Posted:  Nov. 17, 2014


During the last political reform controversy, in 2010, one diplomat on assignment here was definitely not among the “foreign forces” Beijing loves to blame for all of Hong Kong’s political troubles.  He couldn’t wait for his two-year stint to end because, he said, all the excitement being generated by the debate was much ado about nothing.  “The tycoons have always run Hong Kong and they always will.”  As far as he was concerned, that was the beginning and the end of Hong Kong’s democracy movement and its ongoing 30-year demands for elected representative government.

The diplomat is long gone but his words of wisdom linger on … in the quotable quotes of Hong Kong’s rich and powerful.   Another wave is currently roiling the waters as Hong Kong’s Yellow Umbrella Movement of street blockade sit-ins continue into its seventh week.  A new generation has now taken up the cause but despite the students’ best consciousness-raising efforts, those who “run Hong Kong” remain uncomprehending and unmoved by the political debates continuing on the street.

These are the people who were formerly the communist revolution’s bitterest class enemies marked for expropriation or worse.  But later they were also the people China’s post-revolutionary communist party made common cause with in order to learn the secrets of capitalist success.  And these are the people that Beijing first tapped in the 1980s and 1990s to serve as its chief advisors as well as mainstays in all the various committees that designed and drafted Hong Kong’s Basic Law constitution.  They then filled seats on the Basic Law’s Election Committee that selected Hong Kong’s first post-1997 Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa 【董建華】, and they or their successors will fill the committee seats … to be arranged in the same manner following the original Basic Law, Annex 1 mandate … that Beijing wants to nominate candidates for Hong Kong’s first Chief Executive universal suffrage election in 2017. 

These people can be relied upon to produce what the British colonials used to call “safe” results … safe for whoever wields ultimate decision-making power … so long as it continues to be wielded in their own best economic and social interests.  Street politics are definitely not for them.  Some of their responses to the umbrella movement sit-ins illustrate what the current generation of student leaders, with all their earnest idealistic arguments, are up against as they struggle to define Beijing’s Basic Law promise for universal suffrage elections.


Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying 【梁振英】inadvertently set the tone … inadvertent because he obviously had no idea how his antediluvian views would sound to the international press corps that was suddenly focusing again on Hong Kong politics after years of post-1997 neglect.  He has been trying to keep a low profile since the student-led street occupations began on September 28, but came out for a rare press conference on October 20.

Leung was unexpectedly candid in defending the Nominating Committee that Beijing has decreed must replicate the Basic Law’s design for the post-1997 Election Committee.  He did so on grounds that it was needed to contain populist demands.  About half of Hong Kong’s population, he admitted, was earning less than US$1,800 per month.  If they were all fully represented in the nominating process …  as students wanted with their “civic nomination” demand …   the candidates most likely to be elected would be those who promised the most benefits and Hong Kong would turn into a bankrupt welfare state.

It was the nightmare scenario of both Beijing and Hong Kong’s tycoon class that became a constant theme after the British finally began introducing a limited number of directly elected representatives to local councils in the early 1980s, and then to the law-making Legislative Council in 1991.  Of all Britain’s colonies dating back to the beginning of time, Hong Kong was the very last to introduce any kind of one-person one-vote universal suffrage elections and the business elites still had to be dragged kicking and screaming every step of the way.  Hong Kong’s current Chief Executive who came of political age during that time, in the 1980s, obviously internalized their argument and has progressed no further. 

The Nominating Committee, explained Leung, was designed to produce candidates who would maintain Hong Kong’s business-friendly environment.  The community’s accumulated wealth could then be allocated more rationally for the benefit of all (New York Times, Wall Street Journal, etc., Oct. 20).

Laura Cha 【查史美倫】is a member of Leung’s Executive Council or cabinet of trusted advisors and obviously saw no reason to mince words when the boss had been so forthright.  A statement was later issued on her behalf saying she regretted the “concerns” her comment caused. Outrage would be more like it. 

In Paris for a trade promotion event, she was quoted as saying of Hong Kong’s street sit-ins that ‘American slaves were liberated in 1861 but did not get voting rights until 107 years later.  So why can’t Hong Kong wait for a while?’  (Standard, Oct. 30; Reuters, Oct. 31).  Besides being a member of Leung’s Executive Council, Laura Cha heads Hong Kong’s Financial Services Development Council, is a Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation board member, and a Hong Kong delegate to the National People’s Congress in Beijing.

Yet another voice from Leung’s Executive Council was that of Professor Arthur Li Kwok-cheung 【李國章】,  a former head of the Chinese University and of the Hong Kong government’s education department.  Speaking ahead of the students’ September 22-26 classroom boycott that launched the current street occupations, he mocked their effort.  In a Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) interview on September 15, Li said that if the students were sincere they should demonstrate a real spirit of sacrifice by dropping out of school altogether and giving their places to others more deserving.

Li went on to liken the students’ protest over universal suffrage to China’s Red Guards who launched its 1966-76 Cultural Revolution.  Li also said the class boycott was an exercise in futility because Beijing would not modify its restrictive framework for Hong Kong’s 2017 Chief Executive election (South China morning Post, Sept 16; Apple, Sept. 16, 17; Ming Pao, Sept. 18).

Two others among the outspoken tycoon set demonstrated a closer affinity for mainland-style solutions.  Antony Leung Kam-chung 【梁錦松】had to step down as Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa’s Financial Secretary in 2003, after Leung appeared to use his insider knowledge about an increase in luxury car duties to buy one for himself …  just before the new rates went into effect.  Since then he has been known in some circles as “Lexus Leung.” 

He is now, among other things, a prominent member of Tung’s new think tank, Our Hong Kong Foundation, just set up to promote policy studies for better cross-border understanding, work toward ending the street sit-ins, and perhaps provide a platform for promoting “safe” 2017 Chief Executive election candidates.  Leung has somehow managed to emerge as one of these.

He also emerged as the most honest of the commentators for reminding everyone of what officials on both sides of the border have always been careful to avoid discussing.  The Basic Law’s mandated Article 23 national security legislation …  that Tung Chee-hwa tried to push through Hong Kong’s Legislative Council in 2003 …  was Hong Kong’s first real introduction to what political life will be like here as the one-country, two-systems promise of 1997 fades gradually over its 50-year life span into one-system rule.  This is because Article 23 is not just about national security; it’s also about national political security, as Beijing defines it for a unitary communist party-led state.

At a recent Chinese University forum, Antony Leung said that had the Article 23 legislation not been shelved after Hong Kong’s first big post-1997 protest demonstration in 2003, the current street occupations would not have occurred (Ming Pao, Nov. 8). 

Like his mentor, Tung Chee-hwa, Antony Leung is tone deaf to Hong Kong’s fears about losing its freedom of political expression.  In his featured speech at Our Hong Kong Foundation’s launch, Leung dwelt on economics, as Tung Chee-hwa and Beijing were doing in 2003, with emphasis now on social mobility for young people.  If only they could pay Hong Kong’s sky-high rents and mortgage payments or alternatively if only the growing income gap could be narrowed …  then Hong Kong’s tranquility would be restored and life could return to normal. 

For Antony Leung, Hong Kong’s basic rights and freedoms are irrelevant.  The same is true for tycoon philanthropist Ronnie Chan Chi-chung 【陳啟宗】.  He is one of Hong Kong’s richest men and has always been a staunch opponent of democracy.  Chan told students at the University of Science and Technology that Beijing has been too easy on Hong Kong since 1997.  The result, he said, is what we have now:  seven weeks of street occupations. 

As Chan sees it, the answer is to instill a sense of belonging to China, which is not sufficiently strong here.  He prescribed compulsory national political education of the kind shelved in 2012 after another big protest demonstration, the one that was led by students, parents, and teachers (SCMP, Nov. 14).   If Hong Kongers could only learn to accept Chinese leadership, they would be willing to accept the decisions it lays down … like the Basic Law’s mandate to introduce Article 23 legislation and Beijing’s restrictive August 31 decision on universal suffrage in 2017.


Beijing may have been dealing too leniently with Hong Kong, but the words now are increasingly tough communist party statecraft.  Related to Antony Leung’s comment about Article 23, Beijing in recent years has begun speaking not only about one-country, two-systems autonomy for Hong Kong but also about Hong Kong in terms of the need to maintain Chinese sovereignty and state security.  This refocuses on Beijing’s one-party unified rule and emphasizes Hong Kong’s place subordinate to it. 

In the explanation that accompanied Beijing’s restrictive August 31 decision on the 2017 Chief Executive election that set off the current wave of protest, Beijing official Li Fei said:  “Since the long-term prosperity and stability of Hong Kong and the sovereignty, security and development interests of the country are at stake, there is a need to proceed in a prudent and steady manner, so as to prevent all sort of possible risks …” .

According to reports from the just concluded Fourth Plenum of the Chinese Communist Party’s 18th Central Committee, October 20-23, Chinese President and party leader Xi Jinping made a provocative comment about Hong Kong. 

It is our Special Administrative Region, he said, and “must accept the central government’s jurisdiction.  There can be no wavering on this point.  Some people there are thinking about ‘overturning heaven’ 【翻天】,thinking about using political development to separate Hong Kong from the central government’s jurisdiction.  That is something we absolutely cannot agree to and it absolutely cannot prevail” (Ming Pao, Oct. 31).

Except that Hong Kong’s protest movement is not trying to overthrow heaven, or even its earthly representatives down below.  Protesters inhabit the contemporary world not the imperial past when all under heaven was the emperor’s domain.  But they don’t live in the communist world either.  Xi Jinping has missed the point.  They’re asking only for what they thought was promised by Beijing in the form of universal suffrage elections … unfiltered and unvetted.

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