When President Xi Jinping goes to consult a fortune-teller in the temple about what to expect in the Year of the Sheep, he will be in for an unpleasant surprise.
The soothsayer will tell him that, while he will have one quiet sheep – Macau – in his flock, he will have two stubborn and troublesome goats – Hong Kong and Taiwan.
“Goats are extremely curious and intelligent,” says the encyclopedia. “Due to their agility and inquisitiveness, they are notorious for escaping their pens by testing fences and enclosures. Due to their high intelligence, once a goat has discovered a weakness in the fence, it will exploit it repeatedly and other goats will quickly learn the same method.”
Meanwhile, the sheep are different, as defined by one Chinese astrology book. “They have low combat effectiveness and ask for nothing but to live with the green grass peacefully. In the flock, they observe the discipline of the leader sheep well and hold the leader in the greatest esteem.”
These definitions are an apt summary of what Beijing can expect from Hong Kong in the Year of the Sheep. The outgoing Year of the Horse was supposed to be the one in which the issue of political reform for the next ten years was amicably settled, marking a further milestone in the integration of Hong Kong with the motherland.
The opposite has happened. The year ends with Hong Kong split down the middle over the issue and deeply scarred by the 79-day Occupy Central movement. It has made the two sides less willing to compromise.
Xi and his government are angry and disappointed; they believe they gave a good offer to a city that enjoys a standard of living and freedom better than any other in the country.
But they cannot crack down on protests here as they do in other cities – the economic interests of China in Hong Kong, including its big state companies and banks, its rich class and the families and associates of the leaders themselves, are too large, not to speak of Hong Kong’s status as China’s only international city.
These factors will continue to restrain Beijing. So the next year will see a continuation of the political deadlock. The “goat” democrats and their supporters will continue to look for weaknesses in the fence.
Beijing is also disappointed that, in the social as well as in the political domain, Hong Kong remains distinct from and often hostile to the mainland. In 2014, a record 47.2 million mainlanders visited the city, an increase of 16 percent over the year before. In 2013, the number of Hong Kong women who married mainland men rose to a record 13.7 per cent of all marriages, a nearly six-fold rise from 1991.
But, far from improving person-to-person relations, this flood of visitors has for many people had the opposite effect – especially those who live close to the border and have to compete with traders who buy large amounts of cosmetics, milk powder and other daily necessities. The Immigration Department announced this month that, since September 2012, it had arrested 1,833 mainlanders for illegal trading.
For Beijing, the situation is much better with its “sheep” Macau, where Chui Sai On was re-elected Chief Executive last August through 380 of the 396 votes cast in a 400-member electoral college. The city is cooperating fully with Beijing’s financial authorities and the Ministry of Public Security in the pursuit of illegal money bets in Macau, despite the devastating impact on the casino industry.
Another part of the flock, Taiwan, is a “goat”, not a “sheep”. The situation is comparable to that in Hong Kong, with the added complication that direct elections allow the island’s people to express their views directly and regularly on China policy.
The heavy defeat of the Kuomintang in city and county elections last November was due in part to President Ma Ying-jeou’s opening up to the mainland and his dependence on the large business conglomerates that have been the biggest beneficiaries of it. Other major issues were a widening wealth gap and the soaring cost of urban housing, as in Hong Kong.
The sixth election for President of Taiwan will be held in the Year of the Sheep; everyone expects Tsai Ying-wen to win, becoming only the second candidate of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the first lady to hold the top post – another troublesome “goat” for Beijing to deal with.
So Xi’s advisers would be wise to tell their boss to cancel the visit to the temple and not waste his money on the joss sticks and the soothsayer. That way they can keep him in better humor.
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