Push is rapidly coming to shove between China and Hong Kong, which bills itself as the “World City.” If the world doesn’t sit up and take notice soon, the political future of the autonomous territory could be imperiled and things could end badly all around.
A degree of antagonism between the mainland and Hong Kong’s democracy advocates has been a feature of life in the territory since Britain handed its colony back to China in 1997 under a legally inscribed formula called “one country, two systems.” Hong Kong was designated a Special Administrative Region and guaranteed 50 years of autonomous self-government, including direct elections and universal suffrage.
But the friction now intensifies, and for the time being, at least, there appears no stepping back on either side. Two weeks ago, China’s State Council, its administrative authority, issued an unprecedented “white paper,” “The Practice of ‘Two Systems’ in the HKSAR.” The gist is that China will place “one country” before “two systems” from here on out.
Beijing’s paper has provoked a firestorm in the territory. Advisedly or otherwise, it was published in response to one event and in anticipation of another:
• It followed by a week the anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre and Beijing’s declaration of martial law in 1989. Hong Kongers always mark the occasion; this year up to 150,000 peaceably poured into the streets.
• It arrived 10 days before Occupy Central (the liveliest of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy groups, named for the territory’s business and financial district) opened an online referendum on the question of a directly elected chief executive, as the post-colonial governor is titled.
Beijing and the Hong Kong government both condemned the unofficial poll as illegal. When the online mechanism immediately suffered an apparent cyber-attack, Occupy Central did not hesitate to accuse the mainland of sabotage. In response, the group opened 15 polling stations around the territory and extended the vote by a week.
All of which makes the results so far the more embarrassing. By Sunday evening, Occupy had counted almost 700,000 ballots, all favoring one form or another of free, open polling.
It is a mess. And having covered Hong Kong during the Sino-British talks in the 1980s, it seems to me that a mess of just this kind was baked into Hong Kong’s cake from the first.
Reflecting humiliations that extend back to the Opium Wars in the 1840s, which made Hong Kong a British colony, China is exceedingly jealous of its sovereignty and protective of its borders. The minute Prince Charles dropped the Union Jack on July 1, 1997, China’s leaders considered themselves free to interpret the Sino-British treaty and the Basic Law it established as they saw fit. This is what the white paper has just done.
On the other side of the ledger, something happened among Hong Kong people—the common self-reference locally, telling in itself—that neither the mainland nor the departing British anticipated. Over the post-1949 decades of hardship and then prosperity, an independent identity took root. Only the most liberal association with China could possibly serve this, and the protections in the Basic Law London negotiated were bound to prove inadequate. This is the reality Hong Kong people now face.
At issue for some years has been the question of when Hong Kong would begin to choose leaders directly—all of them, not merely the proportion so far designated. Having failed to win the right to elect the chief executive freely in 2012, democrats have focused ever more sharply for the past couple of years on polls due in 2017.
“Time is short,” Emily Lau, an outspoken advocate in the Legislative Council, Hong Kong’s parliament, said over lunch recently. “We have three years. This means getting everything in order now.”
Beijing’s white paper is revealing. Its intentions are courteously but clearly stated. “As a unitary state, China's central government has comprehensive jurisdiction over all local administrative regions, including the HKSAR,” one of its pithier passages reads.
At the same time, the document is highly defensive. While turning the Basic Law’s stipulations to Beijing’s purpose, it does so by paying homage to the “one country, two systems” principle at every turn. The judiciary must be independent, it says. The judiciary must “take into account the needs of China.” Hong Kong is autonomous. Autonomy is by definition conferred; it is “not inherent,” but a privilege.
Similarly, the paper allows that Hong Kong can choose its chief executive in free elections in three years’ time. But candidates will be selected by the same group of mainland-friendly elites that chose previous chiefs, and anyone running must be patriotic and “love China.”
I see a time-tested strategy at work here. Any Confucian bureaucracy’s core intent is to preserve prerogative by keeping law vague so as to rule effectively by fiat. You find this in Japanese banking law, in Singapore’s court rulings, and now in the white paper’s insistence on patriotism and other such virtues.
At the same time, the paper reflects a genuine assumption that to be Chinese is to love the motherland. In this, it is a measure of Beijing’s disconnect; it cannot see that an affection for China that is prevalent among Hong Kong people does not mean they want to be mainland citizens.
A common view now is that China will risk Hong Kong’s credibility as a financial center with a reliable legal system if it pushes too far. This is doubtful. Bankers and investors rarely concern themselves with repression, providing it is not too gory, and Beijing has already proven that it can sequester securities, banking, and investment law from the civil code.
If Beijing has a liability, it is in how hardball in Hong Kong will play in the rest of the region, notably in Taiwan. A bad game will hurt, yes. But it remains that China has 1.3 billion people to manage and is unlikely to risk control over them by letting out the line in Hong Kong.
As to Hong Kong’s democratic movement, it can modulate its stance and methods, maybe, but to desist seems unthinkable. What people in history have abandoned their aspirations and submit indefinitely to the death-in-life of a regime they do not want?
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