Hong Kong’s worst political crisis since 1997 has revealed the fault lines in the communications between the SAR government and its masters in Beijing.
Under the “one country, two systems”, Beijing has given the chief executive wide autonomy, subject to broad policy guidelines. It uses two agencies, the Central Liaison Office and the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, to hand down those guidelines and ensure they are adhered to. These two also talk regularly to the Hong Kong representatives of the National People’s Congress and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Congress and the Beijing-backed Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong party.
So the political elite knows well Beijing’s agenda and red lines. It must not allow calls for independence or anything that touches on national security or sovereignty. It must fully support national initiatives such as the “One Belt One Road” and “Greater Bay Area”. This Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has done.
But Lam’s initiative in introducing the extradition bill in a sensitive local and international setting put this well-established arrangement into disarray.
With 40 years of policy experience in government – more than her three predecessors – Lam believed she could draw up the bill and get it through the Legislative Council. It was widely seen as her attempt to win more points from Beijing.
She was emboldened by her success in passing other controversial bills – the local branch of the Palace Museum and the mainland immigration area of the high-speed railway. The giant East Lantau Metropolis is also her own initiative. All faced fierce local opposition.
Lam’s assertive stance came at a time when Beijing’s Liaison Office dealing with Hong Kong has been weakened by corruption scandals. In October last year, Li Gang, head of the Liaison Office in Macau, fell to his death from his home, the day before President Xi Jinping arrived in Zhuhai to open a giant bridge. Many believe Li took his own life to avoid being arrested for corruption.
In January 2018, Beijing announced the dismissal of two deputy directors of the Liaison Office in Hong Kong. It gave no reason.
With the cloud of more purges hanging over it, the office has been more reticent than before in speaking on Hong Kong policy. Also it is under constant scrutiny by democratic forces ready to accuse it of interference.
All this gave Lam a freer hand. She did not consult opposition groups or parties over the extradition bill. Nor did she consult the pro-Beijing business community. If she had, she would have learned the depth of the fear caused by her proposal; it makes business people vulnerable to charges of accounting fraud, bribery or malpractices committed by their mainland partners, present or past.
Beijing wanted the extradition of people like Xiao Jianhua, the financier abducted at the Four Seasons Hotel and taken to the mainland in early 2017 – people it believes are involved in corruption or illegal transfer of money out of the mainland. But an extradition bill such as Lam initiated was not its priority. It did not send a strong public signal of support when she launched the bill.
Confident in her authority and moral righteousness and sure of her majority in Legco, Lam pushed the bill through without the public consultation normally given to a measure of this importance nor the detailed study by the pertinent Legco committee.
Her guess was probably that anything that made it easier for China to control Hong Kong could not go wrong in Beijing.
It provoked a torrent of public opposition not seen in the city since 1997.
All this reveals the fault lines in the dynamics and communications between the different power groups in Hong Kong and Beijing. Their interactions are largely secret, like the policy debates and discussions within the Communist Party.
The clearest form of instruction from Beijing comes when senior officials go to Shenzhen and meet Hong Kong officials in person. This happened on June 14, when Vice Premier and Politburo Standing Committee member Han Zheng met Lam and her senior officials and ordered her to suspend the bill because of the intense and enormous opposition.
But Han did not authorize her to withdraw it completely, as the protestors are demanding. For Beijing, as for her, this would be too great a loss of face. How could the world’s second-largest economy make such a concession to public opinion?
Now Lam must rebuild her ties with her pro-Beijing allies in Hong Kong. They are angry that she launched the bill without consulting them; persuaded them to throw their support behind it; and now they face the rage of the public, which will be reflected in the elections this year and next.
Lam will also need to learn to better second-guess Beijing and back off when the interests of China can no longer be met.
And will Beijing decide that it needs a more efficient form of management to ensure that its wishes are implemented in Hong Kong and such a public relations disaster does not happen again?
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