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China Makes It Clear Who's the Boss of Hong Kong

Robert Keatley

Robert Keatley

Security, Asia

Chinese President Xi Jinping makes a toast at the beginning of the welcoming banquet at the Great Hall of the People during the first day of the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing, China, May 14, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

When Britian handed Hong Kong back to China, universal suffrage when electing executive and legislative officials was a stated goal- it didn't happen.K

China Makes It Clear Who's the Boss of Hong Kong

For the past twenty years—with one exception—Hong Kong’s pro-democracy activists have held peaceful July 1 demonstrations in the island’s Victoria Park and nearby streets. These annual demonstrations remind Beijing that activists want more political rights and are held on the anniversary of when the former British colony officially became an autonomous piece of China back in 1997.

That one exception of no protests, came at a predictable time last year when China’s President and Communist Party leader Xi Jinping was in town to mark the twentieth anniversary of the mainland’s recovery of sovereignty over Hong Kong. Local government officials didn’t want their boss embarrassed by noisy demonstrators chanting opposition to some of the rules he has imposed upon them and so instead they gave permits only to party loyalists, who held their own demonstration.

This year will bring exception number two. Although pro-democracy organizers sought the needed (and generally routine) permits last December, they recently learned the park’s six soccer pitches are again off limits. Instead, some forty pro-Beijing groups were given the right to hold a “charity” event July 1 to mark the twenty first anniversary of Britain’s handover of Hong Kong, even though political groups by law aren’t supposed to run charities. The official if dubious reason is that neighborhood residents “demanded” that “celebratory” activities be organized to mark the end of colonial rule, rather than have the park host another noisy gathering of the politically discontent. Though 2018 will see another pro-democracy demonstration, it will have a less desirable venue and almost certainly will draw fewer marchers than in previous years.

The July 1 protest will also follow an annual commemoration in Hong Kong of the June 4, 1989 massacre near Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, when a thousand or more youthful demonstrators were gunned down by the Chinese army. But this year’s gathering will continue a downward trend of its crowd size; Hong Kongers below middle age have no memory of the Beijing event, and local student groups—dismayed by the failure of their own Occupy Central protest three years ago to bring political gains—have decided to stay away this time.

By themselves, these aren’t dramatic setbacks for those Hong Kong citizens who actively seek greater political freedoms or their right to exercise the “high degree” of political autonomy that Beijing promised decades ago and never delivered—something most residents want, according to polls. But the decline in attendance and the restriction of these event venues is another sign of the  tightening rules imposed by Beijing party officials and their supine Hong Kong government colleagues. Over the past decade, and especially since President Xi took control of both government and ruling party, Beijing authorities have grown increasingly intolerant of all dissent, with Hong Kong’s demand for greater local democracy high on their list of forbidden pleasures. In many ways, these leaders may have tossed Marx overboard but they cling to Lenin more tightly than ever since the days of Mao Zedong’s erratic rule.

This makes Hong Kong’s quest for full local autonomy (with defense and foreign policy reserved to the central government) more elusive than ever, perhaps even hopeless. Using assorted legal and administrative procedures, the Hong Kong government has thinned the ranks of pro-democrats in the local legislature and tilted the system further in favor of its loyalists. Though free speech is legally guaranteed, they have decreed that advocating Hong Kong independence or self-determination is illegal. Although these goals may be unattainable at best, Beijing has now made merely seeking them is prohibited. Furthermore, opposing socialism on the mainland is also forbidden. Beijing authorities are chipping away at the local court independence, based on British common law, while likewise imposing limits on academic freedom. Disrespecting the Chinese national anthem—“March of the Volunteers”—will become a criminal offense. Another symbolic restriction is that government radio no longer re-broadcasts the BBC Foreign Service but instead hosts Beijing’s official news in Mandarin, which most Hong Kong people don’t speak well.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. When British and Chinese negotiators agreed on how Beijing would regain sovereignty over Hong Kong twenty years ago, they settled on a unique method called “One Country, Two Systems”. The brainchild of former leader Deng Xiaoping, it made Hong Kong a permanent part of the Chinese nation while allowing “Hong Kong people” to manage their own affairs—legal, political and economic—by methods not allowed on the mainland. For example, universal suffrage when electing executive and legislative officials was a stated goal. Beijing officials said then this hands-off method might, among other things, set an example for future Chinese governance and entice Taiwan to accept mainland oversight under a similar system.

These didn’t happen. Taiwan long ago rejected outright mainland rule under any terms, while China has abandoned thought of letting its own people choose their local officials freely. In fact, one of Beijing’s main spokesmen a dozen years ago for this relatively relaxed system—then Tsinghua University law dean Wang Zemin—is now posted in Hong Kong as a leading enforcer of China’s tightening squeeze on the city’s political space. The squeeze has intensified since a 2014 Beijing proposal to allow universal suffrage for Chief Executive, the top job, was blocked by pro-democrats. It would have allowed a free choice among two or three candidates, provided they first had been vetted by the central government. Democratic parties called it flawed and, perhaps unwisely, left in place a more controlled select committee system that picks the government leader. The subsequent popular protest known as Occupy Central further strengthened Beijing’s decision to further limit political choices.

Other governments view this with disapproval. The U.S. State Department has found these actions “inconsistent with [Beijing’s] stated commitments to Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy.” The European Parliament has complained about “constant interference” in Hong Kong’s internal affairs because “autonomy has been the foundation of its success”. But Beijing brushes off such criticism as unwarranted “meddling”. It also claims the joint Sino-British declaration that outlined original handover terms no longer has any legal application, though experts contend it still gives London limited rights to monitor events and offer suggestions.

Moreover, recent Hong Kong developments give a taste of the downward trend for those who believe more democracy is better than less. Among them:

--History textbooks are being revised to avoid calling the 1997 political change as a “handover of sovereignty” because it would concede that the British once held sovereignty over Hong Kong, however temporarily. In addition, new courses on “patriotic” studies have been promised to teach students why they should view the Chinese Communist Party with more favor.

--Rules in Legco, the Hong Kong legislature, have been revised to cut ability of pro-democrats to modify government spending plans. Similar changes will restrict their ability to filibuster, and perhaps modify, other legislation backed by pro-government members.

--A court has ruled that potential Legco members can be banned from the ballot if they don’t promise to uphold the Basic Law, the Chinese legislation that serves as the city’s constitution, as interpreted by Beijing. Favoring the right to have a city-wide vote on self-determination has already seen one candidate barred. Anson Chan, a former number two Hong Kong government official and a leading critic of the party line, has called this “naked political screening”.

--The departure level of a new railway station connected to China’s national system has been turned over to mainland control, making it exempt from Hong Kong jurisdiction, rather than simply let a few mainland bureaucrats check passports. The Hong Kong Bar Association considers this a dangerous and needless infringement of the city’s own legal system but a senior Beijing official says it “cannot be challenged”.

--Overall, Beijing has become less concerned about respecting the niceties of the One Country, Two Systems method and is blunter about where real power lies. As one senior official puts it, “within Hong Kong…the central authorities would directly manage certain important issues, while the more local affairs would be managed by Hong Kong, as delegated by the central government.” Beijing already has exercised the right to overturn local court rulings it doesn’t like. There is even talk that it may cancel the One Nation, Two Systems method before its official expiration date of 2047 and simply make Hong Kong more like other mainland cities.

These top-down impositions from Beijing are possible partly because Hong Kong is much less important to China than it used to be. For example, around fifty years ago it accounted for most of the country’s foreign exchange earnings and was its main link to the outside world. But those days are long gone with mainland China more prosperous and integrated into the global economy. For instance, Hong Kong is now being subsumed into the Greater Bay Area- a regional development plan that will link closely Hong Kong, Macao and nine other nearby cities of the Pearl River Delta. This area has a population of some sixty nine million, of which Hong Kong will supply only seven million. One of those cities, adjacent Shenzhen, was only a poor farming and fishing village circa 1980 but has since become a technology center much larger than Hong Kong.

Hong Kong’s relative prosperity also helps Beijing expand its controls. The city’s establishment capitalists have comfortable relationships with mainland Communists, which profit both sides. Economic growth this year will be near 4% unless a US-China trade war sideswipes the city. Hong Kong’s small US exports of steel products ($2 million) and aluminum ($40 million) have been hit by President Trump’s new tariffs, and the government estimates a full trade war could impact 20% of the city’s jobs. But given doubts that such a full on trade war will come to pass, the near term outlook for Hong Kong remains good.

On the other hand, ongoing problems continue to feed discontent and could add to anti-mainland government protests. Hong Kong has one the world’s sharpest divides between rich and poor, and it is only getting worse. Exorbitant housing costs put even the smallest flats beyond the reach of ordinary workers—partly because rich mainlanders snap up apartments as investments or part-time residences and drive up prices for everyone. (In one infamous example, one Chinese billionaire recently spent $149 million for two flats.) Chinese police have also illegally entered Hong Kong to cart off residents deemed guilty of violating mainland laws, even if the alleged offenses didn’t occur inside China itself. The Occupy Central protest was fueled by these issues, including partly by university students who believe they have poor job prospects and face unwanted competition from imported mainlanders.

All this feeds the “localism” that distresses Beijing, which doesn’t want the city to become a source of separatism like Tibet or Xinjiang. Most residents, when asked, say they consider themselves Hong Kong citizens first, not citizens of the People’s Republic. Thus there have been protests about efforts to require greater use of Mandarin rather than the region’s Cantonese. This separatism prompts the wide range of political demands—ranging from scattered calls for the impossible dream of outright independence to broader support for the more realistic goal of greater autonomy. But if current trends continue, as seems likely, there will be no major concessions from Beijing and none of these hopes will be satisfied.

Robert Keatley is a former editor of The Asian Wall Street Journal and the South China Morning Post, both of Hong Kong.

Image: Chinese President Xi Jinping makes a toast at the beginning of the welcoming banquet at the Great Hall of the People during the first day of the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing, China, May 14, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

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