21 August 2019
Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying (left) briefs President Xi Jinping on the latest developments in Hong Kong. The meeting has been described as like one between a monarch and his minister. Photo: Information Services Dept
Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying (left) briefs President Xi Jinping on the latest developments in Hong Kong. The meeting has been described as like one between a monarch and his minister. Photo: Information Services Dept

There’s no sign of hope when Beijing asserts imperial power

Prior to hosting the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Beijing, Chinese President Xi Jinping had a busy Sunday.

He met Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying in the morning and former Taiwan vice-president Vincent Siew later in the day. Hong Kong and Taiwan affairs are still among the items at the top of Beijing’s agenda.

That said, Xi’s remarks on Leung’s performance and the shape of things in Hong Kong gave subtle hints that, 17 years after the handover, China’s leader — depicted as “Emperor Xi” in a Time magazine cover story this month — is ready to assert imperial authority over the former British colony.

His regal tone when meeting Leung was almost like that of a monarch in front of his ministers and subjects.

In a disdainful disregard of the prevailing resentment in Hong Kong, Xi praised Leung, especially his unswaying allegiance amid a test of political loyalty.

Most Hongkongers –- who will never be able to comprehend the Communist Party’s way of thinking –- might be startled to learn that Xi lauded their highly unpopular chief executive.

The hidden message is clear: obedience and loyalty come above all other factors, and Beijing is not bothered by the chief executive’s performance and people’s quality of life.

Fewer young people in Hong Kong now see themselves as Chinese, opinion polls have revealed.

While communist cadres take the view that what they are doing is all for Hong Kong’s own good, Hongkongers are concerned that the city is being run by Beijing and their freedom is being eliminated.

Many residents compare today’s situation with that in colonial times and the good old days of the “Hong Kong dream”, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that anti-communist sentiment has become more widespread over the years, with fewer locals regarding themselves as Chinese.

On Monday, the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Centre for Communication and Public Opinion Survey released the results of its latest opinion poll on national identification among Hong Kong residents.

The percentage of respondents regarding themselves simply as Chinese plunged to a new low of 8.9 percent, compared with 32.1 percent in 1997. Among those who were born after 1980, just 4.3 percent think of themselves only as Chinese.

These figures reflect the out-and-out failure of Beijing’s Hong Kong policies. The chief executive and the director of the central government liaison office can hardly absolve themselves of the blame.

In contrast to its approach to Hong Kong, Beijing is still trying to woo Taiwan with sweet talk and economic incentives.

Xi took a softer tone in his meeting with Siew, and each side expressed its own interpretation of cross-strait relations.

Needless to say, Xi could not adopt the airs of a boss towards an underling when meeting Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou’s envoy (at least for the time being).

But given its precedent of granting sham autonomy in Hong Kong’s case, I wonder if Beijing will ever succeed in winning control of Taiwan.

Beijing’s stance shows it will make the direction of Hong Kong’s future political and economic development subject to the national situation and the party’s will, rather than taking account of the city’s situation and its needs.

In China, only the general secretary of the Communist Party can be the head of state (president), to ensure that supreme power rests with the party.

In a one-party state, it’s pointless to distinguish between national power and that of the party, and the system bears some similarities to caesaropapism (where, in some societies in history, the emperor held supreme authority over the church).

The dictatorship of the party is not only lawful in China but is enshrined in the constitution, and democracy and freedom are not in Beijing’s dictionary, so it can only turn a deaf ear to Hongkongers.

These are the political and “legal” grounds of the Chinese legislature’s retrograde ruling on the procedure for the 2017 election, which allows for no ifs or buts, none at all.

Under these circumstances, Hong Kong’s pursuit of genuine universal suffrage is futile and totally unrealistic — as many Beijing loyalists have said.

Based on their own reinterpretation of the Basic Law, the cadres in Beijing have shown the maximum care and consideration of which they are capable by offering Hong Kong what they consider a well-thought-out election package that bears some semblance to democracy (five million people can each have one vote to choose from preselected candidates).

To Beijing, Hongkongers should be happy with the arrangement, as they will be able to vote to select their leader rather than be forced to accept the party’s hand-picked appointee — even if the election process is merely cosmetic.

But Hongkongers didn’t appear to appreciate it and even occupied the streets in protest.

The city’s residents know nothing about the nation’s history or present situation, and they are daydreaming. They should be grateful for Beijing’s mercy, tolerance and imperial magnanimity, shown by the fact that only tear gas was fired and students have been allowed to continue with their sit-ins. That’s the way Beijing’s logic goes.

Beijing’s bullying is not just limited to politics. Now that China has risen to economic prominence, Hong Kong’s autonomy in economic matters is also in peril.

All the mutually beneficial deals, like the upcoming Shanghai-Hong Kong Stock Connect, are seen by the central government as policies showing great benevolence towards Hong Kong. But the truth is that the stock link will be more beneficial to the Shanghai bourse, experts believe.

The politicization of economic and financial initiatives is eroding Hong Kong’s business freedom, and the city’s residents have little choice but to follow Beijing. Given time, Hong Kong’s much vaunted advantage of a free economy will sink into obscurity.

Perhaps Hongkongers have to drop the idea of democracy for good, as there is just no possibility of a free vote under a more hawkish, self-assertive Beijing.

The proposed petition visit to Beijing by student representatives is unlikely to bear any fruit, either. I am not being overly pessimistic, but that’s the only rational conclusion.

Reasoning with Beijing for more democracy is, as the Chinese idiom goes, like “asking a tiger for its skin”. Hongkongers are just attempting the impossible.

Willingly or not, we have to face the bleak reality that when China ruled out an open election for 2017, Hong Kong’s autonomy suffered a big step backward.

Not only is democracy not in sight; all kinds of freedoms that we enjoy now will also perish.

Those shrewd folks who opt to quietly pursue their fortune and surrender their political rights can still strike gold, especially if they can align themselves with Beijing’s policies.

Those who are unable to adjust to the new political order can emigrate.

But even if there is another wave of exits from Hong Kong by professionals, Beijing and the SAR government may not be too bothered: princelings and the second-generation rich will flock in from the mainland to replace them.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Nov. 11.

Translation by Frank Chen

–Contact us at [email protected]


A cardboard cutout of Xi Jinping holding an umbrella is part of the street art in the protest zone in Admiralty. Photo: Bloomberg

A protester rolls up a sleeping mat amid the rows of tents in Admiralty. Could the protests be futile, after all? Photo: Bloomberg

A famous Hong Kong writer; founder of the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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