The rate of erosion of Hong Kong’s autonomy is speeding up. Beijing is now making little attempt to hide its interference in issues which properly belong to the territory under the One Country Two Systems concept on which its autonomy is based, and the Basic Law which enshrines it separate status.
The central government’s Liaison Office is now adding overt interference on domestic issues to hidden pressure on a weak-minded Hong Kong government.
Recent days have seen prominent examples of both aspects of the Liaison Office activities. In a recent interview, the head of the Hong Kong government’s Central Policy Unit, Shiu Sin-por, appointed by Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, acknowledged that that such “interference” was a reality.
Shiu should know. Since his appointment to the CPU, which was once focused on longer term policy issues, the unit has become not just a propaganda arm of the Hong Kong government but a voice echoing the Liaison Office itself. Shiu was formerly head of the One Country Two System Research Institute, long viewed as a key element in the Chinese Communist Party’s United Front activities in Hong Kong.
Shiu implied that even more such interference might be needed to combat the resistance that the government was facing to some of its policies from legislators and pressure groups. “It is legitimate because Beijing has the important policy of ensuring Hong Kong’s effective governance.” In other words, it would use its clout to push through policies being resisted by the Hong Kong people and their representatives.
Although CY Leung and Constitutional and Mainland Affairs secretary Raymond Tam Chi-yuen then attempted to dilute the meaning of Shiu remarks, with Tam referring to their “personal flavor,” it was clear that Shiu was telling the truth as far as Beijing was concerned. A Hong Kong government which believed in its own autonomy would have sacked, or at least publicly chastised Shiu for such an attack on Two System and on “Hong Kong People Ruling Hong Kong” as promised to the people of the Special Administrative Region.
Shiu continued his attack on Hong Kong people’s expectations the following day saying that universal suffrage was unlikely to bring more harmony to Hong Kong – “harmony” being code word for accepting official views. He also attacked those who had supported Henry Tang Ying-yen for the chief executive post in 2012, saying they were unable to accept defeat.
Thus in the view of Beijing’s leading mouthpiece, the problems of Leung’s administration are not those of incompetence but the machinations on the one side of conservatives of the Tang camp and on the other of the “unpatriotic” groups demanding more democracy.
In recent weeks, the government in Beijing has brought to the fore some brusque methods in dealing with the city’s residents, who have become more and more irritated with the hordes of mainland tourists – 42 million in 2013 – who have invaded the city. They have held protest marches, calling the mainlanders “locusts.” In return, the Chinese government abruptly moved a long-planned meeting of APEC foreign ministers to be held later this year out of the SAR and to Beijing itself.
After 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 harbor-front land in Central into a military berth, China followed that up when the PLA Navy on Jan. 24 staged its “first air-and-sea drill” of the year in Hong Kong, sending two frigates and three helicopters down Victoria Harbor in what was regarded universally as a warning.
Meanwhile the indirect but obvious influence of the Liaison Office is seen in the government’s efforts to prevent television broadcasting entrepreneur Ricky Wong Wai-kay from gaining access to the airwaves in any form. Wong is not known to be a political figure but he is known to be a successful program maker with an ability to attract audiences. That in itself is seen as a threat by a government, nudged by Beijing, which prefers dull to stimulating media.
Last year Wong’s company HKTV was refused a license for a free-to-air channel though it was evidently at least as qualified as the two companies which did get licenses and already had cable channels – Cable TV and Now TV, both owned by property based tycoons. Wong’s grant of a license had been recommended, was widely expected and refusal was never explained.
Wong responded not only with a lawsuit but with a plan to provide programs through mobile phones, after buying a license held by China Mobile. But now the Office of the Communications Authority has declared that unless it keeps its audience under 5,000 it will need a license under the Broadcasting Ordinance. This use of the Broadcasting ordinance to control telephony demonstrated the extent of power abuse by bureaucrats to thwart Wong at the say-so of the Liaison Office and the interests of the little watched overtly pro-Beijing free to air broadcaster, ATV.
Wong is again saying he will take the matter to the courts. But the courts themselves are now under pressure from repeated remarks by Beijing acolytes that the courts should not be able to overturn executive decisions. The judiciary must be subservient to the executive, as it is on the mainland. Barristers have been warning that it will be increasingly difficult to stand up to this pressure and increasingly judges will be chosen by reference not to their ability but to political correctness.
The separation of powers is perhaps one of the most important elements in One Country Two Systems, ensuring that the executive must act according to law. Erosion of it will not merely undermine Hong Kong’s autonomy and freedoms but its role as financial and commercial center with judicial and related systems respected overseas.
Hong Kong’s problem is that its chief executive has scant political standing in either Beijing or Hong Kong. To make matters worse, he is proving an inexperienced administrator with a limited ability to push through even those policies, for example in housing, which are generally popular. He is not stupid and talks coherently. But as recent events have shown, his lack of rapport either with the public or the old elite has made him more than ever dependent on and susceptible to the likes of the Liaison Office and Shiu. These in turn further undermine his local political strength and add to the disharmony evidenced by the frequency of anti-government demonstrations. Popular suspicions of what lies behind such disturbing events as the recent near-assassination of the respected former editor of Ming Pao do nothing to improve trust that One Country Two Systems is honored by Beijing and its local friends.