THE tragedy that is Hong Kong today keeps unfolding unabated after several months of unyielding street protests turning progressively more violent.
It is a tragedy because no satisfactory long-term solution seems in sight except the near-certainty that this marks the beginning of the end of Hong Kong as we have come to know it.
Hong Kong, since colonial times, has always been something of an anachronism: a city that lacks democracy but is regularly voted as among the “freest” cities on the planet.
How did it achieve that feat?
The received wisdom is that Britain bequeathed to Hong Kong an administration that respects the rule of law, underpinned by a highly competent and professional civil service, the better to let the city do what it does best: making money.
Such a legacy suited everybody while it lasted because all (Britain, China and Hong Kong itself) profited immensely from the arrangement.
It was almost the perfect construct built on little more than trust.
The arrangement might have continued as it was had not the Sino-British agreement that created Hong Kong expired in 1997, bringing into play the pesky little matter over sovereignty.
The succeeding “one-country, two-systems” arrangement was a triumph of diplomacy and pragmatism hammered out by two of the greatest statesmen of the last century, Britain’s Margaret Thatcher and China’s Deng Xiaoping.
The new arrangement works, till now, at least. What has happened?
Many are left mystified for lack of a satisfying answer.
Western commentators inevitably, predictably and almost breathlessly rushed to conclude that the arrangement seemed to be breaking down about mid-way into its 50-year duration because of the fundamental incompatibility of the two governing systems in China and Hong Kong.
There was also the underlying Western presumption that the fault lies with China for not adapting to become more like Hong Kong.
But wasn’t the arrangement born out of that very incompatibility in the first place?
Conspiratorial easterners find a ready if unconvincing answer in the usual suspect: self-righteous Western governments scheming through Hong Kong to give China a black eye.
It is totally unconvincing precisely because Hong Kong is such an open international city and its citizens so worldly and sophisticated.
So what is it, then? My take is that Hong Kong today, like it has often been, is a bellwether for global seismic shifts and nothing is more all-consuming in the popular consciousness everywhere these days than the shift in economic power eastwards.
With economic power goes growing international prestige and, inevitably, political legitimacy.
Many in the East and particularly in what is generally called Greater China look askance at the Hong Kong protesters for their temerity to challenge their political overlords in Beijing.
But I suspect the protesters (and they are a wide cross-section of Hong Kong society today, not just angry students) genuinely fear that the way of life they have grown accustomed to is coming under increasing threat from a China becoming ever more successful, powerful and bold.
Hong Kong’s fears are compounded by shock that things have not turned out as imagined: China becoming more like Hong Kong.
Instead they have become more the other way around. As the city’s self-confidence shrivelled, China’s has only grown.
China has defied all predictions so far that as it advanced economically, political changes must follow in tandem or the contradictions will become ever so obvious that some possibly cataclysmic reckoning will follow.
It appeared to have dawned on many, not just in Hong Kong but around the world, that a country of China’s heft can — and most probably will — not just defy conventional thinking but add progressively more “Chinese characteristics” to whatever passes for tomorrow’s conventional thinking.
Will China’s “rule by law” continue to thrive alongside Western “rule of law”? Or will the former eventually morph into something more akin to the latter?
Might China not one day adopt Hong Kong’s (and Singapore’s) rule of law without necessarily adopting democracy (like Hong Kong prior to 1997) and remaining a one-party state (much like today’s Singapore)?
Whatever the future may hold, won’t any of these plausible scenarios be for the best of everyone concerned?
But impatient Hong Kong protesters seem determined to force the issue. In so doing, can ultimate tragedy be averted and Rudyard Kipling unfortunately proven both prescient and right, that “East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet”?
If so, won’t it be doubly tragic because of what this portends for the world at large?
The writer views developments in the nation, the region and the wider world from his vantage point in Kuching, Sarawak