26 March 2019
NPC chairman Zhang Dejiang (middle) says the Mong Kok violence is "not a grave issue", contradicting Leung Chun-ying's government which calls it a riot. Photo: Xinhua
NPC chairman Zhang Dejiang (middle) says the Mong Kok violence is "not a grave issue", contradicting Leung Chun-ying's government which calls it a riot. Photo: Xinhua

Why Leung must be feeling isolated from Beijing

Top Chinese leaders have been weighing in on the recent Mong Kok clashes, using the ongoing sessions of the National People’s Congress (NPC) to speak their minds.

They have expressed alarm over the violence but have been less willing to go beyond that, certainly not to the extent Leung Chun-ying and his government went in quickly describing it as a riot.

In fact, the communist leadership is trying to downplay the incident.

By contrast, the party’s top official in Hong Kong, Zhang Xiaoming (張曉明), called it “one step away from secession” and warned that separatist groups might foment terrorism.

In Beijing, NPC chairman Zhang Dejiang (張德江) and Hong Kong and Macau affairs office chief Wang Guangya (王光亞) said there will be no policy change in the wake of the clashes.

Beijing’s softer stance is baffling its Hong Kong surrogates. They don’t know which line to follow.

But there has been a precedent.

Earlier this year, in the wake of Tsai Ing-wen’s victory in Taiwan’s presidential election, Beijing dialled back its rhetoric over its one-China policy after President Xi Jinping (習近平) had warned that Taipei risked political tensions if it repudiates the “1992 consensus”, the informal agreement that is the basis of that doctrine.

Beijing is dumbfounded by the strength and scope of nascent opposition forces in Taiwan and Hong Kong — the former with its Sunflower student movement and the latter with the so-called “fishball revolution”.

But why should these be of such concern?

Beijing has been trying to reshape Taiwan and Hong Kong into hybrid societies in which it could tolerate some degree of freedom in some areas — notably the economy — but command complete subservience in others.

A crackdown on democratic movements and separatists is too risky for Beijing. These determined opposition forces have nothing to lose.

Besides, Beijing already has too many things to worry about, from its ailing economy to growing opposition to its island building in the South China Sea.

But officials know they have to nip separatism in the bud.

A low-key approach is better than nothing if they want to stop the separatist unrest in Xinjiang or the challenge to central government rule in Tibet from spreading across the country

In Hong Kong, Leung is not helping change people’s strong feelings toward Taiwan.

A survey by the University of Hong Kong shows that more than one in three Hongkongers think Taiwan should work toward formal independence.

And slowly, some of Leung’s pro-establishment allies are turning on him.

New People’s Party legislator Michael Tien, a Hong Kong deputy to the NPC, told his Beijing bosses that Leung’s governance had something to do with the Mong Kok clashes.

He warned that dissent will intensify if the government remains obstinate.

Hong Kong is a free society with a highly developed economy and its people will not bow to the likes of Leung, Tien said.

Tien might have sensed the wind in his back when he made those comments, aware of Beijing’s apparent softening.

But not very long ago, his party’s leader, Regina Ip, denounced the Mong Kok “mobs” and said they must be tried and severely punished.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on March 10.

Translation by Frank Chen

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Leung Chun-ying (left) attends the opening ceremony of the NPC annual session in Beijing. Some members of the pro-Beijing camp are blaming him for intensifying dissent. Photo: Xinhua

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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