Hong Kong is the latest target of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s combination of nationalism abroad and crackdown on dissent at home.
A 14,000 word White Paper – a policy document – from the State Council on Hong Kong issued last week seeks to limit the territory’s autonomy, emphasizes the importance of “patriotism” for its leaders, and accepts Beijing’s version of the universal suffrage which had been promised.
Most of the White Paper is verbiage of no significance but a few key phrases have aroused fear and anger among many in the territory. Worse still from the point of view of trying to achieve harmony and consensus on political development, the Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying and his administration’s top lawyer, Justice Secretary Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung were quick to support the White Paper and suggest that there was nothing new or exceptional in it and should be met “in a positive attitude and not “from the view of a conspiracy theory.”
Yuen was in effect branding the Bar Association (of which Yuen was once president) of being a conspiracy theorist. It saw references to the role of the judiciary as implying that it was part of the government and had a “basic political requirement” to love the country (as defined by Beijing) and they had “the responsibility of correctly understanding and implementing the Basic Law – again, as interpreted by the final authority, China’s National Peoples’ Congress.
The Bar response said “Any erroneous public categorization of judges and judicial officers as ‘administrators’ or official exhortations for them to carry out any political mission or task” would send the wrong message to the people of Hong Kong and the international community about Hong Kong’s autonomy.
Civic Party head Alan Leong, a lawyer and legislator, was quoted as “taken aback by the document” with its implication for the judiciary which were "totally repugnant to our understanding of the rule of law as an institution which we hold very dear to our hearts."
Others noted that some judges of Hong Kong’s Court of Final Appeal were, as laid down in the Basic Law, foreigners and that foreigners would not accept Hong Kong’s commercial law jurisdiction if its courts were expected to follow “patriotic” interests rather than offer equality for all litigants whatever their nationality or ethnicity.
The need for unity of the nation as represented by the words “One Country” is constantly underlined, a way of downplaying “two systems” with its emphasis on Hong Kong’s separate political, economic and judicial status.
Indeed the white paper even omits the word “executive” when referring to the powers of given to Hong Kong. Nor are the various powers of autonomy derived from the Sino-British Joint Declaration or otherwise “inherited.” It states “Hong Kong and Macau do not inherit their autonomy. Its roots are in the authorization of the central government.”
That implies that autonomy was not a one-off gift for 50 years but is constantly subject to oversight by Beijing which can intervene at any time, particularly if it is seen or claimed to be a risk to national security.
This is not a theoretical exercise. Recently Chinese officials suggested that Hong Kong might need “help” in the form of troops or police from over the border to control the Occupy Central movement, which has grown increasingly vocal over issues including suffrage and developer encroachment in parks. That is in contrast to the British colonial government in 1967, during widespread riots that threatened to overwhelm law enforcement, never considered bringing in troops from outside.
The extent to which the Hong Kong government is already parroting Beijing-written lines is revealed by the use in the White Paper of phrases identical to some in a document recently issued by its Commission on Political Development. These follow the line that all authority flows from the central government, thus the “high degree of autonomy” is what Beijing allows it to be.
Like the White Paper, the Hong Kong government document is aimed at telling Hong Kong people that that Beijing, not Hong Kong, will determine the course of the territory’s political development. This leaves little if any scope for Leung and his officials to move towards any kind of compromise with pro-democracy forces which have become increasingly restive.
The territory faces the prospect of the Occupy Central movement’s plan for a major civil disobedience campaign if there is not substantive progress towards a system of universal suffrage which allows for genuine choice of candidates in the next chief executive elections rather than a choice between two or three persons viewed as sufficiently “patriotic” – i.e. pliable – by Beijing.
The timing of the White Paper suggests two motives. One is to tell Hong Kong to submit and not make so much fuss about democracy. The reaction to date has been to galvanize pro-democracy forces and particularly the activist fringe. The second fits with a foreign policy agenda of countering the US “pivot” to Asia – more rhetorical than real though it may be.
Hong Kong’s democracy advocacy is seen as a pro-American threat at a time when Hong Kong’s economic value to China is a fraction of what it was 15 years ago, let alone 1984 when the Sino-British Joint Declaration was signed.
In the world of Xi Jinping, patriotism means joining the national antagonism to Vietnam and the Philippines – the latter Hong Kong’s two closest neighbors, as well as being hostile to Japan and suspicious of America. This is scarcely in the best interests of a commercial and financial center which would prefer to stay out of regional power politics and focus on trade and investment development.
Chinese officials now imply that Hong Kong is much a problem as a benefit for China. It is compared unfavorably with Macau, also the subject of a White Paper. Macau is a territory where politics are more tightly under mainland control but whose main function is to launder, through its now world-beating casinos, the ill-gotten gains of party officials and state enterprise bosses.
Beijing was once proud to point to its non-interference in Hong Kong and saw that as part of its international reputation. Now it no long feels a need to look for that kind of respect. So just as “peaceful rise” has been set aside in pursuit of a more aggressive version of national interests, so Hong Kong’s separate status is something to be eroded in the interests of nationalism and central authority.
This takes many forms and in many cases Hong Kong officials seek to gain favor in Beijing with “patriotic” moves on issues which may not concern the central government.
Mainland enterprises are already quietly being given favors by the Hong Kong government, whether in access to mobile phone spectrum or apparent de facto immunity from investigation and prosecution by the Securities & Futures Commission. There are doubtless other examples which have escaped public attention, or where Hong Kong has had to seek Beijing’s help in fending off string-arm tactics by provincial authorities.
While the Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement (CEPA) with the mainland has helped some Hong Kong service industries set up on the mainland, many supposedly open areas remain blocked and Hong Kong accountants who once had easy access now face possible exclusion.
So the bottom line of the White Paper is that Hong Kong should expect less and less autonomy as time goes by, accompanied by the veiled threat that the more they demand as their right under the Basic Law, the less they will be allowed.