Impact of the 2019 Hong Kong Protests on China’s Status Abroad.

                           by Philippe Valdois FRSA


The impact of the 2019 Hong Kong protests on China’s status abroad in general and Hong Kong’s status in particular, with two quarters of negative economic growth rate at the peak of the protests in 2019, cannot be ignored, and with the results of the November local elections showing the discontent of the general population and not only of the street protestors who obtained only concessions for one of their five demands, the situation seems unsustainable. In addition, police forces are being diverted from crime prevention and safety might suffer with the number of foreign visitors dropping. We can, therefore, expect major changes in 2020.  

Although anticipating the possible effects of an armed repression by the People Liberation Army on the Communist Party and its leaders’ image not only abroad but domestically and the fall-out of eventual sanctions implemented by the international community are two key questions, the catch-22 situation Beijing is facing and its dilemma in having to choose an optimal response to the continuing protests are already being abundantly discussed elsewhere. Therefore, although I will later examine the necessity and faisability of a compromise between the two camps, I decided to rephrase the theme of this essay by looking at China’s status from a different perspective. There are indications that the Hong Kong protests are not only a local phenomenon but are also both the symptom and the catalyst of a growing dissatisfaction within a new generation of Chinese abroad, including in South-East Asia and Taiwan. My second observation will be related to the actual status and image of China abroad as a product of a post-Tiananmen shift in government policies. Finally, I do not consider, for various reasons I will expose, that Beijing is facing a “color revolution” in Hong Kong, contrary to a commentary published by the official press agency of the PRC, Xinhua, according to the South China Morning Post. Talking about a revolution is dangerous, history showing us that it implies counter-revolution and could lead to violent repression.

If the protests themselves absolutely need to be addressed, if only to stop the violence affecting tourism and trade, they will however have no long-term major effects on China’s status as long as the true purpose of foreign sanctions against Beijing is exposed and some compromises are made between various actors. The key issue will be to maintain trustworthiness regarding the sustainability of the “one country, two systems” principle, and prevent an escalade involving the new generation of citizens and future leaders, in Taiwan or elsewhere, until 2047. As mentioned previously, and based on those observations, I will finally introduce what I consider the best strategy to deal with the situation and minimize the impact of the protests on China’s status abroad.

Discontent in Hong Kong and abroad and the advent of a new generation

The revendications of Hong Kong residents are as much economical as political and are mostly based on concrete grievances, but overseas Chinese follow attentively the developments in Hong Kong and their relation with Beijing can be ambivalent, but much less so for the older generation, who feels a stronger sense of loyalty towards China than the younger, more critical generation. In fact, as seen in New York, London and other cities around the world, there is a growing trend among young Chinese abroad to demonstrate at the same time in support of Hong Kong and Taiwanese autonomy and to criticize Beijing repressive policies, including the crackdown on ethnic Uyghurs and Tibetans.

I recently had a discussion with a young professional living in South-East Asia. I learned from him about how people from his generation felt about the call for a sense of loyalty to China that their parents and grand-parents responded to more positively. Young Chinese abroad feel they are not getting much in return for their efforts and do not expect much from the regime in the future. Such worries are of course prevalent in Taiwan where the perspective of not seeing the two systems, one country perdure would mean, like for HK residents, losing their autonomy and freedom of expression. There is also in their minds a strong disconnect between what China represents for them in terms of cultural heritage and the regime’s growing assertion that it represents not only the interests of China but is in a way a symbol of China itself, establishing therefore a cult of personality encompassing the Party and its highest rank members and developing a form of ultranationalism that does not resonate in urban, cosmopolitan youth. A February 2019 article written by Chinese President Xi Jinping was untitled “Strengthening the Party’s leadership over the overall rule of law” and reaffirmed the position that “the Party was above everything else” already expressed in the Constitution, as Charlotte Gao explained in The Diplomat. It is difficult therefore for young people not to see that self-preservation at all costs for the Party and its leaders is what matters most for them.

The situation is different on mainland China where access to foreign media and knowledge about the situation in Hong Kong are limited. Most young people there are “incredulous that Hong Kongers are taking to the streets in protest” as Ben Hillman in East Asia Forum explained.

China government’s image now and before

Are the Image and status of China and the Chinese Communist Party abroad changing or susceptible to change because of the protests ? This is a key question. As compared to other problems facing Beijing, Hong Kong protests are but one area of concern among others. China’s image abroad in terms of human rights has not changed since the Tiananmen Square demonstrations and the hardening of the government’s policies. I have already described President Xi Jinping’s February 19, 2019, article. It supported the idea that little had changed since a decade before, when Maria Elena Viggiano described the strengthening of authoritarianism in China after Tiananmen as “resilient authoritarianism”. Not only do those events stay vivid in the memories of both Hong Kong residents and foreigners around the world but they are compounded with the worries associated with the use of Artificial Intelligence and high-tech surveillance tools to monitor Chinese citizens. Orwell’s 1984 is on the mind of many. Another key issue is the use of extensive “reeducation camps” for members of the Uyghur minority. The fact that the same narrative and the same harsh terms such a “criminals and terrorists in cahoots with foreign devils and determined to weaken the motherland by agitating for independence” according to Ben Hillman in East Asia Forum, are being used to describe Hong Kong protestors and dissident Uyghurs with little nuances is worrying and takes us back to wartime and the worst years of the Cultural Revolution. Without saying that Hong Kong protests are inconsequential, I would consider that all those initiatives are already defining China in the eyes of many foreign observers, have been continuing and will continue to do so, regardless of what happens in 2020 in Hong Kong.

Again, looking back again at Tiananmen, we see other similarities with the situation in Hong Kong and a continuity in the way the Party leaders react to protests. In declassified documents from the US National Security Archive, reference is made to item 28 related to the aftermath of the Chinese military crackdown in Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989. Mentioning Hong Kong, it says that “Locals are worried that Beijing could in the future limit civil rights in Hong Kong by declaring martial law or a state of emergency.” Part of the secret document also give us some hints about the reasons why Beijing has always tried since then to keep a tight leash on Hong Kong.

Two factors have also modified the Chinese government’s attitude towards Hong Kong in recent years. Kerry Brown in East Asia Forum mentions a “much tougher nationalism that has become the dominant tone of the Xi leadership,” and the fact that “China’s decades of rapid growth mean that it is far larger and stronger as an economy and a geopolitical force than anyone ever expected when the handover from British to Chinese sovereignty occurred in 1997.”

If the dynamic has changed between Beijing and Hong Kong, the US administration’s position regarding human rights and the world in general have certainly changed since Tiananmen. If the 30thanniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown gave the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo the opportunity to blast on June 4th, 2019 the Chinese government and if on October 15th, 2019 the US Congress passed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act in support of the protesters, the State Department also recalled in December its ambassador to Zambia Daniel Foote who had harshly criticized the Zambian government’s record on corruption and gay rights. It is therefore doubtful than an administration who shows a lack of support for its career diplomats in this occasion and others would do more than pay lip service to human rights. Why then criticize openly and sanction Beijing in relation with the Hong Kong protests? It is evident that in the context of the Sino-American trade war, demonizing its adversary is a way for Washington to mobilize other countries against Beijing more than anything and make them participate in its strategy of decoupling .

No “revolution” in Hong Kong

A paper from Erica Chenoweth, from Harvard University, Trends in Nonviolent Resistance and State Response: Is Violence Towards Civilian-based Movements on the Rise? quoted by Max Fisher and Amanda Taub in The Interpreter newsletter from the New York times, shows that up to the late 1990 the success rates of protests in the world climbed to 70% but then plummeted to 30% in the mid-2000s. While the number of protests, in particular non-violent is increasing, it seems their effectiveness decreases. Max Fisher and Amanda Taub mention as one factor of inefficiency the fact that “Social media makes protests likelier to start, likelier to balloon in size and likelier to fail.” The problem has to do with lack of commitment and the easiness of mobilizing large numbers without the participants having being involved in long term efforts to organize, strategize, etc. We have here almost the equivalent of a flash mob. In a previous essay, I mentioned the SEALDs movement in Japan. For them and their followers it was an initiation into political activism and will have a long-term effect in that sense. But the law it was opposed to still passed.

More importantly, Max Fisher and Amanda Taub remind us that “governments have learned to co-opt social media, using it to disseminate propaganda, rally its sympathizers or simply spread confusion.” Big budgets, technical facilities and know-how trump any effort by protestors. Internet censorship and monitoring in China is by far more developed than in any other country. And so is repression, with the jailing of journalists and cyber-dissidents. It should be noted that the Central Cyberspace Affairs Commission managing internet-related issues is under the leadership of Xi Jinping.

Another factor is the growing polarization the world is experiencing. Revolutions work when all actors of society are involved, but as Max Fisher and Amanda Taub put it: “In Hong Kong, for instance, the movement really is primarily about protecting democracy and the rule of law from Beijing’s encroaching, authoritarian influence. But that movement is driven primarily by middle-class students and professionals who have had their place in society disrupted by changes in the structure of Hong Kong’s economy (for example, a drastic rise in rent prices for people too wealthy to qualify for subsidies) and by rapid immigration from mainland China.”

Which brings me to a common-sense solution that would be for the Hong Kong Executive to try addressing more energetically those specific concerns. On the other hand, in the case of China, as I have shown previously, young Chinese abroad create their own sense of group identity transcending borders. This strong sentiment cannot be ignored. A Taiwanese Chinese, a Hong Kong Chinese or a Singapore Chinese share growing common concerns about their future and the privileges, access to information and freedom of expression they all consider as natural. By law Beijing cannot censor the internet in Hong Kong but monitoring is still an option for the central government. This and arbitrary incarcerations are seen as attempts to encroach upon fundamental liberties, especially if applied systematically.

In addition, according to Erica Chenoweth, “Authoritarian leaders have begun to develop and systematize sophisticated techniques to undermine and thwart nonviolent activists” as “many Russian, Chinese, and Iranian officials increasingly see nonviolent popular uprisings as ‘soft coups’ meant to expand Western influence and interests,” resulting in “joint efforts to develop, systematize, and report on techniques and best practices for containing such threats among Russian, Chinese, Iranian, Venezuelan, Belarussian, Syrian, and other national authorities.”


In view of the protestors’ specific demands, of the quasi impossibility for the protests to propagate into mainland China, of the already damaged status of China on the international scene, of the fact that the Western world and the US in particular will be keen on seizing the opportunity to chastise and berate Beijing in a context of trade war and decoupling, of the extreme risks any violent repression would bring to China in terms of sanctions and ostracization, thus also jeopardizing a possible reunion with Taiwan, I think that Beijing should give some leeway to the Hong Kong Executive to let it implement some political and economic reforms, while foreign countries should abandon their dualist views and support instead the Hong Kong government. The extent of the impact of the Hong Kong protests on the image of China will depend on the response given to an angry young generation. Hong Kong protests are the expression of a passing feeling of frustration and should not be considered as an attempt to destroy the system. Protesters are talking about autonomy and not insurgency. As it is, China’s status abroad could benefit from a gentler approach.

Photo: Johnathan van Smit via flickr

The Future of Hong Kong and One Country, Two Systems.

                                    by David Parmer / Tokyo


For the past half-year the daily and nightly news has featured the ongoing unrest in Hong Kong.

Scenes of peaceful mass protest are followed by those of police response and film of radical elements among the protesters causing extensive and gratuitous property damage to the businesses and infrastructure of Hong Kong in the name of democracy.

Since this situation is ongoing there is no answer as to how it was resolved, for it has not yet been settled to anyone’s satisfaction. Having said that, we will first give a brief background of the situation. Then we will examine how the situation as it is now framed is at an impasse, and examine possible ways forward beyond the dynamic stalemate which characterizes this situation. Finally, we will look at one very important aspect that is on the periphery, but very much connected to the current situation, and that is the question of Taiwan and the possibility of it someday adopting a version of the One Country, Two Systems (OCTS) re-forged in the fire of the 2019 protests.

The Protests

Protest is a fact of life in Hong Kong going all the way back to 1956. The current protests, growing out of the proposal and withdrawal of the Fugitive Offenders Law (extradition law) are calling for “democracy” neglecting the fact that there have been more than 17 major protests over the years, and almost countless minor protests.

Were there no “democracy” in Hong Kong, protests like the 2014 Umbrella Movement and the current ongoing and extensive protests against the Fugitive Offenders Law would not be possible. Put simply: protest is almost a way of life in Hong Kong as exhibited by its frequent and vibrant occurrence, and it is often supported by tens of thousands of Hong Kongers. This is clear evidence of the existence of democracy in Hong Kong.

As far back as 2010 there have been calls for universal suffrage, or the direct election of officials.

While universal suffrage may be an ongoing issue for some, and a key part of the present protests, its absence alone can not be considered a lack of democratic avenues for political expression as the right to protest itself and the holding of fair and democratic elections are intact and in full use. (This can be seen by the pan-Democrat camp winning a massive victory over pro-Beijing candidates in local 2019 elections where there were no allegations of fraud or vote rigging or any other irregularities.)


Causes for the current protests can be directly related to the proposed extradition bill of 2019 put forward by the Hong Kong government and its brief life and eventual withdrawal.

Underlying this is the common perception that Hong Kong’s freedoms are being slowly eroded and Beijing’s influence is growing and growing. This influence is seen as a malign factor and not a benign one by many people. Another factor said to be fueling the unrest is the sense of hopelessness among young people regarding buying a home or apartment or getting public housing in a reasonable length of time. (It is reported that the wait for public housing is in excess of 5 years.)

It is not only the perceived erosion of freedom and growing influence by Beijing that is at stake, but also a fundamental and pervasive distrust of the PRC itself among a large segment of Hong Kong’s population. The rendition of 5 booksellers to the Mainland in 2015 and the continuation of the incident into 2016 did nothing to increase trust of the Beijing government among Hong Kongers.

What’s more, friction between Mainlanders and the people of Hong Kong is ongoing. This can most easily be seen in the issue of “parallel traders” where individuals buy goods in Hong Kong and sell them in the Mainland for a profit. Hong Kongers claim that this causes shortages of goods as well as social disruption.

Surveys show that a very high percentage of people in Taiwan do not see themselves as part of China but rather see themselves belonging to a country called “Taiwan.”

This same attitude appears to be pervasive among many people in Hong Kong. They seem to see themselves as citizens of a small, but independent country like Vatican City, Monaco or Lichtenstein.

While a unique product of history and circumstance, Hong Kong is not an independent country, rather it is a territory of China that was seized by the British in the 1840s and administered by the British for just over 150 years. The fact is that Hong Kong is part of China and always has been.

Now, both parties are faced with the re-integration of Hong Kong into greater China in such a way that acknowledges the unique history and culture of Hong Kong and at the same time leverages the rule of law and level playing field set up by the British resulting in vast economic advantage to both Hong Kong and to the Mainland. An attempt to build on and preserve these opportunities was the creation of the One Country, Two Systems (OCTS) scheme.

And just as a space vehicle is subject to extreme forces in the early stages of its journey, or an undersea vessel must withstand massive crushing forces when operating at depth, so too must the OCTS find a way to function during periods of extreme stress and pressure such as those that are now taking place.

Protests–Five Demands and Stalemate

As of December 2019 protests continue but are somewhat scaled down. More protests are scheduled for early 2020.

The situation now can best be described as a stalemate, with neither side making any concessions.

Five demands (and not one less!) have emerged from the protesters camp:

  • Withdrawal of the extradition bill
  • Investigation into alleged police brutality
  • Change of language to exclude the word “riot”
  • The implementation of universal suffrage
  • Amnesty for arrested protesters

A somewhat belated withdrawal of the extradition bill did nothing to mollify protesters. As for the other four demands, no government action has been taken to accomodate them.

As for police brutality, all incidents should be investigated if the public is to maintain trust with the police. There should be a clear distinction made between the use of force and the use of excessive force.

Toning down or modifying the language used to describe protesters should be done, and a clear distinction should be made between peaceful protest and the employment of violence that raises the level from protest to riot. 

Buried in the five demands is the return of the call for universal suffrage, which, on face value, is not likely to get the support of the Hong Kong government, nor the government in Beijing.

In the wake of violence and property damage to public and private venues as well as infrastructure, it is highly unlikely that amnesty will be granted to protesters.

The five demands are made of the Hong Kong government, and by extension, it upstream master, Beijing. The question is first; whom would the government negotiate with in a “leaderless” coalition even if it wanted to? There are supposedly two groups of protesters, violents and moderates. Except for a few familiar faces (e.g. Joshua Wong) there is no one to negotiate with. Or is there?

In the last round of Hong Kong Council elections, protesters, or “pan-Democrats” won seats in 17/18 districts, soundly defeating pro-Beijing candidates. Many saw this as a mandate on the protest movement. While it could be interpreted this way, it could also be a symptom of “protest fatigue.”

A similar phenomenon could be seen recently in British politics where the Labour party was handed a sound defeat and the Conservatives won by a large margin. It could be considered a second vote for LEAVE (the Euro) or it might simply be “Brexit fatigue” where the British people wanted to get on with their lives and have Brexit settled.

Perhaps many people in Hong Kong did the same kind of thing and expressed their opposition to government policies at the ballot box instead of on the street. Maybe many people felt that by voting they had “done their duty” or shown their feelings and now could get back to normal life after a half a year of massive social and economic disruption.

A coalition of “new pan-Democrats” would be someone for the government to negotiate with if negotiation were considered an option by the Lam government and by Beijing.

Moreover, a coalition of new pan-Democrats could first invite, and then distance itself from the violent wing of the protest movement. The next election of a Chief Executive will be held in 2022 and the next Election Committee election will be held in 2021. Negotiations to implement a major change to elections, i.e. bring about universal suffrage could be started immediately.

The government could “ignore” protester demands for an independent inquiry, but conduct an independent inquiry of its own in a way to save face and not “give in” to protester demands. If there were any further “face saving” to be done, the government could say that it was the results at the ballot box during the Council elections and not the protests that brought about change in the OCTS scheme.

 Amending the Basic Law promulgated July 1, 1997 would show Hong Kong and the world that OCTS was in fact a living concept, flexible, and able to respond to new realities not imagined in the Deng Xiaoping era of the 1980s.

The End of All of Hong Kong’s Problems?

Getting at the root of public frustration which resulted in the demonstrations of 2019 would not solve all of Hong Kong’s problems. The question of affordable housing would still be on the table. As a point of irony, it is the capitalistic system in Hong Kong which sets the land prices and prices of home ownership which are such a burden to young people and not the socialist system of the Mainland. Still, some solution to this problem must be aimed at, if nothing else than to give some hope to the young people of Hong Kong.

In a sense, Hong Kong’s “magical time” has passed. With the increase in special economic zones and the rise of second-tier cities the face of China is changing, and Hong Kong does not have the shine it once had. Having said that, Hong Kong is still a key waypoint for the inflow and outflow of capital to China. Stabilization of Hong Kong’s social system could do much to reassure markets and investors and possibly attract new capital to Hong Kong.

A Good Outcome Regarding Taiwan?

Dealing flexibly and creatively with the challenges of 2019 as suggested above (i.e. negotiation, amendment of the Basic Law ) would do much for the PRC’s image and soft power.

In this half year, despite what some might consider considerable provocation (destruction of public property, targeting of Mainland business and individuals, disruption of infrastructure and damage to the economy) Beijing has resisted the use of maximum force, i.e. use of People’s Armed Police or the People’s Liberation Army to deal with the social disruption caused by the ongoing demonstrations.

Strategically it would have been counterproductive to do so as demonstrations are an example of “asymmetric warfare” and are not responsive to massive force. (Although they can certainly be impacted by it.) More importantly, much “soft power” face was gained by not using maximum force and relying on the Hong Kong government to deal with the situation. This could also be interpreted as Beijing’s good faith, patience, and belief in the OCTS scheme.

Why is this important? The answer is simple: Taiwan.

The OCTS scheme was originally designed for Taiwan but implemented in Hong Kong (and Macau). As it now stands, many in Taiwan reject any suggestion that One Country, Two Systems would work there. China considers Taiwan its territory and is determined that it should become part of greater China. There are only two ways that this can happen, either a military intervention or a gradual economic and social integration based on the OCTS scheme. In the mind of the PRC, the situation in Hong Kong and Taiwan are two historical anomalies that must be rectified in the name of China’s sovereignty. A vibrant and dynamic Hong Kong operating under a flexible and democratic OCTS would be a powerful sales point for Beijing when dealing with Taiwan.

A Thorny Problem for Beijing

China has one huge problem that it must settle when dealing with both Hong Kong and Taiwan. And it is a question of the perception of value.

In ancient times Chinese culture was of such power and magnetism that could exert tremendous cultural influence to the peoples surrounding it. Even when China was conquered barbarians and invaders succumbed to the power of Chinese culture in the form or arts, science, philosophy, language, literature, dress etc. China was the dominant culture, and its magnetism decided the outcome.

In the case of Hong Kong and Taiwan due to the historical anomalies mentioned above, both Hong Kong and Taiwan have a culture that is at its root Chinese (language, art, history, cuisine etc.) but each has a culture that is on a timeline that is divergent from the Mainland. In the distant past, the magnetism of mainstream culture would have been the stronger of the cultures and prevailed. These days, this is not so. People in Hong Kong and Taiwan are not swayed by the Mainland culture, rather it seems they feel that their own culture is superior.This is important because they feel that the Mainland has not much to offer them that they don’t already have. Some in China suggest “patriotic education” as a way to correct this, but what is really being discussed is more like indoctrination than education.

China has made unbelievable progress since 1949, rising out of poverty, imperialism, and war to become the second leading economy in the world and a space-faring nation. China needs to frame its progress and its dreams in such a way that it becomes a beacon for those in Hong Kong and Taiwan to aspire to be connected with. China needs to shine so brightly that its culture again calls peoples and nations to participate in its greatness. When this happens, “patriotic education” will not be necessary.


The Hong Kong protests of 2019 can be seen as a period of painful social disruption costing millions in damage and lost income. It can be seen as an indication that One Country, Two Systems doesn’t work and never will. Or it can be seen as a great opportunity to modify One Country Two Systems for the 21st Century to make it more responsive and serve the needs of both the country and the systems until 2047 and beyond. There is only one choice, and this is to deal with this situation using creativity and imagination resulting in positive outcomes for all parties concerned.

Photo: Studio Incendo via flickr






















Sidney Rittenberg and the End of an Era.

                      by David Parmer / Tokyo

On August 24, 2019, Sidney Rittenberg, one of the last of a generation of foreigners involved in the birth or the People’s Republic of China passed away at age 98. That generation included Dr. George Hatem, Edgar Snow, Anna Louise Strong, Agnes Smedley, Rewi Alley, and Dr. Norman Bethune among others. Of this group, it was only Sidney Rittenberg who became well known for his life after October 1, 1949.

Mr. Rittenberg grew up in Charleston, South Carolinian and attended the University of North Carolina where he majored in Philosophy. During this time Mr. Rittenberg became a member of the American Communist Party. During WWII he was sent to Stanford University for language study where he mastered Chinese. He served in the US Army in China during the war, and after his discharge worked for the United Nations, and then eventually made his way to Yan’an where he met Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai. In 1946 Mr. Rittenberg became a member of the Chinese Communist Party.

During his time in China Rittenberg was imprisoned for 15 years, much of it in solitary confinement. His first imprisonment was from 1949 to 1955, allegedly at the order of Joseph Stalin himself who claimed that Rittenberg was a member of an international spy organization. One out of jail he went back to work as a foreign advisor working for the Chinese government.

Sidney Rittenberg immersed himself in the Cultural Revolution; he became a radical and participated in the factional denunciation of others. However, he himself was caught in the net of the Cultural Revolution, being denounced by no one less than Jiang Qing, wife to Mao Zedong. He was imprisoned for another 9 years, and upon his release, in 1980 returned to the US. He said that he held Joseph Stalin and Jiang Qing responsible for his life behind bars and not the Chinese people. 

On his return to the US he found a teaching position at Pacific Lutheran University and established a consulting company, Rittenberg & Associates to capitalize on his Chinese connections created over half a century.

Mr. Rittenberg’s death really closes a tumultuous chapter of Chinese history that set the stage for the birth of China as a world superpower. This new China faces 21st century challenges no less difficult than those witnessed by Sidney Rittenberg and his generation of foreign observers and participants.

Photo: Sidney Rittenberg

 Sidney Rittenberg: China History Podcast