18 February 2019
Hong Kong's accelerating political transformation may suggest a dim outlook, yet there remain a few glimmers of hope. Photo: HKEJ
Hong Kong's accelerating political transformation may suggest a dim outlook, yet there remain a few glimmers of hope. Photo: HKEJ

How Hong Kong has changed and why I’m still optimistic

Hong Kong has changed a lot in the past three years, so much so that even scientists — who normally stay inside the ivory tower and their laboratories concentrating on experiments — feel that the conflicts between one country and two systems have become irreconcilable now that the “delicate equilibrium” has been lost, as noted by Yuen Kwok-yung, professor in infectious diseases at the University of Hong Kong.

Yuen, a hero in the fight against the SARS outbreak in 2003, resigned from HKU’s council last week.

The fact is that after 15 years of adaptation by Hongkongers to the new political order, aligned with other “endeavors” by the ruling class, Beijing concluded that Hong Kong’s genuine return to China can and should be fully effectuated.

With all this preparation, Leung Chun-ying’s taking office as chief executive in 2012 was a crucial push toward this ultimate goal.

Now the “new normal” is here, and it has several defining characteristics:

1. A governing team replaced by a team of “bruisers”

Apart from Leung himself, top ministers, Executive Council members and the chief government spokesman are virtually all belligerent figures either in personality or political stance, and their words or even body language can ignite bitter discord.

Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, known earlier for her bravura in handling tricky issues, has become a dove within the Leung administration, especially compared with the hawkish Arthur Li Kwok-cheung and Secretary for Justice Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung.

2. The “second team of administrators” has taken to the stage

In 2008, Cao Erbao, chief of the comprehensive affairs working division of the Liaison Office of the Central People’s Government in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, noted explicitly in a paper that the office should act as Hong Kong’s “second team of administrators”, a prelude to mainland cadres’ stepped-up meddling in local governance.

In 2012, Cao lashed out at Gabriel Matthew Leung Cheuk-wai, then director of the chief executive’s office, for his tardy response in stopping a Legislative Council motion under the Powers and Privileges Ordinance to look into Leung Chun-ying’s suspected conflict of interest when he was sitting on a panel to select the master plan for the West Kowloon Cultural District.

The motion was subsequently withdrawn.

Now we know that without Cao and the liaison office, CY Leung wouldn’t have been able to get off so neatly.

For sure, he must requite his mainland bosses.

The office’s intervention can be seen on three levels: appointment and removal of principal officials and key public service officers, election of pro-establishment lawmakers and coordination of their voting, and community networking and district work for pro-government parties and groups.

3. Public sentiment means nothing to the authorities

Beijing and local officials were basically prudent in their words and behavior in the early days of the SAR, as the world was watching how China would honor its pledge of high autonomy for Hong Kong.

At that time, public opinion could somehow bind the government.

One example was in 2000, when the HKU council set up an independent inquiry panel to look into alleged government interference with the work of the university’s pollsters.

Andrew Lo Cheung-on, an aide to then chief executive Tung Chee-hwa, who was involved in the scandal, had to attend hearings when he was called.

If such an incident were to happen today, I wonder if the HKU council would dare set up an investigation, given the current political climate.

Even if it were to do so, the Leung administration would only sniff at a request to attend a hearing.

The government is now simply impervious to media, polls or protests and has become well-set in its obstinacy.

4. A tyrannical government conniving with violence from outside

Onerous systems and rules inherited from the colonial times — like those regulating broadcasting, public assembly, university governance and so on — are convenient vehicles to dismiss and grind down objections.

The government has also shown thinly disguised complicity with radical pro-government groups, like when anti-Occupy activists wearing blue ribbons harassed and attacked pro-democracy students.

Then comes the “tyranny of the system”, including violence by the police, arrests, politically motivated prosecutions and the like.

One shining example is a recent preposterous assault conviction against a female protester for attacking a police officer with her breasts.

So, what comes next?

I’d like to focus on two changes that are already underway: the emergence of ultra-moderates within the pan-democratic bloc, as well as the perceived increase in the number of senior voters.

Represented by Ronny Tong Ka-wah, who just quit his membership in the Civic Party, the ultra-moderates are being associated with the cracks within the pan-democratic camp, but I see their emergence as a normal development rather than a rebellion, as the camp needs to accommodate and incorporate views and approaches that span a wide spectrum.

Various assertions have been mushrooming since the end of the Occupy movement, after the old strategies led us down many empty roads.

Some theories can be rather aggressive, and a few democrats find it hard to endorse them.

But, had it not been for the advent of the new faction of ultra-moderates, I fear some of the moderate pan-democrats might have already defected to the pro-establishment side.

Can the increase in senior voters become a big impediment?

Media reports say 37,000 residents aged between 18 and 30 have registered as voters so far this year, while the corresponding figure in the age range of 50 or above is 120,000.

The common view is that while youngsters are more inclined to democracy, advancing years may be synonymous with increasing conservatism.

Yet from a more dynamic perspective, my conclusion is the opposite.

In a period of 10 years in which today’s fortysomething voters turn 50, if these people are advocates of democracy in the first place, I see no reason that they will change their stance simply because they are reach that chronological milestone.

Age does not necessarily determine political attitude.

Given time, we will see that voters aged 50 or above will become more liberal as more people enter the age group, and the trend will be further expedited by the natural passing away of older voters.

Time is on the side of democrats.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on July 30.

Translation by Frank Chen

[Chinese version 中文版]

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A statue of the Goddess of Democracy is placed outside Beijing’s liaison office in Sai Wan. Photo: Internet

Liaison office chief Zhang Xiaoming, who doesn’t speak Cantonese, has been mockingly dubbed the Communist Party secretary for Hong Kong. Photo: Internet

Former full-time member of the Hong Kong Government’s Central Policy Unit, former editor-in-chief of the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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