HK-China conflicts: Can we break the vicious circle?

January 04, 2017 12:38
Pro-China supporters carrying a Hong Kong flag (R) and China's national flags march in Tsim Sha Tsui in this file photo. Photo: Reuters

Few will buy Leung Chun-ying's explanation -- "family first" -- after his surprising announcement last month that he won't be joining the upcoming Chief Executive race.

Still, the news prompted many Hongkongers to heave a great sigh of relief, even as concerns mount over the city's future and the ties with central authorities.

From honeymoon to break-off

Looking back, relations between Hong Kong and Beijing were once quite good, especially during the initial years following the 1997 handover.

Beijing's self-discipline underpinned the honeymoon period of "one country, two systems". But the good things came to an end, as Beijing veered from "non-interventionism" and began unscrupulous meddling in Hong Kong affairs.

In 2002, former top leader and Communist Party chief Jiang Zemin (江澤民) instructed Hong Kong to enact national security clause (Article 23) of the Basic Law, a move partly aimed at assisting his nationwide crackdown on Falun Gong (法輪功), a Chinese qigong spiritual practice which has a legitimate unit registered in Hong Kong under local laws.

Jiang's decree marked a violation of the Basic Law which stipulates that the special administrative region shall enact Article 23 on its own.

A massive rally in July 2003 against the proposed legislation saw a record high turnout of over half a million Hong Kong people. Following the huge opposition, authorities had to beat a hasty retreat. The incident, however, prompted Beijing to adopt a new strategy and ditch its hands-off policy towards the SAR.

Stepping on the toes of Hongkongers, cadres north of the border have since then become relatively emboldened about their powers. As a result, cross-border ties have gone from amity and goodwill to estrangement and ultimately, separatism.

When Hong Kong shows some degree of resistance, Beijing's knee jerk instinct is to view the situation from its hidebound, leftist creed and multiply the dose of its menace against the city. The stiffer the resistance in Hong Kong, the greater is the coercion from the north.

Hong Kong has been swallowed up by this vicious circle and Beijing can never absolve itself of the blame.

Politically, Hong Kong doesn't have the capacity to swing the "one country, two systems" pendulum to its own advantage. The territory has to accept whatever the mainland side has in store, and grin and bear with it.

Beijing's 'lessons'

Despite leadership changes, Beijing's ideology hasn't changed much over all these years. Here are a few of the "lessons" that mainland authorities seem to have taken to heart:

- Hongkongers are not patriotic and they are unwilling to protect state security. Hence, national education should be a top priority;

- The 1997 handover meant reunification in name only and the central government's power over the territory is not yet fully established;

- London and Washington are behind all major demonstrations in Hong Kong; such infiltration by Western powers must not be overlooked;

- Given all the political sensitivities, Hong Kong must not be allowed universal suffrage unless Article 23 is in place. And ultimately, the central government must proactively and pre-emptively steer Hong Kong's political development and correct any "mistake" as it sees fit.

All these judgments underlay a slew of bellicose measures against Hong Kong.

For instance, the National People's Congress circumvented Hong Kong courts with a Basic Law interpretation in April 2004 as to how the territory should select its Chief Executive and legislators, as well as a revision of procedures for amending election methods.

With this gratuitous move, Beijing postponed a timetable for universal suffrage by ten years to 2017, and redefined the concept of such a free vote as to who can stand for the city’s top post. Since then the Hong Kong suffrage allowed by Beijing is but of the superficial kind with "Chinese characteristics".

Increased interference of the Liaison Office in Hong Kong politics, meanwhile, also marked an effort by Beijing to gain more control over the city's affairs, particularly in relation to local elections.

The thinly-veiled involvement of mainland envoys in election coordination and electioneering goes against Article 22 of the Basic Law, which prohibits mainland authorities from interfering in Hong Kong's internal affairs.

Years of Beijing's policy tightening culminated in its 2014 white paper on "one country, two systems", a callous declaration that Hong Kong's “high degree of autonomy" enshrined in the Basic Law exists only at Beijing's pleasure, as the central government determines the actual extent of such autonomy, if any.

The Leung administration has further exacerbated all the woes. Worse still is the fact that, to cement his position, Leung has been studiously provoking localists, making a big deal out of an otherwise out-on-a-limb pro-independence movement.

Now that Leung has bowed out of a second term, there is chance for an exit from the troubling circularity.

That said, Hong Kong will be able to seize a chance only if Beijing shows readiness for a genuine rapprochement.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal’s online forum on Dec. 22

Translation by Frank Chen

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Pro-independence activists rally in Admiralty after Beijing issued an interpretation of the Basic Law following an oath-taking controversy involving two localist lawmakers. Photo: Reuters
Amid deterioration in cross-border ties, Beijing's Liaison Office in Hong Kong has become a site of endless protests and clashes. Photo: Bloomberg

Senior journalist with The Straits Times and political commentator