Maybe Hongkongers have been sleepwalking into the nightmare that arises from the introduction of national security legislation, knocking away the tattered pillars of the one country-two systems principle.

More careful attention should have been paid to what Chinese leaders said well before the Hong Kong Special Administration was even established.

Deng Xiaoping Shenzhen
A billboard featuring Deng Xiaoping in Shenzhen that reads “Adhere to the party’s basic line for one hundred years with no vacillation”. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Take, for example, remarks by Deng Xiaoping, the father of the one country-two systems concept. In 1987 he told Basic Law drafters that his famous slogan of gangren zhigang, which translates as Hong Kong people ruling (or administering) Hong Kong could not be taken as a green light for self-rule.

He said, “don’t ever think that everything would be all right if Hong Kong affairs were administered solely by Hong Kong people while the Central Government had nothing to do with the matter. That simply wouldn’t work – it’s not a realistic idea.

“The Central Government certainly will not intervene in the day-to-day affairs of the Special Administrative Region, nor is it necessary. But isn’t it possible that something could happen in the region that jeopardises the fundamental interests of  the country?”

Three decades on Deng’s specific reference to jeopardising the interests of the nation is precisely the justification being used for by-passing both the bad joke known as the Hong Kong government and the legislature which is not even being allowed to discuss this new law.

What will happen next? Again, it’s worth scrambling through the archives for answers. In 1996 Vice-Premier Qian Qichen gave the Asian Wall Street Journal a flavour of what forms of expression would not be tolerated by the new order.

There could be no criticism of the Chinese leadership, no ‘interference’ in Chinese mainland affairs, such as rallies to commemorate the Tiananmen Square massacre, and the media would have to confine itself to “facts”, rather than opinions.

HRIC Tiananmen Square 1989
Banner on right: ‘For the sake of the Party, Deng Xiaoping: please step down.’ Photo: HRIC archive, courtesy of Gail Butler, Libby Schmalz.

And it should not be forgotten that it only took two years after the handover for the Standing Committee of the National People Congress to begin the process of overruling decisions made by the Hong Kong courts. They did so in the name of “reinterpreting” the Basic Law, a paper thin pretext for amending the law to suit the needs of the regime in Beijing.

The drip, drip erosion of Hong Kong’s liberty has now turned into a flood. Hongkongers, however, chose to remain optimistic, shrugging off the clues as to where things were heading because to do otherwise meant accepting defeat and plunging into deeper gloom.

And there were reasons to believe that the invincibility of the Chinese dictatorship could be challenged here in the SAR. The first attempt to introduce draconian national security legislation was defeated. The plan for so called patriotic education in schools went down in a sea of flames. Moreover, although it cannot be hailed as a victory, the 2014 Umbrella Movement clearly demonstrated that the people’s determination not to be cowed was alive and well.

In Beijing these events were carefully noted by a regime that has no history of tolerating opposition and a very distinct propensity for seeking revenge. The hard men who rule the Communist Party were prepared to bide their time before cracking down and were even prepared to take considerable risks when doing so, because nothing is more important to them than asserting the Party’s control.

occupy protester umbrella protester
Photo: HKFP.

In 1989 when the tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square to crush the democracy protests the Party maintained that it had only done so after exercising considerable restraint in as much as it had allowed the protests to rumble on for around a year before finally moving in.

The leadership was well aware that its bloody crackdown would have serious international implications but it calculated that the worst would pass and, with patience, business as usual could be restored.

This is precisely what happened. Precisely the same gamble is being made right now in Hong Kong where the Party and its cyphers have convinced themselves that the furore over the imposition of harsh national security laws will soon fade. They may even be right.

National People's Congress npc beijing great hall
The Great Hall. Photo: Lukas Messmer/HKFP.

Indeed many of those who claim to be ‘moderates’ have urged Hongkongers to refrain from resistance to the inevitable, which is that Beijing will have its way whatever the people do. They go further and maintain that the only way of mitigating the impact of this mighty juggernaut is for the people of Hong Kong to keep their heads down and cease provoking the Party.

The problem with this reading of history is that it is defiantly ignorant. It completely ignores a wider understanding of how history develops. Specifically, in the case of autocratic regimes, because they always overreach as they come to believe in their own infallibility.

History simply does not work this way because all autocracies, especially those in the modern age, have feet of clay. Their reliance on oppression to retain their position is inflexible and belies the weakness inherent in a system that only has one way of clinging to power.

The speed and manner in which autocracies are defeated very much depends on the people they rule. The bravery of those prepared to challenge them and accelerate their demise determines what comes next. As soon as cracks start to appear, they have a habit of giving way to far bigger fractures.

These are the real lessons of history and they apply as much to Hong Kong as anywhere else in the world.

Stephen Vines is a journalist, writer and broadcaster and ran companies in the food sector. He left Hong Kong with great reluctance in July 2021 following the crackdown on freedom of expression. Prior to departure he had been the host of the RTHK television current affairs programme ‘The Pulse’, a columnist for ‘Apple Daily’ and a contributor to other outlets. He continues to be a columnist for ‘HKFP’. Vines was the founding editor of 'Eastern Express' and founding publisher of 'Spike'. In London he was an editor at The Observer and in Asia has worked for international publications including, the Guardian, Daily Telegraph, BBC, Asia Times and The Independent and, during Hong Kong’s 2019/20 protests, for the Sunday Times. Vines is the author of several books, the latest being Defying the Dragon – Hong Kong and Worlds’ Biggest Dictatorship