Hong Kong, March 19, 2009 ….     International spotlights shown brightly on Hong Kong during the years before 1997, when preparations were underway for its return to Chinese sovereignty.  Elaborate plans preceded the historic transfer of Britain’s last major colony to the last remaining communist superpower, but the potential for high drama remained since no one could be sure if the plans would actually work.  British negotiators nevertheless did their best to reassure, declaring that their Chinese counterparts always said what they meant and meant what they said and could be counted on to keep their promises.  July 1, 1997 then came and went, and the plans proceeded on course thereafter.  Everyone breathed a sigh of relief and moved on, without worrying too much about the details or assessing the long term implications.

Today, more than a decade has passed and international public opinion still deems Hong Kong’s transfer from British to Chinese rule a good job well done.   Hence government officials, legal scholars, and investors continue to cite the Hong Kong precedent as a solution for other similar problems of disputed governance around China’s periphery  including especially Taiwan and Tibet.  This would be fine except that the precedent cited is already out-of-date since it is based on pre-1997 images and post-1997 appearances all carefully maintained by the principal stakeholders, that is, the Chinese, British, and Hong Kong governments.  In such situations, of course, pretense cannot diverge too far from reality before cognitive dissonance sets in and for Hong Kong itself that point is fast approaching as the long-term implications of recent official Chinese decisions begin to appear.  They suggest that some serious recalibration of the Hong Kong model is now in order.

The much-praised solution is known as “one-country, two-systems” and promised to let local people administer the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) with a “high degree of autonomy” for 50 years.  These promises were widely publicized and carved in stone or the next best thing.  A Basic Law mini-constitution was promulgated by Beijing to cover the years from 1997 to 2047, during which the “capitalist system and way of life” would “remain unchanged” and the “socialist system and policies” would not be practiced (Article 5).

Debates raged while the Basic Law was being drafted and Hong Kong’s nascent democracy movement grew up in the struggle over every chapter and verse.  Democrats lamented the law’s many loopholes and trip wires but by the time it was promulgated, in 1990, the communist world was collapsing.  Apprehensions were eased by the thought that 2047 was a lifetime away and the dangers of China’s political system would surely have become history long before then.

That China was en route to future wealth and power was not questioned by most Hong Kongers before 1997; that Chinese leaders would use their achievements to strengthen and legitimize the communist party’s dominance over all aspects of political life and thought was never seriously considered.  Today Hong Kong has no choice but to contemplate that reality because the SAR is being slowly prepared to join it.  Whether this was the intention all along has yet to be acknowledged, but Beijing is jealously guarding its right to color in the Basic Law’s gray areas and activate its trip wires and the results all point in the same direction.  One-country, two-systems, in other words, should not be cited as a permanent solution but only as a transitional state of preparation for one-country, one-system or full integration within the Chinese body politick.

NATIONAL SECURITY

Of all the many indicators that now point in the same direction two stand out for their significance and the forceful manner of their presentation.  The public is not being given a choice or friendly advice but ultimatums intended to warn everyone including the 60 % of Hong Kong’s voters who continue to support candidates who in turn support Western-style democratic values.  In contrast, Beijing’s ultimatums are introducing the ways and means and norms of its own communist party-led governing system.

The first such indicator is Beijing’s insistence on the passage of national security legislation as mandated by Article 23 of the Basic Law.  The story of Hong Kong’s 2003 resistance to this mandate and the new strategy of re-routing the legislation first via neighboring Macau has been told elsewhere (http://www.chinaelections.net/newsinfo.asp?newsid=19922).  In fact, there are many other kinds of laws capable of protecting China’s national security and no one in either Hong Kong or Macau has demonstrated the slightest interest in betraying such security as conventionally understood.  Hence there can be only one reason for insisting on legislation that transposes China’s own national security and state secrets laws for use in the two SARs.  These laws equate national security with the authority of the Chinese government, its leaders, their policies, and the communist party-led system itself, and Beijing must intend them to be enforced on that basis.  With these laws in place the SAR governments will, in any case, have all the power they need to pre-empt challenges, including both verbal and written, to all those manifestations of the central government’s authority. Macau’s law was passed and promulgated in February; Hong Kong is bracing for another attempt at passage before 2012.

POLITICAL REFORM

The second most important indicator of Beijing’s intentions for post-2047 Hong Kong is the stalemate over political reform.  Some might conclude that Beijing is reneging on several of its Basic Law promises in this respect.  But British negotiators were not wrong to assert that the Chinese government could be counted on to honor pledges so formally made.  The negotiators just forgot that they and their Chinese counterparts were using the same words to describe two very different ways of political life.    The Basic Law’s promise to allow gradual political reform until Hong Kong is able to elect  its chief executive and all the members of its Legislative Council by “universal suffrage” (Articles 45 and 68) lies at the heart of this “misunderstanding.”  Macau’s Basic Law was drafted a few years after that of Hong Kong and does not contain the universal suffrage provisions.

According to the promise for Hong Kong, evolution toward a directly elected local legislature could begin after 2007.  At that time, half of its 60 legislators were directly elected by universal suffrage.  The other half was and continues to be chosen by small mostly conservative occupational constituencies. This electoral system plus the chamber’s restrictive voting mechanism guarantee what the British used to call a “safe” balance in their colonial legislatures.  But local democrats, who have kept their movement alive with the promise of progress toward directly elected local government, were to be sorely disappointed.  Beijing issued stern declarations in 2004 and again in 2007:  universal suffrage for the chief executive and all legislators will not be allowed until 2017 and 2020, respectively, and the decision is for Beijing alone to make.  This last directly contradicts formal pre-1997 Chinese statements that Hong Kong could make its own decisions about Legislative Council electoral reform without referral to Beijing. [1]

Along with these ultimatums have come new media-wide programs for patriotic political education to help Hong Kong gain a better appreciation of Beijing’s achievements and the reasons for its repeated reminders that China will never accept a Western-style democratic form of government.  Local democrats are also repeatedly reminded that making such demands is tantamount to calling for the overthrow of the communist-led system, which carries charges of subversive intent.  This explains in turn why they are routinely vilified as “traitors” by local partisans whenever tempers flare for whatever reason.  The reminders and accusations also explain Beijing’s insistence on those national political security laws since they serve as the lynch pin of its governing system.

For the time being, however, Chinese officials are using all the other powers at their disposal to wean Hong Kong politicians and voters from their attachment to Western ways of political life.   One of the most interesting such efforts has so far gone largely unnoticed.  This is the gradual “take-over” of Hong Kong’s 18 District Councils by local conservatives and the main pro-Beijing political party (the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong or DAB for short).  Since their creation in the 1980s, the councils have been dominated by local conservatives who initially grumbled about the new-fangled inconveniences like electioneering that came with the colonial government’s belated introduction of political reforms. But conservatives benefited from long-standing neighborhood connections and self-help associations. Then, in the 1990s, DAB loyalists saw the potential of grassroots socializing and networking and so the groundwork was laid.

Democrats, with some exceptions, disregarded the originally powerless advisory councils, which are elected by 400 separate constituencies each with only a few thousand voters.  Aspiring democratic politicians set their sights on the Legislative Council where they could champion their cause to greater effect and where they have continued to win 60% of all votes cast for the 30 directly-elected seats.  But democrats must now pay a heavy price for this division of political labor as the district councils are slowly transformed, by government decree and DAB activism, into the building blocks of a design that seems to replicate the lower reaches of China’s People’s Congress system.

Democrats emerged from the last district councils election, in November 2007, with elected majorities on only two councils, parity on one other, and unable to retain even a single chairmanship.  Many factors were at work in this unexpectedly severe humiliation including the absence of immediate threats from Beijing.  These tend to boost democrats’ fortunes at the polls.  But there were other more specific considerations such as democrats’ admitted neglect of district work and the DAB’s recent recruiting drive.  Membership is now 10,000, up from only 2,000 in 2005, making the DAB Hong Kong’s largest political party by far as it transforms itself into a mass-based organization like its Chinese Communist Party (CCP) mentor.  The existence of Hong Kong’s unacknowledged or “underground” CCP branch is an old open secret and branch members are assumed to provide backbone leadership for the DAB.

Meanwhile, one of the Hong Kong government’s suggested electoral changes to prepare for progression toward the ultimate aim of universal suffrage in 2020 is to give district councils a much greater say than they now have in electing legislative councilors.  The beauty of this indirect election proposal is that, if implemented, it would dovetail neatly with the mainland People’s Congress system.  This too is built on grassroots foundations of universal suffrage, a right that it should be remembered is guaranteed by China’s national constitution. But direct elections by universal suffrage begin and end at the lowermost level where constituencies are small and easily dominated by local officials.  Indirectly elected delegates fill all the congressional levels above, and the CCP’s unchallenged 70 million member organization vets candidate selection from top to bottom.  On all these points, promoters of the Hong Kong solution overlook its built-in potential for integration with the national political power grid.

2047:  DON’T ASK, DON’T TELL

Beijing’s insistence on the national security laws and its procrastination over universal suffrage are only the most important indicators of how Hong Kong is being slowly eased into the slipstream of mainland-style governance.  There are many more.[2] But since no one in Hong Kong is ready to speak openly about the implications, it is not surprising that international public opinion continues to champion the success of one-country, two-systems as if it were a permanent solution instead of only a passing phase.  Still, unlike outsiders, no one in Hong Kong promotes that formula as a solution for Tibet because everyone understands that Tibet had the equivalent of a Basic Law transition period in the 1950s and its endgame was full integration.

There seem to be two basic explanations for Hong Kong’s reticence depending on whether interviewees are pro-Beijing partisans or pan-democrats, as the two main political camps are known locally.  Partisans are actually happy to acknowledge the intended endgame, but only in private conversation. The time is not right for more, they say, no Chinese-language newspaper would touch it, and so on.  Everyone else is thus left to ponder what the official Beijing commentator meant when he wrote that the 2017-2020 years were an appropriate time to introduce universal suffrage because they marked the mid-way point in Hong Kong’s 50-year transition.  Transition to what has yet to be officially addressed by anyone.

Hong Kong democrats, meaning those committed to Western-style assumptions about civil rights and freedoms, are a mixed lot.  Only one group, the League of Social Democrats (LSD), is daring enough to challenge openly some partisan leaders about their probable CCP membership.  But even League members are still not connecting the dots along a 2047 trajectory.  Other democrats, when asked why they hesitate to discuss the future, temporize and prevaricate with comments like “I agree … we should … maybe later,” or the favorite “maybe something will happen,” meaning something to preempt the  ending they would rather not contemplate.  Then when Hong Kongers turn out to give democratic candidates 60% of all votes cast, as they did again in last September’s Legislative Council election, democratic commentators congratulate voters for their “subliminal” grasp of the issues.  Had these been addressed directly, democrats’ success rate would doubtless have been even higher, as suggested by the LSD’s unexpected gains.

Everyone is obviously hoping to finesse an easy ending.  But that can only happen given one or the other of two unlikely contingencies:   either Hong Kong’s politicized majority must abandon its attachment to a “way of life” that was supposed to remain unchanged for 50 years; or Beijing will have to re-think its insistence on a one-size-fits-all form of CCP-led governance and allow local political life to continue indefinitely.  All things considered, expecting Hong Kong to quietly join the nation as it is now, instead of being allowed to stand as an example of what it can become, is to wish for the least likely of all possible scenarios.

SP is an independent Hong Kong-based American writer.


[1] Ministry of Foreign Affairs, PRC, “Facts about a Few Important Aspects of Sino-British Talks on 1994/95 Electoral Arrangement in Hong Kong,” text, China Daily, March 1, 1994; also, Renmin ribao, haiwai [People's Daily, overseas edition], Beijing, March 18, 1993.

[2] For a fuller account, see, S. Pepper, “Two Systems Becoming One:  The 2047 Timetable,” in China’s Hong Kong Transformed, Ming K Chan, ed.  (Hong Kong:  City University Press, 2008), pp.113-151.