Billed as the most important event on China’s political calendar each year, the annual “two meetings”, namely the National People’s Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) plenums, have often provided a snapshot of the pressing issues facing the world’s most populous nation. The upcoming twin sessions — starting with the CPPCC plenum on Monday, followed by the NPC session from Wednesday — will be no exception.
On top of the watch-list of China analysts and investors will be the 2014 macro-economic guidance, including GDP growth and inflation forecasts, as well the work plan for the coming year on a host of chronic issues such as the anti-corruption fight and the battle against smog. Meanwhile, amid lingering tensions in the East China Sea and profound changes in the geopolitical scene in Northeast Asia, security experts will be looking for clues on Beijing’s latest strategy in handling its relations with Japan and the United States.
Compared with such red-hot topics as GDP growth target and anti-graft campaign, the issue of Hong Kong may sound peripheral. But taken together with the city’s longstanding strain with the mainland, a string of events in the territory this week look set to spice up the Hong Kong issue at the fortnight-long plenums.
A brutal knife attack Wednesday in Hong Kong against a former chief editor of the Chinese-language Ming Pao newspaper, Kevin Lau, has whipped up a storm of outrage among people from all walks of life against violence towards journalists.
The story was also given extensive coverage in major international media. Local police were investigating the triads-style assault. No initial finding has been released. One widely-held theory in the jittery community, however, is that the attack might be connected with some recent investigative reports published in the newspaper, which dealt with the malpractices of the offspring of Chinese Communist Party leaders, the so-called princelings.
One oft-cited case was the series of reports Ming Pao jointly worked with the International Consortium on Investigative Journalists on the business activities of the family of former premier Wen Jiabao.
Speculation about the Communist China factor behind the attack has prompted the Chinese officialdom to join the condemnation against violence and call for speedy investigation of the attack.
The official Global Times said in an editorial Thursday it would be “irresponsible” to jump to a conclusion that Lau was being punished for having offended mainland officials. It went on to give a warning, saying Hong Kong has entered “an eventful year” with the universal suffrage for 2017 chief executive election drawing near.
Beijing’s growing fears about the increased volatilities and complexities of the Hong Kong society have also been widely seen as a factor behind its surprise decision to drop its original plan to host the APEC financial ministers’ meeting in the city in early September. Citing logistics and unspecified preparation for meetings, the central government said on Tuesday that it has informed the Hong Kong government the meeting would now be held in Beijing.
Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying had earlier hailed Beijing’s original decision to hold the ministerial meeting in Hong Kong as a “major task” assigned to the city. Although the practical economic benefits generated by the three-day meeting would be immaterial, it was seen as a sign of the importance that Beijing attached to Hong Kong’s role in China’s international citizenship.
Despite repeated denials by Hong Kong and mainland officials, Beijing’s change of mind has been interpreted as a sign of its depth of anxiety about the socio-political scene in the city. Cynics said Beijing might also want to convey a non-nonsense message to Hongkongers that they “could take away anything they have given to Hong Kong”.
Although the organizers of the civil disobedience “Occupy Central” campaign said earlier that they might not launch their protests within this year, let alone around the APEC meeting in Hong Kong, it has become apparent the city’s political atmosphere has gained more heat after a government public consultation on universal suffrage was launched in November.
In a midway review of the exercise on Thursday, Chief Secretary Carrie Lam has lamented the wide gulf over political reform in the society, warning hopes for progress on democratization would falter if every stake-holder refuses to make concession.
Perhaps more importantly, Beijing’s hardened stance on universal suffrage and its overall strategy towards Hong Kong has made it doubly difficult to seek a consensus. Incidents such as the attack against Ming Pao editor are likely to deepen Beijing leaders’ feeling of unease about the situation in Hong Kong.
It is anybody’s guess as to why Beijing has dropped Hong Kong from its APEC meeting plan at the risk of casting a long shadow over the city’s role and status in China. There are good reasons to believe Beijing could overcome any logistics, technical problems if it really wants to.
Remarks made by Premier Li Keqiang in his government work report and comments given at the margins of the NPC/CPPCC meetings will be closely deciphered to get a better understanding on the latest thinking of the party leadership on Hong Kong policy.
Chris Yeung is deputy chief editor of the Hong Kong Economic Journal. This column appears every Friday.
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