Hong Kong: China’s Obstreperous Adoptee

Two of Hong Kong’s most prominent pro-democracy citizens, Anson Chan, former chief secretary under Chris Patten, and Martin Lee, one of the city’s most prominent democracy advocates, have spent the past week in the United States holding a series of panel discussions on the territory’s future in the face of what critics call the increasing encroachment of Beijing on its politics, press and business activities, and looking for American support.

Chan, previously the territory’s top civil servant, told reporters in New York that government may seek to delay reforms for the 2017 election given the rising tide of pro-democracy protests. The concerns that Chan and Lee expressed in the US are long familiar in their home city. Tensions with the mainland are real and irritating, with the word “mainlandization” a growing topic among uneasy residents. Only 31 percent of Hong Kong residents identify themselves as part of the mainland, according to a 2013 poll by Hong Kong University.

That raises the question of just how much danger Hong Kong is in from mainland politics. Certainly, the local opposition is testing Beijing’s leaders as never before. On Dec. 26 last year, four protesters forced their way into a People’s Liberation Army barracks in Hong Kong, carrying a colonial Hong Kong flag to protest a plan to turn a prime piece of harbour-front land in Central into a military berth. Reportedly they called for the PLA to "get out" of the city.

While they were condemned by the bulk of the political establishment, that was just one of a growing series of protests against China’s presence and it engendered a stiff response. On Jan. 24, the PLA Navy staged its “first air-and-sea drill” of the year in Hong Kong, sending two frigates and three helicopters down Victoria Harbour in what was regarded universally as a warning to those who broke into the garrison's headquarters as well as the emerging Occupy Central movement.

Those are not the only signs of the growing antipathy. In 2003 China basically gifted Hong Kong with the Closer Economic Partnership Agreement, a free trade agreement giving Hong Kong preferential access to the mainland market, reducing tariffs and non-tariff barriers, promoting trade and investment facilitation. The agreement was later expanded to allow for the greatly expanded permanent relocation of mainlanders and vastly increased tourism for mainlanders to the city.

Vastly increased indeed. In 2013, an estimated 41 million mainland tourists visited the city, a figure expected to climb to 70 million within three years and to as many as 100 million in a decade – in a city of 7.2 million people, although government leaders are growing increasingly uneasy and there is talk of limiting the numbers. But instead of Hong Kong residents being grateful for the money the mainlanders have poured into the city, their behavior has irritated the locals, who often complain that mainlanders spit, jump queues, allow their children to urinate in public places and disobey traffic rules.

In 2012, a Hong Kong mob threatened to invade a Dolce & Gabbana shop over allegations the Italian luxury goods outlet was discriminating against locals in favor of mainlanders.

On Feb. 21, about 100 protesters carrying colonial era Hong Kong flags and chanting “Chinese locusts! Go home” clashed with others opposed to the demonstration, who were waving a “Welcome to Hong Kong” banner. Police were forced to intervene.

All of this is prologue to April 2017,when for the first time Hong Kong will select its chief executive and other lawmakers via universal suffrage. It is a situation the Chinese in Beijing are already approaching with unease. Universal suffrage in fact is not going to mean universal suffrage. In November, Basic Law Committee chairman Li Fei, in a three-day visit to Hong Kong, said the chief executive selection would be held within the framework of the Basic Law and "one country, two systems" arrangement – that it would be legitimate to demand the chief executive be patriotic, and that candidates would be nominated collectively, by a committee.

That means the candidate is likely to be one that Beijing will be comfortable with, although Hong Kong may not be. At the moment, it looks like Leung Chun-ying, the current chief executive, will run again despite his current unpopularity. Although other names have been mentioned as possible candidates, it appears too early in the game for any major candidate to appear. It does seem certain that if any do appear, they will be vetted by Beijing first – and by Hong Kong’s own oligarchs, who are even less enthusiastic about political activism.

Beijing expects to use the Election Committee, composed overwhelmingly of conservatives and loyalists who have reliably endorsed approved candidates for Chief Executive since 1997. The Pan-Democrats, the opposition, so far haven’t made a big issue of Li’s statement although Occupy Central is threateing to close city streets in an upcoming protest.

There are at least two issues that could bring people into the streets, as they have in the past. The first is the so-called Article 23, which was proposed in the Basic Law and which would give the government the power to prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion against the Chinese government. The threat to implement the provision brought an estimated 500,000 people into the streets in 2003 and forced in the resignation of Regina Ip as security secretary. There have been periodic reports that Beijing has not given up and that the provision would be re-introduced, with a concomitant reaction from the public that immediately shelved it. CY Leung has said he would not re-introduce the measure.

The second issue is the introduction of "patriotic education" about the government in China. A majority of top schools rejected the plan, calling it an attempt to “brainwash” students Once again, the threat of implementation led to marchers in the streets.

Mainlandization, however, is manifesting itself in a variety of ways. The two major free-to-air television stations are considered to be pro-Beijing. When Hong Kong Television Network applied for a third, the license was denied. Widespread protest has ensued over suspicions that the network’s boss, Ricky Wong Wai-kay, wasn’t sufficiently patriotic for Beijing. Also a plan to re-auction 3G spectrum by the Office of the Communications Authority, the telecoms regulator, in 2016 is widely thought to be opening the door for one of China’s big telecoms companies to allow a fifth mobile network into the market.

In addition to the tourists swarming the city, a tenth of the population have become permanent residents via the One-Way Permit Scheme. There is lingering irritation with the continuing closing of restaurants and shops frequented by locals, to be replaced with trendy French and Italian boutiques that locals have trouble getting into – as with the Dolce & Gabbana fracas in 2012.

Then there is the press, which, according to a 4,500 word report released in mid-February by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists is under unrelenting pressure from the Chinese government and local owners determined to toe Beijing’s line. The picture the report paints is one of slow but relentless erosion of what has long been regarded as not only the freest and most diversified press in Asia outside Japan but what has traditionally been the most important listening post on China itself.

Today more than half of Hong Kong’s media owners have accepted appointments to the main political assemblies of China and are being absorbed into China’s political elite. They include Charles Ho of the Sing Tao news group, Richard Li of Now TV and the Hong Kong Economic Journal, and Peter Woo of i-Cable television. Robert Kuok, the owner of the South China Morning Post and one of Asia's richest tycoons, was selected as one of Beijing’s advisors on Hong Kong's future in the run-up to the 1997 handover.

While in the past Beijing relied on discreet ways to carry messages to Hong Kong media owners, such as asking middlemen to speak with newspaper editors, today they are contacting editors and journalists directly, the CPJ says, with the propaganda chief of China's representative agency calling to complain about critical coverage during last year’s elections. The vicious attacks on former Ming Pao editor Kevin Lau and Lei Lun-han, vice president and director of Hong Kong Morning News Media Group Ltd, and senior executive Lam Kin-ming, in March are frightening and intimidating.

Next Media publisher Jimmy Lai’s publications have endured a boycott by China-based advertisers since 2003. Next publishes the critical, widely circulated Chinese-language Apple Daily as well as newsmagazines in Hong Kong and Taiwan. In broadcast, meanwhile, Beijing exerts an even stronger influence because the high cost of news operations is prohibitive to independent media. The government also tightly controls broadcast licenses, and can reject applications without providing a reason.

Provisions of the city's privacy law that went into effect in April 2013 could subject journalists to five years in jail or fines up to HK$1 million (US$129,000) if they reveal information that "causes psychological harm" or "causes loss." The law also gives targets of investigative reporting the right to "request to access personal data" collected by journalists. Journalists may mount a defense that they "reasonably believe" they are reporting in the public interest, but that aspect of the law is vague and undefined.

With the mainstream media increasingly compromised, some journalists in Hong Kong are pinning hope on the development of independent online news outlets. Unlike on the mainland, government censors do not control expression on the Internet in Hong Kong

In the runup to 2017, "Tensions will continue to build up, and it is critical that journalism in Hong Kong remains robust in the run-up to the 2017 election—and international media needs to pay close attention, too," according to Sham Yee-lan, chairwoman of the Hong Kong Journalists Association. "Otherwise, how can the public know what they're up against?"

That said, there are six free newspapers, five Communist dailies, three general dailies, two financial papers, two religious journals, one robustly pro-democracy icon plus two English language papers and three global ones. Hong Kong citizens enjoy the full spectrum of good, bad, trusted and spun press.

The citizenry, as a near-weekly procession of marches and demonstrations shows, are also feisty themselves, and so far have loudly protested any infringement on their freedom of expression, despite a lack of enthusiasm on the part of Beijing. It looks likely that a kind of see-saw tension will continue between mainland officials and a rambunctious citizenry. There has been no attempt to punish the territory economically. It seems likely that both sides will continue to regard each other with suspicion, but despite the strains, life is likely to continue as it is.