Posted:  Nov. 10, 2009

 

From the outside looking in, political life in Hong Kong must seem neither particularly inspiring nor even very well articulated.  Nowadays, the apparent lack of clarity and purpose is blamed on Beijing and sometimes also on underlying old traditions.  Actually, it might just as well be blamed on the British, although they already seem like a distant memory here.  The colonial government had developed what used to be called the “administrative absorption of politics” into a fine art of bureaucratic obfuscation.   Local leaders were co-opted, potential enemies marginalized, and open political debate was avoided.  This peculiar style of governance was said to suit behavioral patterns that Chinese preferred, with specific reference to their alleged dislike of open dissent and face-to-face adversarial debate.  Consultation and consensus were the watchwords and their spirit lives on in many ways.

Yet for a place that had no overt opposition groups or political activists until the 1980s when the British stopped discouraging such things, Hong Kong has changed dramatically.  Today partisans can be found on every side of just about every issue related to public policy, local governance, and relations with what is still differentiated as mainland China.  The net result of old pre-1980s ways and the new partisanship is a kind of amorphous tension that passes for adversarial politics but allows the participants to remain even more obtuse than responsible politicians usually are or have any right to be.

POLITICAL DISCOURSE IN TRANSITION

Compounding this effect, of course, is the ambiguous relationship with a new sovereign.  Since Hong Kong is now 12 years into its 50-year transition period (1997-2047) between British colonial and full Chinese rule, the one-country-two-systems formula designed to finesse that transition is not static but in a state of constant evolutionary motion.   The main partisan divisions — democratic and conservative — have taken shape in the ongoing struggle to influence that evolution.

The divisions are well-known.  Democrats are committed to Western-style civil liberties guarantees and governance.  Conservatives include pro-business people and committed pro-Beijing partisans.  The latter are led by Hong Kong’s un-acknowledged branch of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). This loyalist community has a history dating back to the 1920s, and was Britain’s main target for marginalization.  Although adherents and leaders now move freely in all circles, they do so only as pro-Beijing loyalists.  Ironically for a once revolutionary party, its “underground” existence is being protected by the inherited traditional aspects of Hong Kong’s political culture. Meanwhile, many other pretensions derive from this particular don’t-ask-don’t-tell secret and the nebulous nature of much political discourse follows accordingly.

Hong Kong’s partisan struggles to influence the course of its evolution are naturally colored by this political environment.  For example, no one ever discusses the implications of the 2047 deadline or asks to begin deliberating exactly how the two-systems formula might end.  This should be a major concern since the legal promise to maintain Hong Kong’s existing ill-defined “way of life” expires on that date.  Movement in the direction of mainland-style party-led government is also well in evidence although this drift, too, is not officially acknowledged.  Economic integration has long since become part of everyday life but the possibility of future political integration such as that experienced by other originally autonomous regions is never mentioned.

Efforts to influence Hong Kong’s political evolution thus continue piecemeal, in a kind of political vacuum, as democrats try to take stands against the ways and means of an encroaching mainland system while conservatives work to promote its advance. Sometimes adherents state their case in terms of international human rights standards or national patriotism, but usually these external sources of inspiration are left unstated.  Onlookers sometimes make the connection; often they do not.  Achievements one way or the other also rarely register on any scale of earthshaking events.   Yet the partisan  struggle continues unabated and a sequence of contested issues during the past two months since the latest round in the electoral reform debate began (Sept. 16 post), has unexpectedly served to strengthen the democratic cause.  Most significant was the heightened defense of “Hong Kong values” and of the local legislature’s powers.

WHOSE VALUES?

Democrats have settled on the term “core values” (hexin jiazhi) for every day use in differentiating Hong Kong’s political system from that of the mainland without actually having to say so.  Individuals explain only when they must with references to the values Hong Kong inherited from its pre-1997 past.  In fact, also without saying so, democrats are referring more specifically to the 1980s and 1990s colonial past when in addition to peace, prosperity, the rule of law, and lifestyle freedoms, others were emphasized that had not been before.  These included most notably the freedom of political expression and democracy or the new goal of electoral representation in government, which British Hong Kong did not allow in any meaningful sense until the 1980s.

A recent practical application of these new values made headlines when politicians and local leaders all across the political spectrum hastened to condemn the indiscriminate charge of incitement made by mainland law enforcement authorities against Hong Kong  journalists who were covering the Urumqi riots in early September (Sept. 25 post).   Loyalists had mostly moderated their indignation by the time the media uproar died down, but the initial “all Hong Kong” response was a hopeful sign for those worried about the long-term post-2047 survival of civil and political liberties.

Lest anyone think the issue settled, however, a group of prominent conservatives then lent their names, with official blessing, to a new effort launched in mid-October aimed at explicitly defining “Hong Kong’s core values.”  The group’s online (Chinese language) questionnaire asks the public to choose from a 15-item list of Hong Kong’s “most familiar” values.  These read like a selection from the pre-1980s past with much emphasis on family and prosperity, augmented by the mainland ideals of patriotism and social harmony.  The list includes only general references to freedom and law and says nothing at all about democracy (www.wpedu.org/value).   Results are to be announced early next year.

For democrats these values come with sharper edges that emphasize free political expression in all its many written, verbal, and associational forms, plus judicial independence, adversarial politics, and elected government.  But in trying to co-opt the core values concept by defining it on their own terms, conservatives at least now accept that any credible list must include both “respect for freedom” and the “rule of law spirit.”

LEGISLATIVE POWERS

The Legislative Council, or Legco in local shorthand, has been a major source of contention since the 1980s when Hong Kong’s Basic Law constitution was being drafted.  The 20-year-old argument over methods for electing legislators is set to continue for another decade and remains the most widely publicized aspect of Hong Kong’s partisan struggles.  Less well-known is the subtle test of wills over how Legco conducts its business.

Legislative power is severely constrained by Basic Law design and by Beijing’s insistence on maintaining what is called “executive-led” local government here. The council cannot initiate any substantive legislation and even non-binding motions are subject to conservative veto given the council’s split voting mechanism.  But within these limits, councilors began immediately in 1998 and have continued ever since to take full advantage of their supervisory powers as spelled out in Article 73 of the Basic Law.  Democratic legislators have tried further to push the limits of those powers whenever they can and conservatives push back at every opportunity, which has helped make Legco the center of political attention regardless of Beijing’s wishes.

One such opportunity arose last summer during the three-day visit of Du Qinglin.  He heads the Communist Party’s United Front Work Department and came from Beijing to inaugurate the Hong Kong chapter of an association that promotes Taiwan reunification (Aug. 12 post).  In an unrelated event on July 29, he held a closed-door meeting with pro-Beijing business leaders who were not shy about talking to the press afterward.  They had complained to Director Du that legislators, especially democrats, were surreptitiously trying to expand their powers thereby interfering with executive-led decision-making and delaying development projects.  Among those present, New World China Land chairman Henry Cheng Kar-shun was so angry that he had decided to challenge Legco head on.   Like many other big business executives, Henry Cheng has been rewarded for his loyalty with an appointment to Beijing’s top national advisory body, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference.  At last count, 174 Hong Kong residents had been honored in this way and those attending the meeting with Director Du were all CPPCC members.

Cheng had been summoned months before by a Legco select committee to give evidence in a potential conflict of interest case that involved a recently retired government housing official.  But Cheng refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the summons and applied for a judicial review to clarify whether such a committee had the right to compel testimony.  He insisted that only the council sitting as a whole had such power, a useful argument since the council is designed in such a way as to produce “safe” conservative majorities for most every occasion when partisan interests are at stake.  Article 73 grants investigative power but is silent on the distinction he raised.

Loyalists also complain about Hong Kong’s independent judiciary and contribute a steady supply of arguments to the local press.  These elaborate the case they are slowly building against the “colonial” foreign nature of Hong Kong’s judicial system.  Democrats for their part have made liberal use of the courts and of judicial reviews in an effort to entrench civil rights in local practice while they can.  In daring the court to rule in his favor, Henry Cheng was in effect invoking loyalist and conservative values to challenge the main — judicial and legislative — pillars protecting Hong Kong’s separate transitional system.

For reasons not yet known, the Hong Kong government and its top legal official, Secretary for Justice Wong Yan-lung, took a special interest in the case.  During the August 17-19 hearing, his counsel presented an unexpectedly strong defense of select committee powers.   The September 24 judgment went against Cheng in a verdict he refuses to accept pending appeal.  He did, however, finally agree to testify “voluntarily” on November 3 when he used the occasion to tell legislators he still did not acknowledge their right to question him.

For his part, Judge Andrew Cheung had also used the opportunity to reaffirm the separation-of-powers principle in defiance of strong official hints from Beijing that Hong Kong’s legislative, executive, and judicial branches should strive for solidarity.  And so the slow-moving test of wills continues.  But for now the judgment stands in recognition both of the local legislature’s existing power, such as it is, and of the Hong Kong court’s independence.

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