When loving the motherland and Hong Kong is no longer enough

April 23, 2018 12:50
It appears that there are forces within the central government that wish Hong Kong to be more obedient than before, while there are officials in Hong Kong who believe that bowing and scraping is the way to deal with Beijing. Photo: Reuters

Last July 1 President Xi Jinping congratulated Hong Kong on the 20th anniversary of its return to China and its transformation from a British colony into the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. He said: “According to China’s tradition, a man enters adulthood at the age of 20, so today, we are celebrating the coming of age of the HKSAR.”

Over the last 20 years, Hong Kong on the whole has been successful despite prognostications in the western media of its imminent demise, exemplified by such articles as Fortune Magazine’s The Death of Hong Kong, published in June 1995.

Coming of age should mean that the SAR is expected to make more decisions and assume greater responsibilities. But it appears that there are forces within the central government that wish Hong Kong to be more obedient than before, while there are officials in Hong Kong who believe that bowing and scraping is the way to deal with Beijing.

Last weekend, Qiao Xiaoyang, former chairman of the Law Committee of China’s National People’s Congress, was in Hong Kong to drum up support for the Communist Party of China. In the past, Beijing had said that Hong Kong should not interfere in mainland affairs, but never before had it called on capitalists to support the Communist Party.

Hongkongers, Qiao said, are free to practice capitalism but they should support the Communist Party because an amendment to the state constitution in February provided for “the leadership of the Communist Party of China”. Qiao asked rhetorically: “Why wouldn’t you support the Chinese Communist Party?”

In response, one may point to words uttered by Deng Xiaoping, China’s then paramount leader, in June 1984 when explaining the “one country, two systems” principle to visitors from Hong Kong, including members of what was then known as Umelco – Unofficial Members of the Executive and Legislative Councils – Chung Sze-yuen, Lee Quo-wei and Lydia Dunn.

As recorded in Volume III of Deng’s Selected Works, the Chinese leader, in discussing post-1997 Hong Kong officials, said most of them would have to be patriots.

“A patriot is one who respects the Chinese nation, sincerely supports the motherland’s resumption of sovereignty over Hong Kong and wishes not to impair Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability,” he explained. “We don’t demand that they be in favor of China’s socialist system; we only ask them to love the motherland and Hong Kong.”

So, according to Deng, Hong Kong patriots don’t have to support China’s socialist system. But now, they are being called upon to support the Communist Party. What happened to the promise of 50 years of no change? What happened to Deng’s declaration, “China will always keep its promises”?

Change is also occurring internally within Hong Kong. The Secretary for Education, Kevin Yeung, has objected to textbooks containing the phrase “China took back the sovereignty of Hong Kong”. According to Yeung, China had never lost sovereignty; it simply chose for 150 years not to exercise it.

But there is no getting around the fact that for 150 years, Hong Kong was a British colony. After China made clear its intention to resume sovereignty in 1997, the British proposed a plan whereby they would continue to administer Hong Kong but would acknowledge that it was under Chinese sovereignty. China rejected the idea and said that sovereignty and administration could not be separated.

Obviously, however, Britain did administer Hong Kong for one and a half centuries, so what happened to sovereignty during that time? If it went hand-in-hand with administration, then the conclusion must be that Britain exercised it.

Such theoretical discussions, like theological debates on how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, are totally unproductive.

It is ironic that, less than five months after President Xi announced that Hong Kong had reached adulthood, a senior mainland official, Li Fei, Qiao’s successor, should define the SAR’s “high degree of autonomy” as joint administration by the central and local governments, with Beijing alone dealing with “some major matters”.

Actually, if the central government considers that Hong Kong has reached adulthood, it should have more faith in the region and allow more scope to the SAR government. It should not be tightening the leash.

With Beijing asserting “comprehensive jurisdiction”, the impact on Hong Kong’s image is devastating. No wonder the Financial Times, in a recent column on financial markets, concluded: “For Hong Kong, yesterday is likely to prove better than tomorrow in more ways than one.”

Beijing likes to say that when China does well, Hong Kong does even better. It is also true that what’s bad for Hong Kong will also be bad for China.

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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.