Draconian rule having failed so far to shut down Hong Kong’s protests, the government here now hopes to distract the public with economic handouts and yet more exercises in official “dialogue.” That’s what to expect Wednesday, when Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, delivers her annual policy address.
That would be an insult to Hong Kongers, who have not been protesting by the millions in pursuit of bread and circuses. With great courage, they have been demanding things far more profound — freedom and the right to elect their own leaders.
Ms. Lam, and her superiors in Beijing, clearly wish to consign that ambition to the memory hole. While Hong Kong’s protesters have been chanting “Fight for Freedom,” China’s propaganda machine has been pushing out visions of the joys China has in store for them via Hong Kong’s integration into the nearby boom towns of the Pearl River delta, a region China dubs “the Greater Bay Area.”
Never mind that long before the expiration of the 50 years of rights and freedoms that China promised to Hong Kong under treaty terms of the 1997 British handover, this would entail the mulching of Hong Kong’s free society into China’s communist state.
Ms. Lam, having invoked despotic emergency powers on October 4, is now putting together financial carrots for presentation Wednesday. On Facebook, she’s already teased that this bounty from on high will include public funds for repairing old buildings, completion of a street market in a low-income area beset by high-rent malls, and more money for sports.
Hong Kong does suffer from a growing list of economic ills, notably sky-high housing prices, due to a property cartel reinforced by government land policies. These, though, are symptoms of the basic problem that Hong Kongers have no way to control the government policies that shape their lives. Their electoral systems are rigged to ensure a chronic pro-Beijing majority in the legislative council and a chief executive chosen by Beijing. That is what these protests are about.
During the many weeks since June that covered this story from Hong Kong, not once have I heard throngs clamoring for housing and sports subsidies. Rather, Hong Kongers have been calling, in every way they can, for liberty, democracy, and the rejection of Communist Party rule.
They have produced an anthem titled “Glory to Hong Kong,” an ode to freedom that protesters have been singing in the streets, in shopping malls, and at sports stadiums. They have formed human chains, holding hands across the city, while chanting “Stand with Hong Kong.” They have torn down official signs celebrating China’s 70 years of communist rule and replaced them with banners saying “We want democracy.”
In Chinese and English, protesters have emblazoned road medians, footbridges, and walls with slogans such as “Free Hong Kong” and “I am willing to die for freedom.” In early October, I came across sidewalk graffiti in the main financial district proclaiming “Human Dignity is the most valuable asset” and “Liberty is the safest currency.”
On China’s National Day, Hong Kong’s people were forbidden to march in protest. They did so anyway, throwing in the air fistfuls of “ghost money” — fake paper currency traditionally burned as an offering to the dead, by which they meant China’s president, Xi Jinping, and his Communist Party. Referring to China’s concentration camps for brainwashing Muslims in Xinjiang, they chanted the warning “Today Xinjiang, tomorrow Hong Kong,” and plastered the city with accusations against Beijing of “Chinazi.”
Hong Kong’s government has been vigorously erasing, whitewashing, scraping up, and pulling down these messages. In short order, they reappear. Despite the ban imposed Oct. 5 on face coverings, masked protesters continue to march.
China has repeatedly threatened to use military force if Ms. Lam cannot end this rebellion. So now comes the offer of what we might call the China deal, the implicit social contract of Xi’s “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” People would be permitted to make money and contend for government handouts, as long as they abjure dissent and march to the tune of China’s communist party rule.
China’s recent National Day parade offered a fine illustration of this system: a vast display of the government’s military might, rolling through the same Tiananmen Square in which no one is permitted, ever, to honor the 1989 calls for freedom that have been wiped from the official record.
Ms. Lam has also launched an official “dialogue platform,” complete with its own bureaucracy, with the mission, as her administration described it last month, of seeking to “fathom the discontent in society and look for solutions.” There’s no mystery here. All Ms. Lam or and the Chinese party members need to do is take a drive around Hong Kong and read the writing on the walls.