Localists’ arrival brings silver lining

September 12, 2016 13:15
Frustration about Beijing’s increasing intervention is what led to the triumph of localists such as Youngspiration’s Baggio Leung Chung-hang in the election. Photo: Reuters

Reverberations from last week’s election continue to be felt as the former British colony enters a new historical phase with a changed political landscape.

Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying extended an olive branch but some new lawmakers indicated little interest in meeting him or in a group visit to the mainland.

One lawmaker, Eddie Chu Hoi-dick, the biggest vote-getter, sought and obtained police protection for himself and his family, and is talking about moving into the legislature building itself.

The Chinese government appears mystified that some localist candidates who support Hong Kong independence won by wide margins. After all, everyone knows that independence is not realistic.

For one thing, Beijing won’t allow it and, for another, Hong Kong depends on the mainland for basic necessities, such as drinking water and food.

So, why this widespread support for an idea that is a nonstarter?

In a word, it’s frustration. People in Hong Kong are frustrated, almost desperate.

They feel that they have been deceived by China, which promised Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy under the concept “one country, two systems” but is now increasingly tightening its control.

When Britain and China reached agreement in 1984, China declared: “The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region will be directly under the authority of the Central People’s Government of the People’s Republic of China. The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region will enjoy a high degree of autonomy, except in foreign and defence affairs which are the responsibilities of the Central People’s Government.”

That sounded close to full autonomy.

“One country, two systems” was the brainchild of Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping. The main idea was that after the resumption of Chinese sovereignty in 1997, the mainland would continue to practice socialism while Hong Kong would retain its capitalist system and lifestyle.

While the Basic Law, adopted by the Chinese parliament, stipulates that “the previous capitalist system and way of life shall remain unchanged for 50 years”, Deng had said that, if things went well, there would be no need for change even after 50 years.

Next year marks the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover to China and many people fear that, after 2047, Hong Kong will become just another Chinese city. They want clarity.

The problem is that, back in 1984, or even in 1997, the Chinese government itself had little idea how things would turn out in 50 years.

Deng was crossing the river by feeling the stones and his successors are still doing that. There is no master plan.

While it is natural for Hong Kong people to yearn to know what will happen after 2047, no one knows, including this generation of Chinese leaders.

It is not in Hong Kong’s interests to take extreme measures to force the current Chinese leadership into making a decision now.

The administration of Xi Jinping is likely to err on the side of caution rather than anything else.

Actually, the fact that people want reassurance about the future means that they want “one country, two systems” to continue.

The call for independence is not a repudiation of that policy; rather, it is a rejection of the poor implementation of that policy.

Increasingly, Beijing has been interpreting the policy to give itself more control and Hong Kong less autonomy.

Emphasis on “two systems” has been replaced by emphasis on “one country”.

It is because many people feel that it is a failed policy, and that the alternative to the current situation is integration with the mainland, that they now ask for independence.

Independence is but one end of the spectrum with the other being total absorption into the mainland.

The latest election results show a clear need for Beijing to return to a more moderate position of allowing greater autonomy for Hong Kong.

Ironically, there is a silver lining to the arrival of the localists.

For two decades the pan-democrats have been provoking Beijing by calling for an end to one-party rule in China and the release of political prisoners.

But the localists by definition aren’t interested in what goes on in the mainland. They are campaigning for democracy and human rights in Hong Kong only, not in the mainland.

In that sense, they have moved closer to Jiang Zemin’s call in 1989 for well water not to interfere with river water.

That is to say, Hong Kong shouldn’t interfere in China’s internal affairs, and Beijing wouldn’t interfere in Hong Kong’s affairs.

If Beijing needs a reason to be more accommodating, it now has one.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.