21 July 2019
Last month, China’s No. 3 state leader Zhang Dejiang sternly warned Hong Kong not to challenge the central government’s authority over us. Photo
Last month, China’s No. 3 state leader Zhang Dejiang sternly warned Hong Kong not to challenge the central government’s authority over us. Photo

Is Beijing tightening its grip on HK 20 years after handover?

When a reminder turns into a stark warning, we should worry and ask why. When a political demand becomes an intransigent bottom line, we should also worry and ask why. Both these things happened last month, one after another, but instead of worrying and asking why, we treated them as just another day in our politics and paid little heed.

Last month, China’s No. 3 state leader Zhang Dejiang sternly warned Hong Kong not to challenge the central government’s authority over us. He used stark language to spell out Beijing’s definition of a high degree of autonomy for Hong Kong.

Speaking in the Great Hall of the People on the approaching July 1 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s reunification with China, Zhang said Beijing would provide clear details of its definition of sovereignty over us.

He particularly pointed out key areas such Beijing’s authority over the chief executive, political reforms, and the hiring and firing of top officials. He even described the chief executive as the core leader of Hong Kong, sending the strongest message yet that the executive branch rules us with no separation of powers.

Why did Zhang use such tough language so close to the handover’s 20th anniversary? Some local political analysts downplayed his comments by saying they were nothing new. Yes, they were nothing new if delivered in the tone of a reminder. We have heard such reminders before from state leaders and mainland officials and academics. But Zhang’s comments did not have the tone of a routine reminder. It clearly sounded like a warning. If it was just another reminder, he would not have added that Beijing would soon provide further details.

By saying further details would be forthcoming, he sent the unmistakable message that Beijing would lay out in the clearest language yet its interpretation of what sovereignty means and that it expected Hong Kong to abide by the central government’s non-negotiable definition. Who will spell out these further details? Will Beijing provide these details to coincide with the 20th anniversary? If yes, how will that affect political sentiment in Hong Kong? We can only wait and see.

Three days after Zhang’s provocative speech, the Civic Party met with Chief Executive-elect Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, another event we should have paid more attention to but didn’t. Party leaders presented Lam with a list of demands they wanted her to meet during her first 100 days in office. The media treated the Civic Party’s demands as nothing new.

Yes, it would have been nothing new had the demands not clashed directly with Zhang’s definition of a high degree of autonomy spelled out just three days earlier. Party leaders left no doubt that the opposition’s cooperation with Lam’s incoming administration depended on her meeting those demands. Key demands included not reappointing unpopular officials such as Financial Secretary Paul Chan Mo-po, re-starting political reforms, and ordering Beijing’s liaison office not to meddle in local affairs. The demand list reads like a bottom line for the opposition.

I am not sure if the Civic Party paid any serious attention or even cared about Zhang’s speech. Either way, the two events put into sharp focus why there is such a huge divide in the way the central government and the opposition interpret the meaning of a high degree of autonomy under “one country, two systems”.

Zhang had made crystal clear that sovereignty means Beijing had authority over the chief executive, when to re-start political reforms, and the hiring of top officials. The Civic Party’s demand list assumes that a high degree of autonomy under “one country, two systems” allows the chief executive to decide when to restart reforms and who to hire as top officials without Beijing’s input.

What will the Civic Party do if Lam doesn’t meet its demands within 100 days after taking office? It is next to impossible that Lam will indicate a re-starting of political reforms, order the Liaison Office to shut up, and ditch Paul Chan as financial secretary when she becomes chief executive. All that the Civic Party can do then is to stick to its old playbook of opposing the administration and giving Chan a hard time.

All indications are that Beijing considers Chan trustworthy and patriotic and wants him to remain as financial secretary. As Zhang pointed out, Beijing decides who to hire and fire. Chan’s crime in the eyes of the opposition is that back in 1994, well before he became a government minister, he and his wife had shares in a company that bought flats and then subdivided them to rent out.

His other supposed crime was that in 1994 he and his wife bought New Territories land which, in 2012, was included in a government new town plan when he was development secretary. He informed Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying and the Executive Council of his land and his wife then sold it. But in the eyes of the opposition, those were unforgivable crimes.

I am sure mainland officials privately draw comparisons of what the opposition considers crimes and what it does not. For example, they will not have failed to notice how the opposition endlessly crucifies Chan yet protects ousted legislators Yau Wai-ching and Sixtus Baggio Leung Chung-hang despite their foul-mouthed mocking of China during their swearing-in as legislators. To mainland officials, the behavior of Yau and Leung are far worse crimes than Chan’s property dealings.

Many people believe Zhang’s speech is a prelude to Beijing tightening its grip on Hong Kong. I believe that too. Tightening its grip does not necessarily mean Beijing will take a more hardline attitude towards us. What it means is Beijing will interpret a high degree of autonomy under “one country, two systems” in a stricter way.

The central government previously interpreted it in a more relaxed way. But after Occupy Central, the growth of the independence and self-determination movements, and the opposition’s defiance of Beijing by supporting John Tsang Chun-wah instead of Carrie Lam in the recent chief executive election, the central government has concluded it must now stick strictly to its own definition of what a high degree of autonomy means.

Will Beijing’s tightening grip give birth to even more defiance by a section of the Hong Kong public which wants to interpret autonomy differently? Will that defiance cause Beijing to tighten its grip even further? Are we trapped in a never-ending cycle of increasing confrontation? I hope not but only time can tell.

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A Hong Kong-born American citizen who has worked for many years as a journalist in Hong Kong, the USA and London.

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