Hong Kong, a year after Xi's 20th anniversary visit

July 16, 2018 15:19
Xi Jinping, during a trip to Hong Kong last year for the territory’s 20th handover anniversary celebrations, urged locals to focus on economic, not political, issues. Photo: Bloomberg

When China's leader Xi Jinping came to Hong Kong a year ago to mark the 20th anniversary of the establishment of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and to officiate at the inaugural ceremony of a new government with Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor as the chief executive, he gave a major speech in which he laid down the law for Hong Kong.

"Any attempt to endanger China's sovereignty and security, challenge the power of the central government and the authority of the Basic Law of the HKSAR or use Hong Kong to carry out infiltration and sabotage activities against the mainland is an act that crosses the red line, and is absolutely impermissible,” Xi said.

Beijing was clearly unhappy with Hong Kong, what with an incipient independence movement, an unpopular outgoing chief executive, a deadlocked legislature and activists advocating localism or urging the end of Communist Party rule in China.

A year later, Hong Kong is a changed place. Carrie Lam, the new chief executive, has avoided sensitive issues, adopted a much softer tone and tried to make friends with everyone.

Beijing is giving her a little room for maneuver. There are credible reports that officials of the Liaison Office, China’s representative body in Hong Kong, no longer call up legislators to offer advice.

The opposition, too, has refrained from pressing her to act on universal suffrage elections, knowing that it isn’t within her power and that China won’t budge.

Though the rift between the pro-establishment and pro-democratic camp remains wide, the latter is in a weaker position in the legislature, having lost six seats as a result of Beijing’s intervention in 2016 in what is known as the oath-taking saga, when six lawmakers were disqualified for not having taken their oath properly.

Because of new rules against filibustering, lawmakers were much more efficient last year and passed 26 bills, compared to the 12 bills that they managed to pass the previous year.

Political tension has been substantially lowered because of Lam’s focus on bread and butter issues. Housing is by far the most pressing, with sky-high prices that keep rising. There are more than 200,000 people living in subdivided flats. The waiting time for public rental flats is more than five years, with several hundred thousand people on the waiting list. Lam has adopted various measures to increase housing units, including a tax on vacant flats.

Such steps accord with Beijing’s wishes. President Xi, in his address, had advocated focusing on economic, not political, issues.

Development, he told Hong Kong, was the "top priority." “Development,” he said, “holds the golden key to resolving various issues in Hong Kong…. Young people want to bring out the best of their talent. People in mature years want to be successful, and the seniors want to enjoy their golden years. All this can only be achieved through development.”

And development there has been. In 2017, Hong Kong’s economy grew a robust 3.8 percent and growth in the first quarter of 2018 was 4.7 percent. Meanwhile, unemployment is the lowest in 20 years. Hong Kong must perform, not just for itself but for the country. As Xi said, China’s “one country, two systems” policy stemmed in large part from a desire for Hong Kong to maintain its status as an “international financial, shipping and trading center in order to promote future growth.”

Even the annual July 1 protest by people with all sorts of grievances against China and the local government was much smaller this time than in the past, with the police saying 9,800 people marched while the organizer claimed 50,000 – a far cry from the 500,000 who turned out in 2003 to protest against a proposed anti-subversion law.

By any measure, this has been a good first year for Chief Executive Lam. She has achieved this by ensuring that she toes Beijing’s line while adopting a soft tone. She needs to enhance her legitimacy by showing through actions that she is doing her best for the people of Hong Kong.

But now, with the first year behind her, she needs to act. "Our community has a rightful expectation towards the government to provide adequate housing,” she said in her maiden policy address in October last year. If she doesn’t deliver, she’ll lose the momentum she has built.

Meanwhile, she has to look after China’s interests. Beijing wants Hong Kong to enact national security legislation as soon as possible. It wants to see progress in national education. If Lam loses Beijing’s trust, she won’t be able to govern. In her first year, everyone was willing to give her space, but this won’t last forever.

– Contact us at [email protected]


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