Beijing Sends Hong Kong an Ominous Message

It might be possible to feel sympathy for Carrie Lam Yuet-ngor. On Sunday, Beijing’s bludgeoning of the business and professional elite had assured her of an overwhelming victory (67 percent of 1,163 valid votes) in the unequal contest to become Hong Kong’s next Chief Executive, easily defeating former Financial Secretary John Tsang. She promised to heal the social and political divisions that have wracked the territory for the past three years.

Then the following day the government drove a stake through the heart of “reconciliation” by arresting nine activists who played a leading role in the 2014 Umbrella Movement protests. They include two current members and one former one of the Legislative Council. The arrests came no less than 30 months after the protests began, and 24 months after those named were told they might be charged. The arrests made Lam’s post-election promise of uniting a divided city and improving cooperation between Executive and Legislature appear harder than ever to achieve.

The timing of the arrests was stunning, and it is widely believed that it was intended as a warning to Lam by Beijing, via outgoing Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying to take a hard line against local demands for more democracy and for the autonomy promised in the Basic Law. That autonomy has been increasingly undermined by the Liaison Office, the central government’s local arm.

Not only does the Liaison Office run a huge network of informants, but now no longer bothers to hide its interference and its pressure on local people and organisations to toe the party line.

The Umbrella Movement charges relate to conspiracy and/or incitement to “create a public nuisance.” Though this phrase is capable of almost any meaning the government cares to allege, it carries a sentence of up to seven years in prison. Logically the government should charge tens of thousands of people who participated in the “public nuisance,” many of whom could easily identified from the thousands of police video footage. This would include such venerable figures as Martin Lee, long-time leader of the democracy movement in Hong Kong.

In response to the arrests, “healer” Lam could only mumble about not compromising the “rule of law.” Until recently, Lam as Chief Secretary for Administration was in charge of a government which on a daily basis allows the vehicles of the rich and powerful to block public roads and turns a blind eye to billions of dollars worth of illegal land use by well-connected persons. So it appears to millions that there is one law for the favored few and another for those who peacefully demanded more democratic and accountable government in Hong Kong.

Talk that this is about the rule of law has all the credibility of a Trump Twitter comment. Yet now Lam is saddled with showing her continued obeisance to Beijing by following through on this obvious attempt to frighten opponents, not heal divisions. Talk of reconciliation sounds a little like Mao’s 1957 pronouncement: “Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom, Let a Hundred Schools of Thought Contend.” That was quickly followed by arrests of whose who believed that a more open and liberal era had arrived.

As new Chief Executive from July 1, Lam in theory has a chance to go back on some of the more oppressive measures pushed by the outgoing, highly unpopular C.Y Leung. She must be painfully aware that Tsang was far ahead in public opinion polls and she owes her position to Beijing’s open interference in what is supposed to be an internal matter for Hong Kong.

One thing which would be a gesture towards harmony would be to drop attempts by the government to have more elected pro-democracy legislators disbarred. Two have already been due to failure to take the oath of office in the correct manner. Four more face the same threat, including the one who polled the highest number of votes at last year’s election. But now Lam’s ability to start with such a gesture of goodwill by dropping the charges may now have been jeopardized by the Umbrella arrests.

As it is, even if pro-democracy candidates win all the seats vacated by disbarments, delay in holding by-elections will provide a period during which pro-government legislators have the two thirds majority in the legislature (half of which is filled by representatives of small circle groups) and able to change future voting systems. Is this what Lam means by increased cooperation between Executive and Legislature, decimating the democratically elected opposition?

Any such attempt can only increase the divisions in society, the opposite of what Lam promises. But this lifetime bureaucrat has a long history of promising change while doing the bidding of vested interests or Beijing. That was why Beijing trusted her, not Tsang. Although Tsang adhered to inordinately conservative fiscal policies, he always appeared more sensitive to popular sentiment, including to the young “localists” who infuriate the central government.

Queried about her policy priorities, Lam indicated that “easier” issues would take precedence over political reform (which has to mean more democracy). In other words, the political progress needed to take some of the heat out of the situation is very distant. By “easier” tasks she appeared to have in mind changes in the educational system to reduce excessive testing which is as unpopular with parents and teachers as well as students.

Like Leung she is also promising to address housing shortages and sky high land prices. She may have more luck with this, at least in the short term, as a rise in housing completions and the prospect of higher interest rates may take the heat out of the market without significant new measures.

But do not expect any fundamental change in any policies related to land, housing, taxation, social welfare or the environment. Lam, like Tsang, is from a civil service environment which is reluctant to embrace change and usually falls back on the supposed need for “consensus,” a recipe for tinkering not bold ideas. The bureaucracy is reluctant to push through policies which meet determined opposition from vested interests, particularly those represented by the functional constituencies in the legislature.

For Beijing, what matters is not that Hong Kong’s economy needs to regain some dynamism by removing barriers to competition and focusing on an Asian and regional role. It is simply to keep a lid on dissent and democracy and push ahead with its One Country agenda at the expense of Two Systems. Whatever Lam may personally want, she is the implementer of the policies of a centralising and autocratic President Xi Jinping.