The protests in Hong Kong are now in their fourth month. Picture: Kin Cheung/AP/African News Agency (ANA)

The protests in Hong Kong, now in their fourth month, must be an encouraging index of sovereign ambitions to China’s detractors and competitors.

On the surface, the protests are a laudable crusade for democracy and an attempt to insulate Hong Kong from China’s governance.

It is also important to note that the “One Country, Two Systems” pledge to which China committed itself after Hong Kong was handed over to it by the UK in 1997, forms part of the rationale for what the protesters argue is China’s encroachment on Hong Kong’s semi-autonomy. Over the years, successive leaderships in Hong Kong have styled themselves as trustworthy.

It is no wonder, then, that those who support the protests in Hong Kong have a Manichean interpretation of the continuing protests: It is a fight by the honourable (protesters) against the dishonourable (the Chinese government and its lackeys in Hong Kong). At the heart of the matter is politics. Politics by nature, like any social terrain, is a consequence of historical factors whose destination is never certain. Political structures are steeped in history. People, as agents, shape history. The political future is also something that, even though could be planned, has the potential to mutate as unforeseen eventualities could impose the necessity for tinkering with original plans.

Therefore, China’s position on what is happening in Hong Kong should be looked at from a historical plane. The island of Hong Kong was ceded to the British Crown in 1842, as inscribed in the Treaty of Nanking. This forfeiture was a culmination of a humiliating period in China’s political history at the hands of a foreign invader. China’s woes at foreign domination did not end with the loss of Hong Kong.

In the 20th century, Japan carried out one of the most wanton destruction of human life that Asia has ever experienced on Chinese soil.

The invasion of Manchuria added a violent notch to China’s already inflamed siege mentality.

It is no wonder, then, that China played such a pivotal role in helping Third World countries snap the shackles of colonial and minority bondage. It did so to the extent that almost appeared suicidal and masochistic; for example, in order to help end Zambia’s dependency on minority-ruled Rhodesia (later named Zimbabwe after independence) and apartheid South Africa, China put up a generous loan of more than $400 million towards building the Tanzania-Zambia Railway.

This commitment was made in the late 1960s when China’s per capita GDP was lower than that of sub-Saharan Africa. These realities help to set a background to what is happening in Hong Kong and why China feels the rest of the world should not shape the course that Hong Kong should take.

It would be beneficial for the youth, especially, to understand the historical factors that underpin China’s reluctance to adopt foreign-bred modes of rule and its antipathy to foreign encroachment, whether ideological or physical. In the China Wave: Rise of a Civilizational State, Zhang Weiwei, an erstwhile interpreter of Deng Xiaoping, highlights the sui generis (unique) nature of China as a state.

In his arguments, while China will open up to the rest of the world, it will not lose its distinct identity as a civilisational state. It is therefore understandable that inasmuch as it will exercise fidelity to the “One Country, Two Systems” template, no one is under illusions as to China’s preference to not only harmonise Hong Kong and Beijing, but bring Taiwan into the fold as well.

What China will seek from the rest of the world is understanding and respect rather than censure and criticism. It has shown its own obeisance to non-interference in the internal affairs of other nations. It will expect a repayment of the favour as it seeks to resolve the conflict that has engulfed Hong Kong.

* Monyae is the Director of the Centre for Africa-China Studies at the University of Johannesburg.