Why Hong Kong is exploding in China's face: The friction between the two has long roots
China's latest extradition bill is only the spark to tinder that has accumulated over years. China and Hong Kong have been at loggerheads with each other and this goes back a long way.
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The unrest in Hong Kong today has long roots — interestingly shrouded in opium smoke.
Turks and Arab traders were the first ones who apparently introduced opium to the Chinese, somewhere around the seventh century. Opium was taken in small quantities by many in China, as medication and to relieve tension. Soon enough, people from America to Europe also started smoking opium. Aside from growing numbers of addicts in China itself — now increasingly supplied by opium packages shipped from colonised India by British merchants — the global addiction also grew.
The opium trade boomed to hugely profitable numbers by the nineteenth century — when it was estimated to be worth over seven million silver dollars.
China was the main route through which the opium trade operated, stocks from India both disseminating within the country and going through for England.
Britain wanted sheer dominance in the highly lucrative trade — this led to the opium wars breaking out between an ambitious Britain and a resentful China (1839-60), the latter unhappy at its population getting enslaved by the drug and its balance of trade taken over in this manner.
It was in 1898 that Britain, looking for peaceful business, then signed a deal with China — where the island of Hong Kong was leased to the British for their operations over a duration of 99 years.
Now, as this time frame came to an end, Britain gave Hong Kong back to China. This was a move many locals, by now used to a British political and civic system with far greater freedom than the mainland and immersed in a cosmolitan, mercantile-based life, didn’t greatly like but they had to cede that legally, China was going to rule over them.
Clash of civilisations? China has control over Hong Kong. But Hong Kong has its own way of life. (Photo: AP)
When Hong Kong came into being as part of China, it was promised ‘one country and two systems’. China was a Communist-ruled state, whereas Hong Kong had a democratically elected government. From the beginning, there were visible differences between the two — China is an authoritarian, centrally controlled country while Hong Kong enjoyed limited democracy. Today, Hong Kong is headed by a chief executive officer who is answerable to the Chinese government.
The differences are cultural too. In China, people speak overwhelmingly in Mandarin, whereas in Hong Kong, the majority of the population can and does speak English, while most know Mandarin as well. Until last year, Hong Kong also had a fairly vibrant art and publishing life, which came to a halt as China began to place heavier restrictions on free speech and publishers and authors often found themselves facing severe questioning.
But the crackdown was not as hard yet.
The reason is money.
The big difference between the two nations is Hong Kong’s economy, buzzing, vibrant — and based on free trade and low taxes, whereas China’s economy is tightly restricted. Thus far, the Chinese authorities felt confident enough of letting Hong Kong operate as it was. However, a variety of factors, from China's own economy slowing down in recent years to far greater controls being placed on dissent within the mainland, led the authorities to cast a suspicious eye on Hong Kong as well, so far indulged as one of the main gateways to doing business in China itself.
Suddenly, a tough new extradition law came into force in Hong Kong, one which would allow the Chinese state to render a swift extradition to the mainland of those suspected of both dissent against the state and/or financial malpractices, including tax evasion. This move has proved to be the spark setting off the protests overtaking Hong Kong now, expressing years of resentment HK residents have felt against China's domination.
Chinese Chequered? Can the Chinese state really afford a brutal crackdown on Hong Kong? (Photo: AP)
It is estimated that of Hong Kong's seven million poulation, about two million have joined the protest movement.
In latest developments, China has reportedly sent armed troops and heavy weaponry to control the protest movement in Hong Kong.
With the protestors also digging in their heels, the forecast for Hong Kong is not looking up. There are fears of this becoming even another Tiananmen Square moment for China, one which would reflect to the world China's continuing disregard for human rights but also, its protectiveness over trade and money, the roots of which lie in the history of opium itself.