Posted:  March 30, 2011

 

One notable change in Hong Kong political life since the 1997 return to Chinese sovereignty is the annual spring trek to Beijing for meetings of the National People’s Congress (NPC) and its honorary companion, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC).  In the old days, Hong Kong also sent delegates to these meetings but they generated little news or interest beyond pro-Beijing press accounts that most people never bothered to read.   Local delegates were all appointed from within the pro-Beijing “patriotic” community, as it used to be called.  Hong Kong’s NPC representatives joined those from neighboring Guangdong province and attended the annual meetings as part of its delegation.

Since 1997, Hong Kong has sent its own delegations.  CPPCC members are still appointed, chosen as before to represent all walks of life, in a process coordinated by Beijing’s local representative, the Central Liaison Office.  NPC delegate selection is similarly coordinated but now results from a procedure based on the same Election Committee that is also responsible for anointing Hong Kong’s Chief Executive (July 23, 2010 post).  Hopes were high when the first 1997 delegation was selected that it might serve as the first formal institutional stepping stone across the dividing line between mainland dictatorship and Hong Kong’s democratic aspirations.  Alas, the Democratic Party’s attempt to join the competition was quickly scuttled when it submitted a manifesto that called for an end to one-party rule.*

Two delegations have since been selected — they serve for five-year terms — and the procedure that boasted some Hong Kong-style democratic features in 1997 has been “routinized.”  The committee itself is stacked with what British colonial governments used to refer to as “safe” members.  But despite the evident pre-selection of favored candidates there remains a modest degree of competition for at least a few of the 36 seats allocated to Hong Kong’s NPC delegation.  The insider pre-selection favors mainly prominent pro-Beijing political figures who made up the entire delegation before 1997.  Their numbers are now augmented by a few conservative politicians who currently include Liberal Party leader Miriam Lau, the New People’s Party vice chairman Michael Tien, and Rita Fan.   Fan was a colonial official who broke with the last British governor over his better-late-than-never electoral reform drive in the early 1990s.  She then joined Hong Kong’s emerging Beijing-sponsored establishment where her political skills and ambition have been well rewarded.

Pre-selection also focuses on Hong Kong’s Legislative Councilors to produce a significant proportion of mainland-style over-laps.  At last count, 18 of Legco’s 60 members were also members either of the NPC, or the CPPCC, or one of the latter’s provincial counterparts.  So many were away in Beijing earlier this month that the Hong Kong government lost an important preliminary vote on its controversial budget —  much to the delight of pan-democrats.

PRE-CONFERENCE MANEUVERS

An air of anticipation preceded the early March meetings this year, buoyed by hope in some quarters that the spirit of Middle Eastern people-power uprisings might reach as far as Beijing.  Contributing to this air of expectation was the unprecedented role that 28 of the 36-member Hong Kong NPC delegation played late last year in winning a mitigated sentence for convicted mainland activist Zhao Lianhai (Dec. 6, 2010 post).  The most outspoken pro-Beijing promoter of that cause was CPPCC member Lew Mon-hung [Liu Mengxiong], who announced in advance that he was soliciting co-signers for a submission he planned to file calling for an investigation into the original faulty sentence imposed on Zhao Lianhai.

Dr. Lew is so outspoken that he even told journalists what happened next, suggesting the extent to which no stone was left unturned in the official effort to contain negative voices wherever they might be found.  Two Beijing officials had contacted him to caution against submitting his proposal.  It was “too sensitive,” they said, and would add a discordant note to the official congress theme of economic achievement.  But he took the hint, stopped soliciting co-sponsors, and quietly filed the proposal by himself.   Delegates later said they raised the Zhao case in their closed-door meetings with mainland officials but received only silence in return.  Some Hong Kong delegates also submitted a laundry list of suggestions including one item calling for improvement in the mainland’s rule-of-law (Wen Wei Po [Wenhui bao], Hong Kong, Mar. 2, 2011).

That left everyone free to focus their public statements on the main official business at hand, namely, the 12th Five Year Plan for National Economic and Social Development, and Hong Kong’s role therein.  The new FYP was formally promulgated on March 16.   For the first time ever, Hong Kong has been given space of its own in a national plan and the name of the game is forward looking pro-active economic integration.

THE HONG KONG CHAPTER

Hailed by the Hong Kong government as a “dedicated chapter” with “iconic significance,” the short Hong Kong-Macau section (Article 14) of the FYP does no more than summarize the evolving economic relationship to date and project its development over the next five years.  Perhaps, if the official language had been less effusive and Hong Kong delegates less enthusiastic, the alarm bells about “one-country, two-systems” and loss of protective local autonomy would have been more muted.

Instead, it came as a shock to hear Hong Kong’s economic life being proclaimed with unqualified mainland-style hype and celebrated on the national stage in language most locals never use.   Describing his reaction, City University Professor Ip Ngai-ming said he knew “one country” was coming but he didn’t expect it to arrive quite so soon.   He was speaking at a March 26 public forum on the most controversial aspect of the plans for Hong Kong, which is the cross-border Pearl River Delta project.

In fact, not all the plans are suspect in terms of maintaining Hong Kong’s protective autonomy.  The rule-of-law and an independent judiciary remain its strongest guarantees and the new plan aims to exploit that advantage by enhancing Hong Kong’s role as an international financial center.  Specifically, Hong Kong will be the experimental testing ground for internationalizing China’s currency.   This emphasis also aims to ease Hong Kong’s fears about being overshadowed by Shanghai since Hong Kong is to concentrate on offshore renminbi (RMB) “asset management” while Shanghai’s focus will be onshore finance.  Given Beijing’s overriding desire to sustain the Chinese economic juggernaut, the need for a safe investment environment to “act as a buffer for mainland enterprises” should at least help to protect Hong Kong’s judicial system from the undercurrent of partisan snipping about its independence that has strengthened in recent years.

On other dimensions, however, Hong Kong’s economic future will be less about divisions of labor and more about the political-economy of cross-border integration with emphasis on the leading mainland end.  Beijing wants to encourage cooperation by focusing on what are now promoted as Hong Kong’s leading competitive-advantage “industries.”  Besides finance, these are shipping and transport, logistics, tourism, professional services, and information technology.

Cooperation in these areas has been advancing steadily since 1997 and the benefits for economic growth seem to outweigh the costs in Hong Kong eyes.  But the third focus of the plan  —  on deepening the already extensive links between Hong Kong and neighboring Guangdong province  —  is something else again.   Nevertheless, the Hong Kong government promises to go “forging ahead” with the ambitious regional coordination project in accordance with its FYP mandate.  This anticipates cross-border cooperation and infrastructure development to create what is being advertised as a “Guangdong, Hong Kong, Macau Quality Living Area,” otherwise known as the “Action Plan for the Bay Area of the Pearl River Estuary.”

WHAT PRICE INTEGRATION?          

Hong Kong delegates had nothing but praise for all the plans and their limitless potential.  Rita Fan said that in the past some had been hesitant to embrace cross-border linkages but people now realized that only through integration with the mainland could Hong Kong look forward to a bright future.  CPPCC delegate Christopher Cheung looked forward to more RMB investment products being issued in Hong Kong.  He also hoped to see a Greater China Exchange that would merge the mainland stock exchanges in Shanghai and Shenzhen with their Hong Kong counterpart.

Professor Lau Siu-kai, head of the Hong Kong government’s Central Policy Unit think tank, said Beijing had initially hesitated to emphasize Hong Kong in the FYP.  But Lau (who is famous for the conservative results of his opinion polls) conducted surveys that assured Beijing planners of popular support.  As a CPPCC delegate he was also enthusiastic about Hong Kong’s anointed role as China’s main international financial center, thereby establishing Hong Kong’s preeminence over its Shanghai and Guangzhou rivals.

Prof. Lau’s opinion polls are now for internal reference only so there is no way of knowing how he achieved 70% approval for Hong Kong’s inclusion in the FYP.  But suspicions were so great that Premier Wen Jiabao used his concluding March 14 press conference to declare that Hong Kong’s place in the FYP was a mark of Beijing support for Hong Kong’s economic development.  The plan would not be imposed from above, he said, repeating the standard assurances about adhering to the Basic Law, one-country, two-systems, a high degree of autonomy, and so on.  Had Lau Siu-kai’s pollsters asked some direct questions about specific points, he would doubtless have come away with a different impression.  Prof. Ip’s comment at the March 26 forum reflected widespread skepticism especially about the ambitious designs for cross border integration with neighboring Guangdong province.**

The groundwork has long been underway in the form of some expensive cross-border infrastructure projects that have provoked much opposition especially over environmental concerns and Hong Kong’s share of the billion-dollar price tags when Hong Kong’s own needs are inadequately funded.   The newly disruptive post-1980s youth movement that burst upon the scene last year was precipitated by the high-speed cross-border railway insisted on by Beijing.  Tycoon Gordon Wu’s pet-project bridge across the estuary is still generating protest although construction has already begun.  It is also being superseded by a parallel bridge upriver in mainland waters.  Mainland pressure to develop a polluted patch of Hong Kong’s border land, known as the Lok Ma Chau Loop, has been the subject of debate for at least two years over questions of cost and viability.

Now all such controversies are being given specific focus by the new Pearl River Estuary project.  This was first conceptualized by Beijing’s National Development and Reform Commission in December 2008.  Its “Outline Plan” resulted in the “Action Plan” just released by the Hong Kong government, in January, timed to illustrate what the FYP anticipates for Hong Kong.  But the Action Plan was designed by authorities in the three regional jurisdictions (Hong Kong, Macau, and Guangdong province) with little input from any of their respective communities.  Now they are being presented with a mega merger proposal that will dwarf all recent challenges.

The plan encompasses cities and counties surrounding the Pearl River Estuary or bay area:  Hong Kong, Macau, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Zhuhai, Zhongshan, and Dongguan.  Coordination is the aim:  for infrastructure development, transport links, housing, and cultural facilities including the merger of Hong Kong and mainland country parks.  Also included is renewed determination to clean up the infamous Lok Ma Chau Loop.  The Hong Kong government’s sales pitch focuses on cooperation for greener land, bluer water, clearer air, faster commutes, smoother border crossings, and easier access to more leisure facilities.

In what has become an awkward habit, however, the government seemed oblivious to existing tensions in a community now sensitized to the costs as well as benefits of such development projects.  Local decision-makers and bureaucrats seem to lack the political agility needed to serve both the new sovereign in Beijing and a community that has moved on to a different place.  The bay area plan was introduced in January with minimal publicity and little consultation; as if the Planning Department was hoping against hope to avoid another storm.  Officials are now doing damage control but have so far failed to allay suspicions.

Executive Councilor Anthony Cheung, a former democrat and now top government advisor, says that the negative reaction has derived from misplaced fears about loss of autonomy.  Integration, he says, is not optional.  It is not a matter of whether to integrate but how.  “Two systems” refer to separate mainland and Hong Kong systems for political life and administration.  The bay area plan is about Hong Kong’s economic future and that depends on the interface with China (South China Morning Post, March 23).   But politics, as Professor Cheung knows well, is about who decides, who benefits, and who pays.

If they want to put Hong Kong hearts at ease, officials should first explain how its political and administrative autonomy can be protected when such major decisions are being made elsewhere, and when Hong Kong government press releases read like they were written in Beijing.  Officials should also explain how political autonomy can be protected when those who stand to benefit most from the bay area project are the developers and corporations whose representatives are among Beijing’s staunchest allies in the struggle to keep democratic demands for long-term political protection at bay.

* S. Pepper, “Hong Kong Joins the National People’s Congress,” Journal of Contemporary China (July 1999), pp. 319-33.

** Links:  The March 26 forum was organized by the Civic Party’s Paul Zimmerman who heads Designing Hong Kong (Newsletterwww.designinghongkong.com ).  Christine Loh’s Civic Exchange think tank seems to have been the only local group paying attention while the Pearl River Delta plan, drafted by Beijing’s National Development and Reform Commission, was moving through the pipelines (www.civic-exchange.org/wp/bay_area_submission/).  Other forum participants on March 26 included Michael Mo, a post-80s critic with the Community Development Initiative (www.CDIorg.hk ), and Ling Kar-kan from the Hong Kong government’s Planning Department.    The original NDRC document was The Outline of the Plan for the Reform and Development of the Pearl River Delta (December 2008):  www.china.org.cn/government/scio-press-conferences/2009-01/08/content-17075239 13.htm ).  For Hong Kong government information:  www.prdbay.com/ .

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