‘Darkest Day’ for Hong Kong Democracy

Three disheartening events demonstrate Beijing’s growing clout

May 15 may go down in history as the darkest day for Hong Kong’s liberal and democratic aspirations since the 1997 handover.

In no particular order are three events which showed officials and their corrupted allies in the business fraternity acted on Beijing’s direct or indirect pressure to exert executive power over any semblance of division of powers or independence from Beijing or its appointed Chief Executive, lifelong bureaucrat  Carrie Lam.

The so-called Independent Police Complaints Council issued its report on a huge array of reports of police brutality and misbehavior during last year’s months of anti-government demonstrations in the wake of its attempts to push through legislation enabling extraditions to the mainland.

At the time, there had been demands for an independent commission on inquiry headed by a senior judge and with powers to summon witnesses and evidence. There are several precedents in the past for such commissions, which mostly concluded with criticism of government and calls for change. But the government, pressured by an arrogant police force backed by Beijing, opposed any such genuine inquiry.

To no one’s surprise, the IPCC has now come out with a 600-page whitewash of the police, calling only for minor changes in approach, justifying the massive use of teargas, rubber bullets, pepper spray, bean-bag round and live ammunition as proportionate to the situations.

There is, in fact, a vast amount of video footage, of independent witness evidence and journalist accounts to make a mockery of the report’s conclusions. Indeed, one original, foreign expert member of the investigative panel quit early on in view of its lack of investigative powers. He has since been quoted as saying: “The report will not placate public concerns about the nature of police conduct during key moments” of the protests.

For an understanding of the report, one need look no further than the position of the senior members of the IPCC, to a man overt supporters of the government or beholden to mainland interests.

The Chairman is Anthony Neoh, a lawyer who once headed the Securities and Futures Commission, a body better known for its bureaucratic ways than cracking down on stock market scams. Currently, Neoh is a director of the Bank of China and of China Life, both state-owned mainland giants, and formerly of China Shenhua, the mainland’s largest coal mining company.

The three vice-presidents are all pro-government members of the Legislative Council, and all represent the “rotten boroughs” – Functional Constituencies with narrow, business/professional, electoral franchises which back the government in return for favors.

One, head of the IPCC’s complaints panel, is Tony Tse Wai-chuen of the surveying and architectural sector and known as a close associate of former chief executive and Communist party supporter C.Y. Leung

Another vice-chairman is Chris Cheung Wah-fung, a stockbroker whose members are to receive a government handout to compensate for the alleged drop in business caused by Covid-19 when in reality stock trading has been more active than before the crisis.  The third is Frankie Yick Chi-ming, who represents businesses in the Transport sector in which taxi and minibus operators are particularly heavily represented. Their oligopolies are protected by the government in return for votes in Legco and on rubber stamp committees.

The IPCC report doesn’t even make a pretense at being even-handed but merely shows how far the Hong Kong elite will go to protect their privileged positions, meanwhile assuring themselves of safe bolt-holes for their families and fortunes in the west and elsewhere.

The second blow to the notion of freedom of information and debate came with the Education Bureau succumbing to demand from Beijing to withdraw a secondary history exam question. The minister duly kowtowed. The question – and it was a question, not a statement – that asked: “If Japan did more good than harm to China in the  20th century to 1945.”

The question was asked in the context of quotes from contemporary sources. But though framed as a question, without addressing the issue the Education Minister, parroting mainland outrages, declared that the only question could be “Japan did more harm than good” (though that is just a statement of opinion, not a question).

Hong Kong officials are keen to parrot mainland xenophobia and deny an opportunity for the discussion of history. For the first 30 years of the century there was much that progressive forces in China learned from Japan. The writings of Sun Yat-sen and others attest to that. Modernizers sought to follow the Japanese example in overthrowing feudalism. There was also Japanese investment.

Of course events between 1934 and 1945 inflicted huge suffering on the Chinese people which could reasonably be considered far offsetting any benefits before those years – although Mao thanked Japan for creating the conditions which led to Communist victory.

But if schools cannot ask senior pupils to think through evidence and documents there is no hope for a spirit of rational inquiry and debate. Refusal to think about history but simply parrot nationalistic slogans and fictions (like China’s supposed rights to the South China Sea) is a bad omen for China in the short as well as long term and invites retaliation against Chinese in general. The Communist Party is not just authoritarian, it is absolutist and xenophobic.

The third issue which showed the government contemptuous of rules-based politics and procedures occurred within the Legislative Council itself. The elected chairman of a committee, a pro-democracy member, was ousted in a power grab by the president of the council, who then simply appointed a pro-government member in his place using a pretext concocted by government-friendly lawyers. This is just the sort of “executive-led” government which Beijing wants imposed on Hong Kong, with its appointed executives doing whatever bidding emanates from Beijing, mostly delivered via its Liaison Office in the territory.

Officials, including supposedly independent judges, are increasingly susceptible to pressure for fear of losing their positions and salaries at a time when the economic future is also looking quite dire, even when the Covid-19 virus dissipates. Liberal thought and globalization of ideas have no place in China during the Xi Jinping era.