In the wake of the National People’s Congress and the further elevation of Xi Jinping via the removal of presidential term limits, the screws are tightening on Hong Kong. The current focus of Beijing’s patriotic wrath is Benny Tai, a Hong Kong University lecturer who was one of the figures behind the 2014 Occupy movement.
Vitriolic attacks by pro-Beijing pressure groups in Hong Kong against Tai for remarks he made recently in Taiwan carry a broader message. Those who query, ever so obliquely, the current borders of China or its claims to Taiwan and the South China Sea or promote genuine autonomy for Hong Kong, can expect trouble.
Tai already faces prosecution in Hong Kong for his role in the 2014 protests, which saw low levels of civil disobedience involving hundreds of thousands of people. Clearly they cannot all be prosecuted so the government has singled out a few, with Tai being charged with incitement to create a nuisance. It is a vague charge but could still, if convicted, get him removed from his tenured position at the university.
But what has Beijing and its acolytes baying for blood now is the remarks in Taiwan, with the People’s Daily calling on the Hong Kong government to prosecute Tai, which presumably would have to be under the existing criminal code relating to sedition. At an academic forum in Taiwan, Tai suggested hypothetically that were China at some point to become an open and democratic society, independence for Hong Kong might be an option.
This was clearly speculation about the future, not advocacy, but Beijing’s reaction showed its determination to shut down inconvenient discussion in Hong Kong of the past or future of China. That he made the remarks in a democratic Taiwan was doubly annoying, especially given that Beijing is also ratcheting up pressure on the independence-minded island.
Official Beijing attacks on Tai will put further pressure on the Hong Kong government to contain dissent and in particular enact a specific law against treason, sedition, secession and subversion. This has been a requirement under the Basic Law, the territory’s mini-constitution, but an attempt to enact it in 2003 met such strong opposition, with more than 500,000 people taking to the streets in protest, that it was abandoned. It remains to be seen whether the wording of the legislation when eventually put forward will be as in 2003. It could well be more restrictive. Subversion can mean almost any kind of criticism of an authoritarian, one-party state.
Chief Executive Carrie Law has committed to enactment, but made it clear that this is not a priority. However, she may well come under intense pressure to move on it, or find some other way of prosecuting Tai on weightier charges those he currently faces.
Pressure will also be on the judiciary. A former Hong Kong government chief prosecutor was of the view that Tai’s words would not have fallen foul of the 2003 draft legislation as they did not involve any actions to promote secession or subversion. However, that is a matter of interpretation and several judges have used very wide definitions of laws, for example in the removal of elected legislators. Beijing anyway can, as in the past, impose its own interpretations which local judges have to follow. As in the case of the disbarred legislators, these can be retroactive.
In another sign of more restrictive attitudes towards speech and debate, Hong Kong’s universities, all of which are to a large degree subject to the government, have told heads of departments that in future they must get work visas for guest lecturers, even if they are only there for a single lecture and are not being paid. The only place to get a visa is the Chinese embassy.
In principle the same rule should apply to any visiting banker or broker, but in practice this seems aimed at particular people and will only be enforced when it suits the administration, or Beijing. Singapore has a similar requirement. Thus for example a journalist writing happy stories about the delights of local restaurants need not bother. But those entering more sensitive political or social territory would be wise to get a permit.
SCMP becomes China’s Lapdog
Journalism in Hong Kong meanwhile is increasingly being used for the global benefit of China. A New York Times headline summed it up: A Hong Kong Newspaper on a Mission to promote China’s Soft Power. The paper in question is the venerable South China Morning Post, now owned by multi-billionaire Jack Ma of Alibaba. Although the print edition faces the same problem as paper’s elsewhere, and digital revenues are modest – it is free – the paper has moved into luxurious new offices.
The paper is spending huge sums on editorial staff to develop its digital edition in the hope of making it a leading global source for news about China. Money is no object but it remains to be seen whether it can gain traction by mainly producing the kind of stories about China which are acceptable to Beijing. Although it does carry some critical commentary, this is vastly outweighed by Beijing-friendly opinions. Its news coverage of China, while solid, breaks no new ground. Apart from news and views of Hong Kong, for which the global demand is small, there is not much to distinguish it from China Daily.
Incessant positive stories about Alibaba also indicate that Ma has no concept of editorial independence and seems not to realize that favorable stories in the SCMP are barely relevant to Alibaba’s business.