Beijing changes tune but it's not what you think

August 24, 2016 13:09
Activists wave British colonial flags outside Beijing's Liaison Office in Hong Kong. Political vetting has disqualified key pro-independence candidates from the Sept. 4 Legco elections. Photo: Internet

China’s top legislator, Zhang Dejiang, announced a shift in Beijing's policy on Hong Kong during a high-profile visit in June.

The message from the central government: pan-democrats were now part of the patriotic coalition in the establishment camp.

Subsequent developments reaffirmed the policy tweak.

In a recent interview, Wang Guangya, chief of the State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, said the central government has long acknowledged the patriotism of Hong Kong people and their support for a return to Chinese rule and for “one country, two systems”.

“We try to listen and befriend people from across the spectrum," he said. "It's perfectly normal to have different views or political ideologies in a pluralistic society like Hong Kong."

Wang’s conciliatory remarks were late but better than never.

There would have been no pent-up grievances or calls for Hong Kong independence had Beijing adopted a pragmatic mindset at the outset.

As for the pan-dems, their response has been largely positive. 

Beijing’s plan to win pan-democrats over has run up against a nascent pro-independence movement.

Beijing Liaison Office Director Zhang Xiaoming quickly struck a contrast between pan-democrats and separatists.

Zhang told a public forum that calls for independence, even a mere discussion, would bring a calamity.

He said separatists must not be allowed to run in the Sept. 4 Legislative Council elections.

That was followed by a requirement by the Electoral Affiars Commission that candidates pledge allegiance to the Basic Law and recognize Chinese sovereignty over Hong Kong.

The requirement was intended to weed out pro-independence hopefuls. Others not branded as localist, indigenous or secessionist got the green light to run for election.

Edward Leung, who won 60,000 votes in a by-election in February, has been barred from running even though he signed the pledge.

The returning officer came under fire for her decision to block Leung which was seen as political vetting purely based on a judgment call.

Meanwhile the government has not bothered to bar other separatists. Why?

Unlike Leung, others are considered also-rans and could in fact help corner votes meant for mainstream pan-democrats.

With the move, the government set a dangerous precedent. Its supposed political neutrality has been compromised, like that of the returning officer.

The judiciary -- and our very own judicial independence -- could be targeted if it rules in favor of some candidates who have been disqualified.

The question is whether Beijing knows what is fueling separatist sentiment in Hong Kong.

Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig’s book, The Right to Heresy, is about how French theologian John Calvin wanted to “transform a whole state, whose numerous burghers had hitherto been freemen, into a rigidly obedient machine” during the Protestant Reformation in sixth century Europe.

Are we seeing shades of Calvinism here?

This is article was excerpted from two separate columns that appeared on the Hong Kong Economic Journal website on Aug. 11 and 18.

Translation by Frank Chen

[Chinese version 1, 2 中文版]

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Senior journalist with The Straits Times and political commentator