A Beijing scholar's prescriptions for the problems of HK

January 27, 2015 12:17
A copy of a Time magazine cover from 2012 featuring Leung Chun-ying with the headline "Can Hong Kong trust this man?" is seen outside the government offices in Admiralty during the Occupy protests. Photo: Internet

It’s been more than a month since the Umbrella movement ended, but apparently not a few well-placed people in the mainland are still reflecting on the protests.

Sadly, their common conclusion is nothing more than the profoundly far-fetched judgment that Hong Kong's youngsters are unhappy because they are unable to land a good job or live in a decent home.

Advocates for the student movement can just shrug off these false ideas.

But what if China’s prestigious scholars and think tanks have endorsed these notions and made recommendations based on a misinterpretation of the situation in the city?

Li Xiaopeng (李曉鵬), a famed news commentator who is said to be an adviser to state leaders, has renewed the call for a more hardheaded approach in Beijing’s policies toward Hong Kong.

In a commentary widely shared on social networking platforms, including the official forum run by Xinhua, Li says Joshua Wong Chi-fung and other student leaders’ demand for a truly free vote in the 2017 election for chief executive is “incorrect”.

But Li -- who holds a doctorate from Renmin University and once studied at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government -- says the movement laid bare the lack of opportunities for upward mobility for youngsters and the worsening social inequality in the city.

“With the accumulation of their discontent about dim career and housing prospects, young people in Hong Kong are thus vulnerable to brainwashing and manipulation by overseas powers,” he writes.

Li’s argument is nothing new, but what may evoke some harsh feelings among Hongkongers is his advice for resolving the issues.

The way he sees it, the root of the problems is not the absence of democracy in Hong Kong but rather the opposite.

Li’s prescription is that China must give the chief executive unlimited powers, like those of a Communist Party secretary in a mainland city, so that the Hong Kong “party boss” can press ahead with initiatives in a more resolute manner.

Leung Chun-ying must be happy to hear this.

Beijing must also reduce the role of the Legislative Council -- now hijacked by “pan-democratic political thugs” and a major hindrance to effective governance, Li says -- to nothing more than that of a figurehead.

Li’s hidden message is that the lawmakers should only rubber-stamp government bills, just like the deputies to the National People’s Congress do.

To support his point, Li cites Hong Kong’s colonial governors.

The British governors chaired the colonial cabinet (Executive Council), and until Chris Patten took office in 1992, the governor was also Legco’s president, with the power to appoint its members and veto motions before the first indirect election to Legco was held in 1985.

Li notes that since the handover in 1997, the role and duties of the chief executive have been reduced to that of a head of government subject to more checks and balances from the legislature and judiciary.

It is unclear whether Beijing is indeed mulling over plans to grant the chief executive more rights and duties.

But given the fact that Beijing cadres (like Chen Zuoer [陳佐洱], a former deputy director of the State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office) and the central government's liaison office have recently reiterated that Hong Kong's political structure is an “executive-led” one, Li’s proposal to enlarge the role of the chief executive and effectively put the legislature under the administration’s control cannot just be a suggestion out of thin air.

Given a more authoritarian, party chief-like chief executive, Li’s second piece of advice is to make more handouts to youngsters to appease their anger.

More power for the chief executive is crucial to getting this done, as some principal officials might disagree – Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah once warned that more social welfare schemes will drain the city's financial reserves within a few years.

Li also says that having arrogated all powers to the chief executive, Beijing must then press the administration to grab more control of the economy from a bunch of local moguls.

He believes that local tycoons must share the blame for the unrest in the city, as their monopoly of economic benefits has helped to drive young people to the streets.

Beijing’s strategy of befriending the tycoons over the past decades provided them with the political backing to take advantage of Hong Kong's ineffective governance since 1997, particularly during the Tung Chee-hwa and Donald Tsang Yam-kuen eras, Li argues.

In Li’s theory, tycoons and magnates must now be put on a tight leash, and “robbing” the heartless rich to help the poor is unavoidable when reallocating resources for housing and job creation.

The process of taking over the helm of Hong Kong’s economy is also vital for a genuine reunification with China, he believes.

It’s true that youngsters resent the crowding out effect of the city’s property conglomerates and all sorts of housing woes.

But if Beijing adopts the advice of Li and others to further empower the chief executive, dislodge the fat cats and finally offer jobs and a better life to young Hongkongers in exchange for freedom and democracy, will the city still be Hong Kong as we know it?

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Leung Chun-ying, who blames pan-democrats'  filibustering for hindering his government, will be heartened by suggestions that his power be increased. Photo: Reuters

EJ Insight writer