TOM PLATE WRITES — How should citizens react when Big Government does a bad thing that screams out for correction? One approach is to slip into denial and imagine nothing at all happened, because leaders are apt to err, so the best thing for your mental health is to look the other way, because nothing is going to get better soon, if ever.
This might be tabbed the urbane British approach, a kind of permanent melancholia of the polity. But resignation does not often work in Hong Kong or the United States, where people, even as they go about their routines, somehow maintain reservoirs of psychic energy to fight for what they believe is right. Two dramatic events illuminate that a lot of fight is left in both places.
In the U.S., the Trump government’s incarceration of more than 2,500 children from families nabbed at the U.S. southern border proceeds apace. Forget that a federal court has ruled against this cold-hearted practice of tearing kids from their deported parents. Forget that children have died in custody in consequence of the U.S.’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy. Forget that the health conditions of thousands remain a mystery due to their inaccessibility to outside evaluators.
That such an appalling policy is happening in the ‘land of the free, home of the brave’ (and center of criticisms of other countries’ human-rights practices and policies, as if oblivious to our own) upsets many Americans. So there’s a big fight on, with the latest battle unfolding in Geneva this week, at the Palais Wilson building, home of the UN Human Rights Council, which is to rule on formal complaints about the border internments. Outside its windows was a major protest, led by the American Federation of Teachers, arm-in-arm with others, including Mexico’s Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación (SNTE).
Is such melodrama truly appropriate? It certainly is. But will the protest change the policy? Who knows – all we know is that without protest no change will occur at all, or that it will take next-to forever to have effect without it. It’s not as if one is able to appeal to the Trump administration’s humanitarian instincts.
Now let us review the extraordinary events in Hong Kong. Quite a story: The local government, allegedly on its own inspiration (as Chief Executive Carrie Lam claimed), proposed to amend local law to expand Beijing’s legal space to reach into any part or sector of HK territory and pull persons of interest into the mainland’s criminal justice system, financially freeze HK business accounts and do who-knows-what else. Not surprisingly, the prospect alarmed many in Hong Kong, who swelled onto the streets in waves of anger visible around the world.
It was as if the promised veil of respectful separation proffered by the agreed policy of “one country, two systems” in 1997 had suddenly become valid only in theory. After all, everyone in the world knows Hong Kong’s legal system tops the Mainland’s in adherence to established conventions of law. Hong Kong offers honest businesses and criminals alike substantial fairness and transparency in the administration of justice. As with modern Singapore, which long ago figured out that foreign investors would be loathe to pluck down much of their capital if subject to whimsical rulings of courts with hometown bias, Hong Kong, too, has had in place a credible system. Which is one reason it is a major center of international business today.
China’s system is different: The courts are secondary to the CPC. That is the mainland way and while many legal scholars around the globe have urged change, the Mainland has mainly reinforced that power gird. In fact, one oft-referenced survey – the World Justice Project’s Rule of Law study – places Hong Kong at #16, near Japan in its global ranking of justice systems and one spot ahead of #17 France. This is good company. In contrast, China gets a rating of #82, behind Colombia and Vietnam, though ahead of Maldova – which is not exactly stellar. (Singapore ranks #13.) Given that spread in repute, why not leave well enough alone? Why erode a legal system that is well respected globally? The H.K. system undermines PRC sovereign security? Absurd.
Such forced contention erodes trust – an essential ingredient for the special relationship. Chief Executive Lam has been insisting that the whole extradition ‘reform’ idea came not from Beijing but from her, alone. If so, then the rude point must be made that she poorly understands her own people who, for psychic reasons or otherwise, prefer a quantum of geopolitical solace and separation from Mother China – and desire from its Chief Executive a quantum of competence and caring. Back in March 2017, this column predicted the problem: “In pushing [for Lam] … Beijing is playing a losing game … a major blunder in its custody of Hong Kong. But such appears to be looming. Please think this one through again, Beijing.” That it took dreadful riots and dispiriting police-citizen clashes to inspire CE Lam to table the extradition ‘reform’ tells Hong Kong all one needs to know about Lam, Beijing’s choice for this very important job.
The Communist Party of China, positioning itself as the people’s tribune, is the most powerful organization on the mainland overall. But power has limits, and surely Beijing’s political tides need not wash over Hong Kong like tsunami drowning out peculiarities of local identity. “Letting a few flies in” (in Deng Xiaoping’s phrase conceding the occasional downside of Party pragmatisms) due to a few open Hong Kong windows should not so intensely bug PRC leaders. They should live with ‘one-country, two systems’ and accept this rebuff, perhaps gracefully. If CPC wants to nail down that “China is a friend to all the world,” it will want to be gifting Hong Kong with the friendliest of friendships possible. Is that so hard?

Loyola Marymount University Professor Tom Plate’s books on China include ‘In the Middle of China’s Future” and “Yo-Yo Diplomacy”. The original version of this column appeared in the South China Morning Post where Prof Plate’s column runs every Tuesday in that influential Hong Kong newspaper.

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