Hints of (positive) shifts in Beijing policy toward Hong Kong

September 10, 2015 12:28
Leung Chun-ying is now caught in crossfire between the leftist camp and the business sector.  Photo: internet

The State Council’s white paper on “one country, two systems” in June 2014 was Beijing’s proclamation of a paradigm shift in its policies toward Hong Kong.

In a nutshell, the document redefined the constitutional framework for Hong Kong: the central government exercises overall jurisdiction over the special administrative region, and all Hongkongers must love the country, including judges of the courts at different levels and other judicial personnel.

Beijing’s own version of “universal suffrage” involving vetting of candidates before a popular vote is merely a faithful implementation of the white paper.

Now that it has imposed this political framework on Hong Kong, the central government has given priority to political docility and patriotism.

Still, recent developments suggest Beijing could be making major adjustments to its Hong Kong policy.

The first such hint is the repercussions of Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying’s callous sacking of home affairs minister Tsang Tak-shing in July.

A spirited rebuke from Tsang’s older brother, Legislative Council president Jasper Tsang Yok-sing, wasn't a surprise, but what is worth noting is recent comments from Ng Hong-mun, a local leftist guru.

Ng sent out some blunt messages during a recent interview: Leung’s governance is a failure, as he was unable to unite his cabinet members and the civil servants, and his abrupt personnel reshuffle was unwise, as the replacements were “no better than those ousted”.

While ostensibly refusing to comment on Leung’s bid for re-election, Ng did suggest it would be advisable for a civil servant to be Hong Kong’s next top leader, and he named Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah when asked who would be a promising candidate.

I don’t think Ng’s words will pull any weight when Beijing handpicks the next chief executive, but Ng, a patriarch of the leftist community, has cast a vote of non-confidence against Leung, something Beijing has to take into account.

If Beijing wants Hong Kong to be a little more harmonious and governable in the coming years, then Leung can hardly keep his job safe, with his only virtue being that of allegiance to his mainland masters.

The fact is that, if Beijing still rated loyalty above all other criteria and wanted Leung to stay, veteran leftists like Ng would never have said a harsh word against Leung.

Another hint is from the Liberal Party.

There has been a keen debate between Leung and Felix Chung Kwok-pan, the party's chairman, over positive non-interventionism following Leung’s reiteration that he favors a more proactive approach from the government.

Chung, who must thank Leung for making him better known, said Leung’s “appropriately proactive approach” is just a fancy term for government intervention in the economy.

What is even more interesting is Leung’s humble attitude, something rarely seen: he said in his article that the government looks forward to receiving “advice and guidance” in economic affairs from all sectors.

This gesture can be a sign that Leung is aware that Beijing’s focus is back on economic development.

Now Leung is caught in crossfire between the leftist camp and the business sector.

Given his desire for a second term, he must be scheming to get rid of foes and potential rivals.

But to Beijing, already preoccupied by economic and stability woes at home, will have to weigh the cost of fresh strife and alienation stirred up by a bid for re-election by Leung.

So here comes the third hint, the surprise meeting between a senior Beijing cadre and the Democratic Party.

One fact tells us all about the meeting earlier this month between Feng Wei (馮巍), deputy director of the State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, and senior Democrats: the party initially wanted Hong Kong government officials to be present, yet the discussion turned out to be a bilateral one.

The government only issued a vague statement later, saying it was aware of Feng’s visit.

The only sensible interpretation here is that Beijing “barred” Hong Kong officials and wanted to meet the Democrats only.

If similar meetings occur in the future, Leung's government could be brushed aside again.

You may say Beijing is no longer shy about exercising its “overall jurisdiction” and that Hong Kong’s nominal autonomy is now shattered, but Beijing’s decision to hold a bilateral meeting may also be because it wants direct communication with pan-democrats, not filtered by its stooges, who may lie about the actual situation on the ground.

Given all this, Beijing may be adjusting its hardline approach of the past two years.

It has to assess whether Leung is more of a hindrance than a help, and it also needs to restore dialogue with the pan-democratic camp.

More hints will come from how the saga of the University of Hong Kong council's stonewalling of the appointment of a pro vice chancellor will be brought to an end.

I hope the result can be positive, too.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Sep. 3.

Translation by Frank Chen

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Former Secretary for the Civil Service of the Hong Kong Government