22 February 2019
Wang Zhenmin, the legal chief of the central government's liaison office, warns that the push for greater democracy ahead of economic development could lead to political instability. Photos: Bloomberg, HKEJ
Wang Zhenmin, the legal chief of the central government's liaison office, warns that the push for greater democracy ahead of economic development could lead to political instability. Photos: Bloomberg, HKEJ

Why Beijing insists on stalling Hong Kong political reform

As Hong Kong celebrates the 20th anniversary of its establishment as a special administrative region of the People’s Republic of China, central authorities are tightening their grip on the territory.

Beijing is laying out a roadmap for Hong Kong’s development, incorporating the city into its broader macroeconomic plan while setting aside plans for political reform that would enable the people to choose their own leader.

Over the weekend, Wang Zhenmin, the legal chief of the central government’s liaison office, told an academic conference in Beijing that Hong Kong cannot afford to dedicate energy to political reform in the next five to 10 years, stressing that the city should instead focus on housing, people’s livelihood and economic development.

Wang also warned that pushing for universal suffrage ahead of these economic issues could lead to political instability, such as what happened to some Middle East countries, which now have been wracked by civil wars.

Former Legislative Council president Tsang Yok-sing, who attended the conference, agreed with Wang’s views.

He said failed efforts at political reform had wasted a lot of resources, and the government should only move for universal suffrage when the right conditions arise.

It seems that Beijing has yet to recover from the defeat of its political reform proposal for the 2017 chief executive election, which had sought to grant Hong Kong people universal suffrage with a tight nominating procedure.

Many were able to see through the proposal and realize that it would perpetuate a system that ensures only a Beijing loyalist would win the top post.

They had proposed civic nominations to prevent the pro-establishment camp from controlling the nominating process.

But Beijing did not listen, and the political reform plan was defeated at the Legislative Council.

Over the past few years, the central authorities did not even bother to hide their desire to interfere in the city’s affairs, even in the aspect of economic development. The reason is simple – they want to benefit from the city’s economic progress.

That’s the reason why Chinese investors are snapping up Hong Kong-listed Chinese stocks and mainland developers are clobbering local rivals in land auctions with outrageously high bids.

Beijing understands that Hong Kong people will not fight for more political rights if they are satisfied with their incomes.

Right now, everybody is happy. The rising trend of share and home prices is boosting the paper profits of local stock and property investors.

And so Beijing continues to stimulate Hong Kong’s craving for more money. Its latest attempt is to dangle the Greater Bay Area plan, which seeks to integrate the development of Hong Kong, Guangdong and Macau.

These money-driven policies may be enticing to the city’s elite and the middle class, who have stocks and property investments to play with, but they won’t work for the city’s disenchanted youth, who see nothing to gain from these grand schemes.

They have nothing to lose, yes, except their dignity if they do not fight for the freedoms that they used to enjoy before the handover of sovereignty 20 years ago.

They know how Beijing suppresses the freedom of speech and expression in the mainland, and they have witnessed how it has meddled in Hong Kong’s internal affairs, breaching its “one country, two systems” commitment.

So money is not enough to win the support of all Hong Kong people.

The youth do not oppose Chinese rule, but they insist on the freedoms and autonomy guaranteed under the Basic Law.

If Beijing just focuses on integrating Hong Kong into China, it would be better to cancel the “one country, two systems” principle and turn Hong Kong into an ordinary mainland city.

When Carrie Lam won the chief executive election last month, obtaining 777 votes from the election committee, many democrats urged her to reopen political reform talks in a bid to normalize the relationship between Hong Kong and Beijing.

Sadly, Lam could not go against the wishes of her benefactors. Even Beijing loyalist Lau Nai-keung believes that Lam could not have won the election without the backing of the Liaison Office.

Beijing’s top leaders may choose to ignore the urgent need for Hong Kong’s political development. But they must be prepared to reap the whirlwind.

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EJ Insight writer

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