Behind the Headlines asks: ‘What’s going on in Hong Kong?’

Hong Kong and the ongoing unrest in the region was the focus of the Trinity Long Room Hub’s latest Behind the Headlines.

Members of the public and many students turned out to listen to panellists from Trinity and outside the university speak about what triggered the protests in Hong Kong, and why they continue despite the Extradition Bill being rescinded.

Isabella Jackson, Chung Kam Kwok, Peter Hamilton, Padraig Gallagher and Jane Ohlmeyer at the Trinity Long Room Hub’s latest Behind the Headlines.

“This bill was really just a spark that ignited long simmering anger among particular segments of Hong Kong society”, Dr Peter Hamilton, School of Histories and Humanities commented on opening the discussion.

To understand the recent historical context of the relationship between the former British colony and China, Dr Hamilton, Assistant Professor in Modern Chinese History, traced the protests back to the “unfinished business” from the handover process between the Britain and China which began in the 1980s and were signed in 1997.

The promise of ‘One Country, Two Systems’ stipulating that Hong Kong would retain full civil rights, a separate currency and separate customs arrangements, was at the basis of the joint declaration between Britain and China.

Dr Hamilton referred to the Tiananmen square massacre as a major turning point in what was believed to be a growing trust between Hong Kongese and the Chinese during negotiations of the handover process. In 1989, as many people in Hong Kong watched the student and worker protests in Beijing and the subsequent army response to this dissent, they viewed it as a warning about their own future.

“Tiananmen changed the tone and tenor of what handover meant for a lot of people”, Dr Hamilton concluded.

Padraig Gallagher is a former Managing Director of Global Banking and Markets with HSBC in Hong Kong. He lived in Hong Kong for 10 years during the 90s and more recently from 2007 – 2009. He argued that the world – and Beijing – are very different places since the events of 1989, arguing that he firmly believed that a Tiananmen Square type scenario would not repeat itself. That is why, he argued, that firms are going to stay rooted to Hong Kong.

Despite a hit to the financial market in June during the initial breakout of the protests, Mr Gallagher argued that it was “remarkable” that the market rebounded as the crisis deepened. He outlined how Hong Kong has raised more capital this year than any other market in the world.

However, Mr Gallagher said that there has been a fall in GDP in the third quarter of the year, signalling a recession in the New Year, which he said, “will make poor reading for China.”

The soundings from the international business community in Hong Kong suggest that Hong Kong will bounce back, but many local firms and international companies are putting contingency plans in place for worst case scenarios, Mr Gallagher added.

Dr Chung Kam Kwok is a research fellow at the School of Linguistic, Speech and Communication Sciences at Trinity College Dublin. As a Hong Kong citizen, he said he didn’t believe the Extradition Bill alone could stir up the level of protest that we are currently seeing in Hong Kong.

The audience at the Trinity Long Room Hub’s latest Behind the Headlines.

He said the Chinese government has angered many Hong Kong people with its approach to Hong Kong over the last few years, signalling its “tightening control” over the region. Referring to the Umbrella protest movement in 2014, he argued that Beijing has since ensured that the governance representation of Hong Kong reflected Beijing’s control, breaking the promise of universal suffrage the Hong Kong people expected from Joint Declaration in 1997 and the principles enshrined under Hong Kong’s ‘Basic Law.’

He said the issues now come down to two questions when thinking about how the protests are going to end and how Hong Kong can become governable again. Firstly, he asked whether Hong Kong people still trust Beijing to uphold ‘One Country, Two Systems’; and secondly, whether Beijing still views Hong Kong as ‘useful’.

Dr Kwok argued that Hong Kong served as a model for Taiwan to become part of China, but the protests have damaged this. Hong Kong is also China’s financial Hub, signifying their desire to speed up the process of assimilation.

According to Dr Kwok, China will now have to try and come to some sort of agreement to ensure that the protests and the recent defeat of pro-government parties in the elections don’t also impact on next year’s election on the legislature.

Dr Isabella Jackson, Assistant Professor in Chinese Studies, said that the “protests pose a series dilemma for the Beijing Government” and a “threat to Communist rule.” She argued that the Government needs to discredit the protests in Hong Kong, internationally, “and perhaps most importantly in mainland China.”

Nationalism has now long been a means to unifying Chinese society, Dr Jackson commented. This is perhaps why it is most effective for the Beijing Government to frame the protests as separatists influenced by foreign actors.

“The patriotic Chinese are particularly sensitive to suggestions of foreign intervention on Chinese soil, for sound historical reasons”, Dr Jackson explained.

“Hong Kong is associated, for many, with the Treaty of Nanjing imposed by Britain on China at the end of the Opium War ceding parts of the country to foreign control.” Dr Jackson stated, adding that Chinese children today are taught about how this treaty began a century of humiliation of Chinese people, the imposition of unequal treaties, the presence of numerous foreign powers and the “devasting” Sino-Japanese war.

“The Communist party takes credit for restoring national dignity to China and any foreign intervention is an afront to that national pride”, Dr Jackson explained.

About the ‘Behind the Headlines’ Discussion Series

The ‘Behind the Headlines’ discussion series hosted by Trinity Long Room Hub Arts and Humanities Research Institute offers background analyses of current issues from experts from the fields of arts and humanities research. It aims to provide a forum that deepens understanding, combats simplification and polarisation, creating a space for informed and respectful public discourse. The series is supported by the John Pollard Foundation.