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Opinion

If China cracks down on Hong Kong, it will only hurt itself

Beijing needs to maintain HK's prowess as a stable financial center

| Hong Kong, Macao

The negotiations over Hong Kong's future after 1997, the year the British were supposed to transfer its sovereignty to China, took place in the 1980s. At first, the overall atmosphere in Hong Kong about the handover was not worried -- but the mood of the colony changed drastically after June 4, 1989 in the wake of the Tiananmen Massacre.

Three decades later, rumors that the Chinese People's Liberation Army was marching into Hong Kong abounded during the early days of the ongoing anti-extradition movement. This movement, which has brought up to 2 million Hong Kongers out on to the streets, opposes a law that would have permitted Beijing to request anyone in Hong Kong for trial in the mainland.

The rumors -- while natural fears in Hong Kong -- were also well-organized, with fake clips of tanks marching in town circulating through social media, suggesting an effort orchestrated beyond Hong Kong's borders.

Warning about this kind of suppression in Hong Kong as a scare tactic to disperse a social movement, however, is getting ever more unconvincing.

Protesters here clearly understand that even though Hong Kong, with its population of almost 7.5 million, is small compared to China, which has nearly 1.4 billion people, we play an oversized role in China's economy and geopolitical ambitions that is not always reflected in Beijing's rhetoric or by the international media.

Indeed, although Hong Kong's contribution to China's gross domestic product has dropped from 20% in 1997 to less than 3% today, our importance manifests in other ways.

Hong Kong boosts China's economy and bridges it to the world, helping its growth and engagement with the international community. It remains the largest offshore yuan clearing center in 2018, managing 79% of payments, according to the SWIFT financial messaging network.

It is the largest source of overseas direct investment in China, accounting for 54% of the national total, and the leading destination for China's foreign direct investment outflow, with the same percentage.

Moreover, Hong Kong is naturally positioned as a key spot for promoting China's signature Belt and Road Initiative as it is a leading location that provides financing and other professional services for BRI's global infrastructure projects.

This is not easy for any other Chinese city to replicate because Hong Kong is distinguished by its fair judicial system, internationalized culture and free flow of information, all of which are absent in China. Hong Kong's success is founded upon global confidence in it, which attracts international investments. Violent Chinese action in Hong Kong would destroy that.

The significance of Hong Kong to China and to Asia has been downplayed by Beijing's propaganda machine for political purposes: China wants Hong Kongers to feel that we have no counterbalance against its authority and therefore have no way to fight for the freedoms we deserve.

The reality is the opposite. As the present anti-extradition movement progresses, the Hong Kong government under Chief Executive Carrie Lam is passive and clearly has no idea how to resolve the political crisis at hand.

While she cannot accept the protesters' demands -- which among other things include the controversial bill's full withdrawal, an independent investigation into police brutality and even democratization -- she also cannot ask for direct help from China.

The international spotlight is on Hong Kong thanks to our city's unique status. As numerous foreign reporters are based here, Beijing and its puppet regime are faced with the pressure to quell the unrest in a civilized manner.

If China dares to suppress Hong Kongers violently, it is not only its standing as a leading power in the world which will take a hit, but its financial flows too, since there is no chance Hong Kong will retain its leading position as a global financial center.

This is what protesters in Hong Kong have been taking advantage of, in addition to doing what the Chinese government is most frightened of: spread the message across the border to inspire potential unrest from inside the country.

Earlier this month, a protest took place in West Kowloon, which is the most popular shopping destination for Chinese tourists in Hong Kong and the location of the high-speed rail terminus. The occasion was aimed specifically at spreading ideas of democracy to visitors from China.

Organizers chanted slogans in Mandarin instead of Cantonese and distributed pamphlets in Simplified Chinese instead of Traditional Chinese. The effect may not be immediate or apparent, but it reminds Beijing that Hong Kong continues to serve as a beacon of freedom.

The policy of engagement with China that the Western world has adopted since the 1980s is entering its death throes. In the U.S., a more aggressive diplomatic approach coupled with a trade war has led to confrontation between the world's two most powerful countries, putting Hong Kong at the focus on their attention.

While China's economy is enormous, it lacks respect from advanced countries because of its notorious human rights record and failure to honor universal values. Hong Kong is at the forefront of fighting against the Chinese model.

The wise move for China in the foreseeable future, if it wishes to maintain its place in the world, is to hear the voice of Hong Kongers. Only by granting us democracy and freedom can Beijing get on the right track.

Nathan Law Kwun-chung is the founding chairperson of Demosisto, a pro-democracy organization, and was the youngest ever lawmaker in Hong Kong.

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