Beijing Sends an Alarming Message on HK Visas

Beijing’s recently-announced ban on a group of British Members of Parliament visiting Hong Kong sends alarming messages not just to Hong Kong but potentially to any foreigners wishing to engage with the territory – and not least the world’s media.

The MPs are a multi-party group looking into affairs relevant to the implementation of the 1983 Sino-British Joint Declaration, the treaty between Britain and China dealing with the institutions and practices in Hong Kong for the 50 years after the 1997 handover to China, during which it would be a Special Administrative Region of China.

The first alarm was that this ban came not from the government in Hong Kong but from the central government in Beijing, which delivered it to the British Embassy there. Under China’s Basic Law, the mini-constitution which provides for implementation of the One Country-Two Systems principle, immigration matters are the prerogative of the Hong Kong government. The only exemptions to Hong Kong’s autonomy are defense and foreign affairs.

Yet here was Beijing stretching “foreign affairs” to include a cross-party group that was in no way representative of the British government and concerned only with issues in Hong Kong, not China as a whole. Needless to say, the Hong Kong government went along with Beijing’s interpretation despite its own authority being again undermined. That is the second time in a matter of months that Beijing has trashed Hong Kong’s autonomy. It earlier laid down details on electoral arrangements for the next Chief Executive election, which under the Basic Law properly belong to Hong Kong. This helped spark the Occupy protests now into their third month.

The extension of “foreign policy” to a group of MPs from Britain can now be applied to politicians from anywhere to whom China takes a dislike. The Hong Kong government will simply be told of such decisions and may be expected to implement them whether or not they are announced first in Beijing or Hong Kong.

Of course it makes life easier for Hong Kong officials that they do not have bear criticism for such decisions. At the same time it emphasizes the rapid dilution of their powers.

The decision from Beijing on the MPs was clearly aimed both at making Hong Kong more subservient as well as telling foreigners to keep their noses out. So the second alarm is for Hong Kong’s liberal traditions. It may not have had representative government but it did have free traditions of speech, publication, organization and assembly, and a separation of powers between executive and judiciary. All of those are in practice alien to Communist Party rulers which explains why Beijing and its local acolytes have had to take refuge in “foreign forces” being to blame for the Occupy movement. Liberalism and democracy are western, un-Chinese concepts they claim in desperate attempts to explain away recent events in Taiwan and Hong Kong, territories where Chinese traditions are better respected than in China.

It is not difficult too to extend the “foreign affairs” designation to vast areas of international business, the activity which is Hong Kong’s lifeblood. Already there have been cases of Chinese state-owned companies asserting sovereign immunity in defending against commercial claims brought to Hong Kong courts. In 2011 the NPC declared that Hong Kong, as part of China for foreign policy purposes, must follow the mainland doctrine that the immunity of sovereign states from prosecution is absolute. Under Hong Kong’s British-derived law, immunity did not apply in commercial cases. Thus state-owned COSCO was able to escape from a judgment finding it in default on charter fees to a Greek shipowner. (AS September 6, 2011)

Likewise “state secrets” are used by overseas-listed mainland companies as reason not to divulge corporate information. In other words, it becomes a shield for criminal activity.

A more obvious danger is to foreign journalists who write about Hong Kong. Their reports, like those from Beijing, may be deemed to interfere in the “foreign affairs” of China and their own countries of origin. Hitherto many journalists who were refused visas to work on the mainland, particularly those of the New York Times and Bloomberg, have moved to Hong Kong, believing themselves protected by its special situation and different immigration regime.

But if a mixed group of MPs from Britain can be seen somehow as interference in foreign affairs, what about journalists from, say, the New York Times or Nihon Keizai Shimbun?

It is often easier for diplomats and businessmen to brush off events such as the MPs ban as unfortunate but one-off incidents which should be forgotten when in reality they are the canaries in the coal mine, warning of danger ahead. This is not a petty misstep by China any more was the invasion of the Scarborough Shoal off the Philippines. It is integral to the mix of nationalism, party dominance, and personal aggrandizement which characterizes Xi Jinping’s rule.

Typical of those with heads in the sand were British officials, mild in their response to what was a monumental insult. Prime Minister David Cameron has made a name for avoiding criticism of China on any topic in the vain hope of Britain be able to sell more goods and to China and promote London’s role as a yuan trading center. The nation’s Foreign Office has for decades been staffed by sinologists who gave preference to appeasing Beijing to responsibilities to Hong Kong.

In the days before the handover they tried to sabotage efforts, particularly by last governor Chris Patten, to give Hong Kong people the representative government they sought. Now their focus is on trade – and their own future careers as business consultants in China.