23 April 2019
Half a million Hongkongers marched in July 2003 against national security legislation, sparking a crucial change in Beijing's attitude toward the city's governance. Photo: BBC
Half a million Hongkongers marched in July 2003 against national security legislation, sparking a crucial change in Beijing's attitude toward the city's governance. Photo: BBC

How Beijing may tighten its grip on HK

Even though the second stage of the political reform consultation has officially kicked off, whether the Legislative Council will pass the government’s reform package and the people of Hong Kong can eventually choose their chief executive through “one person, one vote” has increasingly become irrelevant.

That’s because after the Umbrella movement, the main theme of political change in Hong Kong is not so much universal suffrage as how Beijing will tighten its grip on the city, and it seems the day of reckoning is looming on the horizon.

The political implications of the Occupy movement for mainland-Hong Kong relations are no less significant than those of the Article 23 saga in 2003, when half a million people took to the streets and the credibility of Tung Chee-wah’s administration was destroyed.

During the same year, the pro-Beijing camp was crushed in the district council election, and the entire city seemed to revel in the joy of having defeated the government’s attempt to pass the national security law mandated by Article 23.

Then things took a dramatic turn in 2004, when the city was embroiled in a sudden outbreak of heated debates over “patriotism”. That was followed by the National People’s Congress resolution disallowing universal suffrage in the 2007/08 elections. 

The pro-Beijing camp, much to everyone’s surprise, managed to stand its ground in the 2004 Legco election.

With the benefit of hindsight, one should not have been surprised by the twist of events that took place in 2004, because the July 1, 2003, rally and the crushing defeat of the Hong Kong government’s attempt to pass the Article 23 legislation that year completely changed Beijing’s approach to governing the city.

It was from then on that Beijing decided it would no longer rely on proxies to run Hong Kong. Instead, it would itself rule the city with a firm hand.

After almost 10 years, Hong Kong once again grabbed headlines around the world, with the Occupy movement.

The degree to which Hongkongers were able to mobilize themselves and sustain the movement was unparalleled in the city’s history, not to mention the political implications of the movement.

The idea of civil disobedience has become firmly entrenched in the minds of our fellow citizens.

The younger generation have undergone an “enlightenment” and have become more attached to their identity as Hongkongers and insistent on democracy and social justice.

They have also started to believe that a mass movement can really make a difference.

Politicians also face new challenges in the post-Occupy period.

Members of civil society and civic organizations are set to assume a bigger role in politics, and the pan-democratic parties must learn to deal with the rise of this fledgling political force, over which they may not necessarily have influence.

Besides, the pan-democrats’ die-hard position against the NPC’s “831” resolution setting out the framework for the 2017 election for chief executive is putting them on a collision course with Beijing.

In the face of the new developments, it is hard to imagine that Beijing will maintain a static policy on Hong Kong.

In fact the way Beijing is backing Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying these days bears a close resemblance to the way it supported Tung in the wake of the Article 23 disaster.

Leaders in Beijing may find it politically expedient to pledge firm support for Leung for the time being to prevent further speculation and chaos, like they did in 2003 to stabilize Hong Kong society by showing whole-hearted support for Tung.

As far as how Beijing will tighten its grip on Hong Kong is concerned, one might look at the issue from several different perspectives:

Firstly, regrouping and revitalizing the governing alliance of Hong Kong should now be a top priority for Beijing.

In 2002, Tung introduced the “accountability” system, which was further expanded by his successor, Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, in 2008.

Both attempts to form a strong alliance between pro-establishment political parties and the government to facilitate effective governance proved unsuccessful, because they failed to establish a stable and long-term political partnership.

One may expect Beijing to be tearing its hair out now trying to come up with a way to draw the Hong Kong government and the pro-Beijing camp together to form a firm and sustainable partnership.

Secondly, another task that may be at the top of Beijing’s agenda is to unite the pro-establishment camp itself.

The act of relieving James Tien Pei-chun, former chairman of the Liberal Party, of his membership of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference in October suggested that Beijing regards loyalty as the overriding quality that defines a pro-establishment politician.

But in fact, the terms “pro-establishment” and “pro-Beijing” often refer to a very loosely organized political group that acts on Beijing’s orders — as distinct from the pan-democrats.

It has never been a highly united and cohesive group, and different factions often have their own agendas and calculations.

Even though they are united under Beijing’s orders, they are sometimes seriously split over particular issues. An example is the standoff between the business elite who supported Henry Tang Ying-yen in the 2012 election for chief executive and the traditional leftists who supported Leung.

The differences between the so-called “Leung camp” and the “Tang camp” may have been resolved, at least for now, but it remains highly difficult for Beijing to truly unite the different factions and interests within the pro-establishment camp.

That’s because its members come from different backgrounds and share different sets of values and interests.

The dynamics within the pro-establishment group will continue to be an important factor that shapes Beijing’s policy toward Hong Kong.

One can expect fierce competition within the pro-establishment camp for seats on the nomination committee that will choose candidates in the 2017 election.

Thirdly, after the Occupy movement, the pan-democrats will remain a wild card for Beijing.

There may still be room for cooperation between the two sides, but their paths are quickly diverging.

From the Hong Kong government’s point of view, the pan-democrats are certainly strong adversaries.

However, it remains to be seen whether Beijing will eventually characterize them as an enemy that needs to be eliminated or just a dissident faction that needs to be won over.

In the wake of the Occupy movement, the prospect of Beijing settling scores hangs over the city.

The ongoing “arrests by appointment” are merely an appetizer.

A new round of more profound political undercurrents could be in the works, and leaders in Zhongnanhai are perhaps pondering their next step.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Jan 13.

Translation by Alan Lee

– Contact us at [email protected]


Assistant Professor, School of Communication, Department of Journaism and Communication, Hang Seng Management College; Vice-Chairman of SynergyNet

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