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One thing China has in common with the UK is four football teams.

China, like Scotland, is older than the concept of “nation-state”. But whereas the Scots held a referendum on their statehood, China permits no such thing.

Still Hong Kong’s citizens present a serious challenge to China’s project of re-unification. Firstly because of their capacity to influence the political outcome in Hong Kong. Second because of the wider game: only if “One country, two systems” can work is there any hope to tempt Taiwan into a formal “return” to China.

Another thing China has in common with the UK, is the shadow of imperialism.  Both Hong Kong and Taiwan first parted from the mainland during the age of empires. Hong Kong was ceded to the British empire and Taiwan to the Japanese empire, before China overthrew its own empire in 1912. Ironically, of all China’s disputed territory, Hong Kong has the strongest claim to be “genuinely ethnically Chinese” as opposed to a colonial conquest by the Chinese empire like Xinjiang, or at a long stretch Taiwan. Still, in an age when self-determination is supposedly a right, China knows that if in cannot win the hearts of the Hong Kong people, it must at least win the pockets of the elite.

A third thing the UK has in common with China is anti-democratic rule.  We can shake our heads at China’s failure to allow democracy in Hong Kong, but we ought to hang ours in shame too. For 99 years Britain ruled Hong Kong through a colonial governor and a legislature of appointees. Before the handover, Chris Pattern tried to push through reforms, but it was too little, too late. The promises of democracy were easily delayed and pushed off. Now China insists the 2017 elections will be between only three, Beijing-vetted candidates.

So what should the people of Hong Kong do next?

In Hong Kong, the streets have power

Mass protests in Hong Kong have a long history. I have been part of them myself, at the deeply moving 20th anniversary of Tiananmen Square. Hundreds of thousands gathered in Victoria Park – respectful, orderly, holding candles. Situ Hwa, an icon of the democratic movement who since died of lung cancer, gave a powerful speech. He was a symbol of the ludicrousness of Beijing’s claim that democracy is a foreign imposition peddled by the West. A Chinese literature teacher who did not speak English, he had campaigned vigorously against the Brits.

Hong Kong’s protests have been very successful. The territory has retained an admirably free press and public debate. Controversial reforms were successfully defeated in 2002 and 2004 by mass mobilization. And the disaster of Tiananmen haunts China’s hand against using overt force. This allows the tradition of students camping out in the streets to continue. But the real battle will be not be fought on the streets, but in negotiations between the parties. This will determine the terms for the 2017 elections – and whether they happen at all.

It’s about money, not nationalism

China bases its demands to vet candidates for the 2017 elections on the need for stability and respect. But big money plays a huge role in the balance.

The current Hong Kong legislative appointees are overwhelmingly pro-China, because they benefit from preferential access and lucrative business deals in a non-transparent climate of patronage. Money makes them oppose open elections, because they know the people of Hong Kong don’t want them. But money also brings caution to the Chinese, who don’t want to scare away multi-nationals. It is crazy that the big four western accountancy firms openly came out to criticize the protests:

“The big four global accounting companies have taken out press advertisements in Hong Kong stating they are “opposed” to the territory’s democracy movement, warning that their multinational clients may quit the city if activists carry out threats to disrupt business with street protests” – Financial Times

That they bothered do this shows they are more influential than we might think.

Therefore the balance of outcome in Hong Kong will also depend on the balance of power of money. The greater the pull of Chinese business-deals, the more Beijing benefits. The greater the pull of Western business-deals, the more Hong Kong benefits. What resolution will be found in between? It is not clear what will happen, but it is clear what should. Hong Kong’s future should be determined not by which businesses are most powerful, but by what the people of Hong Kong want.

The common man

It has been a common pattern that as countries’ economies grow, there is a higher demand for democracy. Basic needs are met, so attention can shift to higher needs. People are more educated, so more able to engage in global debates and demand rights. The middle-class has more political power, and is more able to scrutinize what goes on. This happened in South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan, and something cataclysmic of this nature will probably happen in China in the next 20 years. However Hong Kong cannot wait for this.

Hong Kong is deeply unequal with 20% of the population below the poverty line and a Gini coefficient of 0.54 – higher than any other developed economy. The Hong Kongese are starting to realize a major reason for this is the lack of democracy. While Beijing is worried about “face” and “nationalism”, the people who really suffer from the lack of democracy are the poor.

This is why the protests matter, and this is why neither accountancy firms nor Guangdong business-men nor red-draped nationalists should have the final say.

What is the UK’s role?

All people should stand up for each other. In the case of Hong Kong, British people have a particular cause to care. This is not only because as the former colonial power, our state has some direct responsibility for the legal and economic situation in Hong Kong today. It is also because of our shared experience as highlighted by the “four football teams” situation.

In the UK we should highlight as we did in Scotland, that self determination is not about a petty game of “flag politics”, nor of squabbling about natural resources and access to markets. We should state loudly, as the independence movement in Scotland did, that any business or state which uses dark threats and blackmail to try to undermine a people, is simply betraying them.

Looking forward as Jean Tyrole who recently won the nobel prize in economics has shown, we know that inclusiveness and transparency are central to developing the sort of institutions that are needed to improve living standards. Democracy is not only valuable in itself, but also the best way in practice to give everyone a good life.

China sees an independent Taiwan and Hong Kong as a threat to their territorial integrity, because they see them as controlled by foreigners. The UK and individual British people should make clear that we no longer seek to speak for the Hong Kong people. Instead we should speak for their right to speak for themselves.

Ellie Price

About Ellie Price

Ellie recently spent three years in greater China including 7 months in Hong Kong. She has volunteered for several educational and human rights organisations in Hong Kong and mainland China, and was a trainee in the European Union Delegation to China in Beijing.