George Yeo says Hong Kong can never escape Beijing's control, historian Wang Gungwu concurs

Both of them see no way out of the Hong Kong people's predicament.

Emily Lo | Kayla Wong | July 28, 2019, 09:24 AM

George Yeo, Singapore's former foreign minister, said at a panel that Hong Kong is akin to the "Monkey King", who cannot escape from "Buddha's palm".

He added that while some Hongkongers believe the city can separate from China, this was simply an illusion.

Hong Kong fated to be under Beijing's control

Speaking at Hwa Chong Institution on Thursday, July 25, Yeo shared with the students why he thought the Hong Kong people has a spirit of resistance, in light of the recent anti-extradition bill protests in Hong Kong, but yet, are not resolving their problems through their actions.

Yeo described Hong Kong as the Monkey King Sun Wukong in a Chinese classical novel Journey To The West, according to The Straits Times.

The monkey was very lively, sometimes very naughty. He would leap 10,000km and still, he cannot leave the Buddha's palm.

Hong Kong cannot leave the Buddha's palm. If, one day, the Buddha decides to put a ring around the forehead of the money, then the monkey will have to take note.

In the Chinese novel, Sun Wukong wore a circlet that could not be removed.

His master, Buddhist monk Tang Sanzang, controls him by chanting a sutra that would cause the circlet to tighten.

Yeo opined that, ultimately, the Chinese central government has control over Hong Kong, and that the Special Administrative Region (SAR) cannot escape from it.

No way out for Hong Kong: Wang Gungwu

Speaking to Mothership separately, esteemed historian Wang Gungwu expressed sentiments similar to Yeo's.

While he sympathises with the Hong Kong people's predicament, he sees "no simple solution" -- not even if Chief Executive Carrie Lam resigns, which is merely a "symbolic" move.

Wang also doubted the situation would get any better, particularly if the protesters "do not know when to stop".

I think in the long run, what they are doing will end up tragically, I'm sorry to say, because there's no way out of this.

The fact is that the one country is more powerful (than "two systems").

In addition, Wang said there is "nothing" in his understanding of history that would suggest the Hong Kong people could change the situation in China.

If China changes, it would only be because of the circumstances within China, not the other way round, he opined.

This view is echoed by Yeo, who hinted at the measures Beijing would not hesitate to take in order to keep Hong Kong under its control.

"As long as you are separate, that's fine, but if it becomes a point of infection, that's a different matter," he asserted in his speech.

"They will have to extinguish you. This is the reality."

Hong Kong as a traditional hotbed of resistance against Chinese ruling power

Wang has also written extensively on the broader historical context between Hong Kong and its relations with the Chinese government, which can be found in his recent journal article, Singapore and Hong Kong: Historical Images.

While it seems that the political tension between Hong Kong and Beijing only intensified in recent years, Wang pointed out that such tensions have always been there.

In fact, it has existed since the Qing dynasty.

During the Qing dynasty, many people who were anti-Qing escaped to Hong Kong after being defeated on the mainland.

They then used it as a base to support the cause of "fan Qing fu Ming" (oppose the Qing to restore the Ming), Wang wrote.

Since then, Hong Kong has been the go-to placed for people with various political agendas to escape to.

They include the ones who launched the Taiping Rebellion, the anti-Qing revolutionaries like Sun Yat-sen, the Kuomintang (KMT) supporters, the Communists during the Chinese Civil War, as well as the people who were anti-KMT and anti-Communists.

"If you look at the record, many of them were in Hong Kong," Wang told Mothership.

"Hong Kong always has problems in its relations with China."

Anti-mainland mentality in Hong Kong?

Meanwhile, schools in Hong Kong continued to base their curriculums on the British syllabus which taught western values.

And this did not exactly help the Hong Kong people to be patriotic towards Beijing, Yeo said at the panel held at HCI.

Furthermore, student leaders in the universities have to be anti-mainland in order to win elections, he added.

"This has seeped into the mentality of the Hong Kong people."

Such a British-based curriculum, taught to students who might already have various political leanings, has also resulted in a "very reluctant base" of the "One China" concept, Wang explained to Mothership.

What this means is that the Hong Kong people are not necessarily against "One China".

In fact, they can say they love China, but they might not be very fond of the Communists, which is another thing altogether.

Different understandings of democracy

Also, while the Hong Kong people understand democracy in western terms, such as thinking that everyone should have a say in choosing their leader, China understands democracy differently, Wang opined.

"The Chinese understanding is that as long as whoever is in charge is working and caring for the people, that's minzhu (民主, democratic)," he said.

"In broad terms, how the person is selected is less important than whether the person is suitable to do a good job."

Beijing: "One country" is above "Two Systems"

Furthermore, while Beijing has promised a high degree of autonomy for Hong Kong under the "one country, two systems" framework as stated in the Basic Law -- Hong Kong's mini-constitution -- the two of them understood the arrangement differently since the early days of implementation.

Beijing prioritises "One Country" over "Two Systems", but the Hong Kong people view it as the other way round, which is not acceptable to the central government.

This is why Beijing does things that "irritate" the Hong Kong people every now and then, such as putting the "national history" in school curriculum, and the singing of the national anthem, Wang added.

Basic Law exacerbated the housing problem

However, more than a gap in the understanding towards the "one country, two systems" framework, Wang posited that the housing problem plaguing young Hongkongers today is perhaps deepening the resentment towards the local government.

Unbeknownst to many, Hong Kong's housing problem was partly exacerbated by the Basic Law, which is something that Wang founds "paradoxical".

Land remains under-utilised in the New Territories.

When the area was ceded to Britain for 99 years from 1898, the British Law protected what they called the indigenous rights of the people, Wang explained.

Thereafter, the Chinese, in order to "please the Hong Kong people" accepted the law, which was carried forward in the Basic Law.

This has resulted in the current situation where the Hong Kong government has limited rights to the land in the New Territories, worsening the housing problem.

Top image adapted via George Yeo/Facebook and Lingnan University