22 February 2019
Beijing has made some friendly gestures toward Hong Kong's pan-democrats as it wants to focus its energies on Taiwan. Photo: Reuters
Beijing has made some friendly gestures toward Hong Kong's pan-democrats as it wants to focus its energies on Taiwan. Photo: Reuters

Why Beijing can’t afford to get bogged down with Hong Kong

After suffering many setbacks, Hong Kong’s pan-democrats finally seem to have found some reason for cheer.

First there came the news that Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying will not be seeking a second term. For the past four years, the pan-democrats have been battling for the removal of Leung, or at least prevent him from securing another five years in office. All of a sudden, the goal has been achieved.

Next, there was good news from the Election Committee contest as the pan-democrats snapped up an unprecedented 325 seats, giving them substantial leverage on the candidates for the 2017 CE battle.

The pan-democrats can achieve a lot of things with the 325 seats in their possession.

For example, they can demand that all candidates pledge to re-launch political reforms consultation once they are elected.

They can also seek commitments against enacting Article 23 of the Basic Law, halt an ongoing legal challenge against four localist lawmakers, and ensure that two Youngspiration activists won’t be deprived of their right to stand in Legco by-elections.

Unfortunately, the reality is that even though the pan-democrats are absolutely capable of raising those demands with their 325 votes in the Election Committee, they are unlikely to do so.

It is because such demands are likely to pose a lot of problems or even embarrassment for John Tsang, the pan-democrats’ favorite for Hong Kong’s top job next year.

If Tsang wants to gain Beijing’s trust and win the election, he cannot agree to those demands.

While the pan-democrats and their mouthpieces are claiming all the credit for achieving “ABC” (short of “Anyone But CY”), I feel the localist and pro-independence groups in Hong Kong must ensure that they don’t misread the clues as to Beijing’s true intentions.

In fact, Beijing’s ditching of CY Leung and extension of an olive branch to pan-democratic old-timers, through the lifting mainland travel curbs, is anything but good news for the localist and pro-independence factions.

It is because there could be a more sinister and cold logic behind Beijing’s friendly gestures.

Apparently, Beijing is trying to isolate and close in on the localist and pro-independence groups in Hong Kong by forming a united front against them. The old-school pan-democrats are obviously among those whom Beijing is working aggressively to win over.

Apart from trying to form a united front against “secessionists” in the city, if we look at what’s been going on in Hong Kong in its international context, it is not difficult to understand why Beijing is suddenly reaching out to the pan-democrats and seeking reconciliation.

It is because it now has a bigger problem to deal with, i.e. the separatist movement in Taiwan, which has got a new lease of life after US president-elect Donald Trump took a phone call from Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen after his election victory.

To Beijing, the resurrection of the Taiwan separatist movement is a much more imminent threat.

It is because while Beijing can call in the PLA, in the worst case scenario, to suppress separatist movement in Hong Kong, there is nothing much it can do to halt the rise of separatism in Taiwan.

The Republic of China is an independent political entity that has a lot of room for maneuver on the international scene. And there are several powerful politicians in the US who are sympathetic toward Taiwan’s pro-independence cause.

As such, Beijing has to avoid fighting on two fronts and focus its energy on containing the rise of separatism in Taiwan.

It is in this context that we should view the mainland’s recent gestures such as barring CY Leung from seeking a second term and opting for some reconciliation with the pan-democrats.

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

Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

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HKEJ columnist

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