China Ups the Pressure to Undermine Hong Kong

On the anniversary of the Occupy movement which paralyzed parts of Hong Kong for weeks last year, mainland officials have launched a barrage of comments designed to undermine the city’s sense of enjoying a separate system from that of the mainland, where all power emanates from the Communist Party.

Some statements have been so extreme that they have clearly disturbed even those pro-government local officials and politicians who normally jump as required to Beijing-inspired views. Yet the overall official trend, as evidenced by the actions of the Chief of Police, has been to kowtow to Communist Party wishes.

First off came a statement from the director of Beijing’s Liaison Office, Zhang Xiaoming, that the Chief Executive in Hong Kong occupies a “special legal position” that transcends that of the Legislature and the Judiciary. In other words, instead of power being distributed as understood by most interpretations of the Basic Law, the position of the chief executive is superior. Zhang’s words even suggested that the Chief Executive is above the law, or at the very least should be able to override decisions of the Legislature and Judiciary

The current chief executive, former real estate agent Leung Chun-ying, followed this up by backing Zhang’s remarks and insisting that because he was appointed by and answerable to the national government. If nothing else, Leung’s remarks showed the extent to which he is a puppet of Beijing with scant claim to represent the interests or expectations of Hong Kong people that separation of powers was at the heart of the Basic Law.

Pro-government media commentators mostly tried to fudge the issue, suggesting it was all about semantics. The Chief Justice confined himself to stressing that everyone was equal before the law, while avoiding comment on the distribution of powers issues raised by Zhang.

The underlying reality is that Beijing believes whatever the Basic Law says, all power ultimately derives from the center, which itself is controlled by the party. Separation of powers is alien to it, particularly at this moment when President Xi Jinping is focused on the twin themes of party discipline and nationalism.

Next came an even more controversial statement from a former senior official of the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office, Chen Zhuoer, made a scathing attack on what he called “colonial holdovers” which he accused of being responsible for the economic and political ills of the city. These needed to be eliminated.

Chen was speaking at a forum, dutifully attended by Leung Chun-ying, of the semi-official Chinese Association for Hong Kong and Macau Studies. Clearly Chen, who repeated his remarks the following day, was part of a Beijing approved campaign to demean the colonial legacy as anti-Chinese. This is extremely inflammatory as it is the colonial-era institutions such as the legal system and open economy which are what separates Hong Kong from the mainland and are thus at the core of the territory’s identity.

Even the government’s Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs, Raymond Tam Chi-yuen, said there was no need to worry about “abstract” notions such as de-colonization. The former leader of the pro-government Democratic Alliance (DAB) and now Legislative Council chairman Tsang Yok-sing said that even if there were people with a colonial mentality they were a “very small minority”.

Chen also linked this alleged mentality to the fact that Hong Kong’s economy had grown at a much slower rate than Singapore or Macao. The fact that Macao’s growth was largely the result of the deluge of corrupt mainland money descending on its casinos while Singapore’s superior growth was mainly due to a huge influx of non-resident labor pushing its working population up by 15 percent in five years while Hong Kong ’s grew only 4 percent.

It remains to be seen whether the remarks of Chen and Zhang increase local resolve to resist Beijing pressure, or if the erosion of Hong Kong’s separate status will be grudgingly accepted as inevitable. This is the natural position for officials whose main concern is keeping their jobs and advancing up the bureaucratic ladder. One of those is clearly the Chief of Police, Lo Wai-chung, who has defended a rewrite of the official police history which largely excludes references to the role of the Communist party in the violence inflicted on Hong Kong during the Cultural Revolution.

References to killings of five policemen have been changed from “Communist militia” to “gunmen.” Other distortions of history include omitting references to rioters shouting Quotations from Chairman Mao, and to the role of “red fat cats” – who supported the rioters while sending their children to “universities in the much disparaged United States and Britain”. A whole paragraph describing attacks on tram and bus drivers who kept working, and to bombs “made in left wing classrooms and planted indiscriminately on the streets” was excised completely.

All this cutting was defended in the name of simplicity and accessibility. So much for the police chief’s belief in the inviolability of facts. Is that how the force now treats evidence in criminal investigations?

Pleasing Beijing with patriotic gestures is also the order of the day for Hong Kong based businessmen. One who has apparently not groveled enough is its best known, richest tycoon Li Ka-shing. Li has come under mainland fire for selling businesses in Hong Kong and the mainland and buying in Europe and Australia. Li was a favorite of Supreme Leader Deng Xiaoping, who set China onto the capitalist path and appointed Li to the state-owned investment fund China International Trust and Investment Corp (CITIC).

Given his special relationship to China’s previous leadership, the attack on him is striking and raises questions on whether there is a wider agenda. In any case, Li has always been an asset trader as well as one who made his original fortune mainly from Hong Kong property. For sure the latter was at the expense of local people but the same applied to all the leading developers who became some of the top 20 richest people in the world. Li branched out with globe-spanning investments in ports, telecoms and retail. Those like the New World group who stayed close to home and buttered up government and mainland officials have not been so criticized.

Hong Kong businesses are thus caught up in contrived mainland “patriotism” and could increasingly fear being deprived of freedom of action to invest as they think best. That in itself will undermine Hong Kong’s role and thus hasten the days when this “colonialist relic” is a suburb of its mainland neighbor, Shenzhen.