of Hong Kong

10 December 2019

On 10 December, the EU-Asia Centre and Belgium Hong Kong Society co-hosted a lively panel discussion on the future of Hong Kong. Opening the event, Fraser Cameron (Director of the EU-Asia Centre) said that it was a timely moment to take stock of what was happening in Hong Kong and the future opinions.

 

Eddie Cheung (Special Representative for Hong Kong Economic and Trade Affairs to the EU), a HK native, recounted the origins (a murder case in Taiwan that led to the drafting of the extradition bill) and the steps that led to the escalation of the crisis. The HK government’s failure to explain the bill to the people had fueled the crisis and Carrie Lam’s apology was too little too late. An increase in violence (petrol bombs) and the reaction of the police who had been put in a very difficult situation, led to a collapse of trust in the police which was a huge loss for HK. Freedom of assembly is a qualified right – which can be limited for maintenance public order. The police in HK had not reacted so differently from those in Paris and London. What kind of freedom were the protesters fighting for? Prior to the crisis, there had been 44 000 public assemblies and 6 000 processions without confrontation with the police. The local election results showed that the HK government must be humble, listen and learn to regain the public trust. The social unrest is also starting to be felt in the HK economy with a drop in growth in a number of sectors (retail, restaurants, etc). But the fundamentals of HK remain strong, including an independent judiciary and financial stability. HK can remain a free society, a gateway to China and the financial hub of Asia, if the HK leadership and population act with care.

 

Jonathan Hatwell (Head of Division for China, Hong Kong, Macao, Taiwan, Mongolia, European External Action Service), who had just returned from a visit to HK, underlined that the peaceful and high participation in the local elections had been a momentous achievement considering the violence and unrest that had preceded them. The emphatic result gave a clear counter to the narrative that the silent majority of HK were distancing themselves from the protesters and their agenda. It remains to be seen if the elections will be a pause or turning point for the crisis.

 

In addition to human rights, the EU has a huge stake in HK with 350,000 citizens, 2800 companies and 152 billion euros in investment. Much Chinese investment to the EU also flows through HK. The EU provided an annual report on the implementation of the one country, two systems system. In the annual structured dialogue there had been useful discussions on a range of issues from trade and finance to the BRI and connectivity. The EU team had met a wide range of HK stakeholders. It was important to consider the reasons behind the protests. Although the extradition bill had been the trigger there was considerable discontent about the cost of living, housing and employment prospects, as well political factors. There were also important inter-generational issues to resolve. The EU would continue to advocate for restraint, inclusive dialogue and respect for fundamental freedoms. An impartial inquiry into the violence could also be one step forward. HK will keep its position as gateway to China if it keeps the qualities that made it unique.

 

Reinhard Bütikofer (Head of the European Parliament Delegation for relations with China) was afraid that aspects that made HK special might be permanently damaged. The independence of the judiciary is in question, the formerly internationally respected police force and the government have lost the trust of the citizens. Prior to the crisis the HK government had ignored all well-meaning advice from experts and business on the extradition bill and during the crisis it had made clear it was not listening to the protesters. The people had understood the extradition bill and did not want it. The response was left entirely for the police and had led to the escalating violence. He argued that ending all violence should not be a condition for dialogue. The vast majority of protesters are peaceful.

 

The CCP response had also been counter-productive and not wholly united. For example, the permission to withdraw the extradition bill had only come months later after Carrie Lam had requested it. It also had started questioning whether the Sino-British Declaration is still in force. The CCP should re-consider the lenient and deft approach taken by the earlier generations of its leadership instead of messaging even stricter control. It is still understood in Beijing that HK is an unique asset and irreplaceable as gateway to and from China. The way forward must include universal suffrage and an impartial investigation into police brutality.

 

Gao Mingbo, a representative of the Mission of China to the EU, argued that the crisis was an internal issue of law and order instead of human rights. He noted that several outside voices had questioned the protester narrative. The police response in HK has not been so different of that in Paris or London. It was important to look for issues that united and not divided the population.

Other questions covered the possibility of independence for HK (no), arms sales (for member states), role of US (would not ride in to help), restoring trust (difficult but only possible by mutual respect, dialogue and an end to violence).

 

Discussion

 

Gao Mingbo, a representative of the Mission of China to the EU, argued that the crisis was an internal issue of law and order instead of human rights. He noted that several outside voices had questioned the protester narrative. The police response in HK has not been so different of that in Paris or London. It was important to look for issues that united and not divided the population.

Other questions covered the possibility of independence for HK (no), arms sales (for member states), role of US (would not ride in to help), restoring trust (difficult but only possible by mutual respect, dialogue and an end to violence).

Piet Steel concluded the event by stating that despite the challenges the one country two systems was still in place. HK had not been fully democratic under the British rule either - but the independent judiciary and the free society are the strong foundations for HK. The challenge is in developing a new model for HK that involves the interest of young people and other stake holders. It should be remembered that without HK’s contribution and cross-fertilization with Shenzen, the region would have never risen to its current level. Overall he was optimistic that HK would resolve its problems and continue to thrive.