Xi's message to HK: Don't challenge our power, focus on economy

July 06, 2017 11:00
'Development ... holds the golden key to resolving various issues in Hong Kong,' Xi Jinping said during his trip to the city. Photo: HKEJ

President Xi Jinping displayed a velvet glove at the beginning of his three-day visit to Hong Kong, saying upon arrival last Thursday that he offered good wishes on the 20th anniversary of the former British colony's return to China and the support of the central government to ensure the city's long-term success.

But the iron fist beneath quickly became visible, and in a major speech delivered before his departure he warned against crossing the "red line" of Chinese sovereignty or challenging the power of Beijing. Any attempt "to carry out infiltration and sabotage activities against the mainland is an act that crosses the red line, and is absolutely impermissible," he declared.

On the positive side he gave assurances that the "one country, two systems" policy, which guarantees a high degree of autonomy for Hong Kong, will continue.

In a landmark speech after the inauguration of Carrie Lam as Hong Kong's new chief executive on Saturday, Xi also indicated willingness to engage in dialogue with "anyone who loves the country, loves Hong Kong and genuinely supports the principle of 'one country, two systems' and the Basic Law, no matter what political views or position he or she may hold."

Xi, however, did not talk about political reform. Aside from sovereignty, his main theme was development.

"It is imperative to always focus on development as the top priority," Xi said. "Development, an abiding pursuit, is crucial for Hong Kong’s survival, and it holds the golden key to resolving various issues in Hong Kong."

Hours after his departure, a pro-democracy protest was held, as has been the case every year on July 1.

On July 1, 2003, half a million people turned up to protest against a proposed national security law, and the bill had to be withdrawn. The new chief executive is under pressure to get similar legislation enacted. On Saturday, however, according to the police, the pro-democracy turnout was 14,500, the lowest in 14 years.

The difference is largely due to the economy.

In 2003, Hong Kong had gone through the Asian financial crisis, SARS, a plunging property market and high unemployment. The national security bill acted as a catalyst to bring together a lot of unhappy people in the territory.

Now, the economic situation is totally different. In the first quarter of this year, the Hong Kong economy grew by 4.3 percent in real terms, its fastest pace in six years. The stock market is buoyant and employment is robust.

Not surprisingly, in such an environment, fewer people took to the streets to stage political protests.

While Xi talked about development as the solution to various problems, he didn’t particularly relate this to youngsters calling for self-determination. Rather, he saw education as the answer, much as Beijing focused on patriotic education after the Tiananmen uprising.

But even in this area, economic opportunities, plus affordable housing, should help. The new chief executive evidently hopes to improve the lot of Hong Kong's young people.

Lam said that during her election campaign she gained "a deeper understanding of why our young people felt anxious and were uncertain about the future."

"We will inject new impetus to diversify the economy to create quality jobs for our workforce, especially our young people," she promised in her inaugural address.

Xi's visit and Lam's inauguration provide an opportunity for a new approach during the honeymoon period of Hong Kong's new leader. But a chief executive by definition occupies an impossible position, owing loyalty both to the central government and to the people of Hong Kong.

Certainly, Lam knows exactly what Beijing expects of her. The key question is, while delivering what Beijing wants, will she be able to win the confidence of the Hong Kong people?

In her inaugural address, she promised to "firmly take actions in accordance with the law against any acts that will undermine the country’s sovereignty, security and development interests."

However, she was silent on upholding the rights the people enjoyed, saying that society needed to be "united, harmonious and caring."

Of course, President Xi may not have wanted to listen to what rights Hong Kong people are supposed to enjoy, including freedom of speech. But if Lam is to win the trust of the people, she will have to demonstrate that she will uphold their rights with as much zeal as she displays in protecting the central government’s interests.

It is going to be a very delicate balancing act. To believe otherwise is to engage in wishful thinking.

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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.