19 November 2019
The new seating arrangements during Leung Chun-ying's duty visit to Beijing indicate that Beijing wanted to emphasize Hong Kong's subordination to the central authorities. Photo: Xinhua
The new seating arrangements during Leung Chun-ying's duty visit to Beijing indicate that Beijing wanted to emphasize Hong Kong's subordination to the central authorities. Photo: Xinhua

The three dark clouds hanging over our city

Three incidents took place at the end of 2015 that signaled the decay of “one country, two systems”.

The first was the atypical treatment of Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying during his duty trip to Beijing; the second was the naming of Arthur Li Kwok-cheung as the new chairman of the University of Hong Kong council; and the third was the dramatic disappearance of Lee Bo, a key member of a publishing firm specializing in books that purport to unveil political and personal secrets about Chinese Communist Party leaders.

They are like three dark clouds hanging over our city.

The reason why these three incidents have raised grave public concern is because they pose a threat to “one country, two systems”, “Hong Kong people running Hong Kong” and “a high degree of autonomy” — the three principles that form the pillars of the Basic Law and provide the constitutional grounds for the civil rights to which every Hongkonger is entitled.

It’s been almost 18 years since Hong Kong was returned to China, yet much to the dismay of Beijing, not only do many Hongkongers, especially those of the younger generation, still resist their Chinese identity, but nativist sentiment is also gathering momentum quickly among the public, particularly after the Occupy movement in 2014.

The continued defiance demonstrated by the people of Hong Kong has obviously ruffled the feathers of our top leaders in Beijing.

To put the people of Hong Kong in their place and remind us who is really the boss here, during their meetings with Leung in Beijing, President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang were seated at the head of a long conference table, with Leung placed at one side.

It was a stark contrast to the previous seating arrangement, in which Hong Kong’s chief executive would always sit side by side with our top leaders, giving an impression of equal footing.

The message sent by this seating change could not have been clearer: Hong Kong is subordinate to China, and “two systems” should always take a backseat to “one country”.

In the second case, given that Beijing has been actively intervening in Hong Kong affairs ever since Leung took office, it is hardly imaginable that the central government didn’t weigh in at all on such a high-profile issue as the appointment of Li as the new chairman of the HKU council.

The fact that Beijing still gave Leung the green light to press ahead with the appointment regardless of fierce opposition from HKU staff, students and alumni indicates that the central government has decided that its authority and prestige will take priority over social harmony when it comes to Hong Kong affairs, and that under no circumstances will Beijing tolerate any challenge to its power nor relent in the face of public pressure.

Last but not least, the sudden disappearance of Lee and his alleged abduction by mainland law enforcement agents within Hong Kong’s territory have probably dealt the heaviest blow to our confidence in “one country, two systems” in the history of the Special Administrative Region.

Even though there is yet to be any conclusive evidence proving that cross-border law enforcement by mainland authorities actually happened in this case, the saga of Lee’s mysterious disappearance is going to haunt the public for years.

With three dark clouds hanging over our heads, what should the people of Hong Kong do in response?

First, I believe we must avoid oversimplifying the problems we are facing by blaming our current political predicament solely on Leung, because what he is doing is just carrying out Beijing’s orders, and it is our top leaders in Beijing, not Leung himself, who have the final word on important issues regarding our city.

Secondly, we don’t necessarily have to live with or get used to the unjust decisions imposed on us by the authorities in Beijing, because the “might is right” doctrine doesn’t apply to places like Hong Kong governed by the rule of law.

In the case of Li’s appointment, for example, HKU students and alumni or even the public can continue to exercise their oversight powers to keep an eye on him.

If there are signs that he might be infringing the academic freedom and autonomy of HKU using his power as council chairman, there are still a lot of actions within the law that we can take to stop him.

Lastly, I hope more people, especially our younger generation, will exercise their right to vote in the upcoming Legislative Council election, to make our voices heard on the future of this city, because no government, whether or not it is elected through a democratic process, can afford to ignore the strong opinions of the public in the long run without having to pay a heavy political price.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Jan. 6.

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Former Secretary for the Civil Service of the Hong Kong Government