Despite strong official backing by Beijing, Hong Kong’s future Chief Executive, Carrie Lam Yuet-ngor, promised to heal the divisions in society. Yet in the runup to her installation on July 1, it appears increasingly that the healing of divisions is going to be accomplished by silencing one half of that divide. Actions and words in recent days have shown the current Chief Executive CY Leung bent on vengeance, and a central government bent on squeezing the life out of the Two Systems concept.
Quite what Lam feels about these moves is unclear, but they have raised concerns in many traditional pro-government circles as well as among the direct target, the advocates of more democracy and the autonomy promised in the Basic Law and Joint Declaration.
Not content with using legal procedures to have two young elected pro-democracy legislators disbarred from office, the authorities had them arrested for “unlawful assembly” and “attempted forced entry” for trying to attend a Legislative Council meeting. The government then followed this up with the arrest of nine other activists from the pro-democracy faction who took part in a Nov. 6 demonstration against the court decision to ban the two elected legislators. The nine are charged with “unlawful assembly” for taking an unauthorized route during a march to the Liaison Office, Beijing’s power center in Hong Kong.
These charges come in the wake of 18 previous ones against activists, some dating back to the 2014 Umbrella movement, and it is widely believed that more such charges are in the works to cripple the pro-democracy movement and further reduce its numbers in the Legislative Council, thus using loosely framed laws to counter its stunning success in elections last September.
Four other lawmakers face disbarment on the basis of being in conflict with a November 2016 decision by Beijing’s National People’s Congress. If these cases succeed, the ranks of elected legislators would be again thinned, giving the government complete control of a Legislative Council half of whose members are chosen mostly by small, pro-government electorates. Hong Kong’s political system would have no more credibility than that of the military junta in Thailand.
Just possibly, harsh measures by the outgoing and highly unpopular Leung are a deliberate ploy to enable Lam to start her rule with some concessions, such as a general amnesty for those – including policemen – involved in legal actions related to Umbrella and related demonstrations. But that is probably over-optimistic. An autocratic Xi Jinping appears in no mood for compromises with insubordinate Hong Kong residents, of whom there are many.
Adding further to Hong Kong concerns was a speech by a legal advisor to Beijing’s Liaison Office, Wang Zhenmin, which threatened the end of the domestic autonomy promised under Two Systems if it was perceived to undermine the interests of One Country. Wang suggested that separatist sentiment in Hong Kong has damaged national security and that the territory “needs to actively defend the sovereignty, national security and development interests of the country in accordance with law.”
Wang seems deliberately to exaggerate the extent of separatist sentiment in the territory, confusing demands for genuine autonomy with ones for independence, an entirely impractical proposition supported only by a few naïve youngsters. The “independence” canard and the priority to One Country have thus become sticks to beat those wanting the sustain genuine autonomy and the freedoms of speech and publication which Hong Kong enjoys. Soon it may be impossible to have open debate on issues such as the status of Taiwan, Xinjiang, Tibet or the South China Sea.
What Beijing consistently declines to recognize is that the Umbrella movement itself, and the anti-government vote in the 2016 elections, was a direct response to Beijing’s earlier interference quashing efforts to extend representative government.
The implication that Hong Kong may be a threat to national security has to be seen in the context of China’s National Security law. This is so broadly drafted that it can be used against almost any criticism of the Communist party and its leadership and policies. For instance, Article 15 reads:
“The State persists in the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, maintaining the socialist system with Chinese characteristics, developing socialist democratic politics, completing socialist rule of law, strengthening mechanisms for restraint and oversight of the operation of power, and ensuring all rights of the people as the masters of the nation, and strengthening restraint and oversight mechanisms on the operation of power.
“The State guards against, stops, and lawfully punishes acts of treason, division of the nation, incitement of rebellion, subversion or instigation of subversion of the people’s democratic dictatorship regime; guards against, stops, and lawfully punishes the theft or leaking of state secrets and other conduct endangering national security; and guards against, stops, and lawfully punishes acts of infiltration, destruction, subversion or separatism by foreign influences and other conduct endangering national security; and guards against, stops, and lawfully punishes acts of infiltration, destruction, subversion or separatism by foreign influences.
“The State persists in the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, maintaining the socialist system with Chinese characteristics, developing socialist democratic politics, completing socialist rule of law, strengthening mechanisms for restraint and oversight of the operation of power, and ensuring all rights of the people as the masters of the nation, and strengthening restraint and oversight mechanisms on the operation of power.”
Wang’s speech elicited a quick rebuke from a former leader of the pro-business and generally pro-government Liberal party Allen Lee Peng-fei. “What authority does he have to speak to Hong Kong people?” and to lay down his view about constitutional reform, a matter for the territory itself. Lee is long retired so has little to lose from speaking up, but his views reflected those of many fearful of expressing views for fear of retribution in one form or another.
In particular, Hong Kongers increasingly resent the overt interference of the Liaison Office which is supposed to keep Beijing informed of Hongkong peoples’ views, not act as the hand guiding a puppet regime.
Such levels of interference and the constant talk of “national security” are worrying traditionally conservative groups such as lawyers and accountants, and those want to see Hong Kong remain attractive to open minds and free expression, essential if its future is to be more than just one of several large cities on the south China coast.
As it is, the territory is spending large sums to celebrate the 20th anniversary of return to Chinese sovereignty. President Xi will be on hand as Lam takes over. But for many in Hong Kong there is a diminishing cause for celebration as the demand for One Country, as ruled by the party, dominates discourse, and the related concept of “Hong Kong People Ruling Hong Kong” is constantly undermined by Beijing’s spokesmen and their army of parrots in the local media. Doubly worrying, it comes at a time when President Xi is bent on reducing or eliminating foreign influence in social, political and cultural domains. Hong Kong is by this measure a gateway for undesirable ideas. For sure, closing the windows will keep out foreign flies, but so are fresh air and fresh ideas. Deng Xiaoping must be turning in his grave.