• Thursday, June 20, 2024
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BusinessDay

Parallels between Hong Kong and Nigeria

Hong Kong

Last month, China’s ruling party sent a draft legislation to Hong Kong’s parliament making criminal any act of subversion, including “insulting the Chinese anthem. Protesters have taken to the streets to protest what they see as Chinese interference in the territory. Last year, about a million protesters marched around the island demanding a withdrawal from parliament of a law that would have allowed for criminal suspects to be extradited to China. To understand these protests, it is necessary to do a very brief excursion into history.

In the 18th century, China raked in profits from trading goods around the world. Western powers like Britain decided that in order to compete with China they needed to trade the Chinese something that would turn the tide in their favour. So, they sold opium to the Chinese people which completely turned the balance of trade in the opposite direction. While this new trade was a roaring success for the British, it came at a cost to China because opium got too many people sick, harming China’s economy. So, in 1814, the Chinese Emperor, Yongyan, banned the sale of opium. In reply, Britain demanded that China pay for drugs that were seized, and the Chinese refused. This sparked the First Opium War as Britain invaded China.

After years of fighting, China surrendered. One of Britain’s conditions for peace was for China to hand over one of its territories, a small, undeveloped Island called Hong Kong. The Chinese had no problem giving up the island because to them, it was just a pile of rocks. The British saw differently. Hong Kong has a natural harbour which offered Britain a strong Eastern trade base and a strategic gateway to the Pacific. When the Second Opium War ended in 1860, Britain gained new territory, the southern portion of the Kowloon Peninsula. This was the first stage of expansion towards the leasing of the new territories in 1898 for 99 years. This 99-year lease gave Britain all the remaining territories of Hong Kong, but with it came an expiration date, 1997.

Fast forward a half century, and after the Second World War, as Britain lost status, China became a communist country. Hong Kong was effectively cut off from China and began to develop in a different, more Western-oriented direction.

Forward another half century, and Hong Kong was handed back to China in 1997, but under a unique agreement – a mini-constitution called the Basic Law and a so-called “one country, two systems” principle, valid until 2047. This came with freedom of assembly and speech, an independent judiciary and some democratic rights – freedoms that no other part of mainland China has. Under the same agreement, Hong Kong was free to enact its own national security law as was intended in Article 23 of the Basic Law. But here is where there is a difference in the interpretation of the “one country, two systems” agreement.

To the British, and the Westernised Hong Kongers, it meant that they’d bought time, 50 years in which they hoped that China would change and become more democratic. To Beijing, it meant a gradual erosion of Hong Kong’s Western orientation, such that by 2047, Hong Kong would be fully Chinese. These different interpretations, and especially since Xi Jinping with his less patient style took over the leadership of China from Hu Jintao, are what has led to the current conflict.

China’s latest moves come in the wake of a coronavirus pandemic that has brought much of the world to its knees. After successfully containing the virus which began in one of its own cities, the Chinese government has embarked on a series of confrontations with its perceived adversaries in what can be described as a wolf warrior diplomacy. In trying not to let a good crisis go to waste, China has latched onto the distraction of a West reeling from virtual economic collapse from the virus, in order to reabsorb Hong Kong.

Do I support what the Chinese are doing? No, but I’m pragmatic enough to understand the following: first, in 1997, Hong Kong was 20 percent of China’s economy. Now it is 3 percent. Its importance to Beijing now is more symbolic. More importantly, though, since the current push for a new law came directly from the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, then there is no going back.

I also find it hard not to compare it with my country. Nigeria, sadly, is known for squandering opportunities. The pandemic has afforded us an opportunity to change a lot of things, but the going has been painfully slow. It was only last week that the very wasteful petrol subsidy was finally removed, but yet the PPPRA still remains intact, meaning that the subsidy can be reintroduced when there is money. We have failed to use the economic headwinds to restructure our wasteful budgeting system. Then there were two critical things we could have done during this pandemic – rigorous testing and contact tracing, which could have strengthened our health system and data gathering capabilities.

In the first regard that Nigeria has failed woefully. Testing as of Friday, 5 June, less than 75,000 samples (not people, it is always important to note the distinction). This translates to less than 1,500 tests per day since our index case. The result is that we can’t plot a trend to confirm if the country is past the peak or not. Now, reality has caught up with Nigeria, and we can no longer feasibly enforce any lockdown, or fix our health system during such a lockdown. Nigeria has again, wasted a crisis.