Everyone else saw the 19th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), held in Beijing last month, as the culmination of Xi Jinping’s rise to power. By reason of the posts he holds and the dominate position he occupies, as President of the People’s Republic and General Secretary of the CCP plus much else besides, his political stature is now rivaled in party history only by that of Communist China’s founding father Mao Zedong.
For Hong Kong, however, Xi Jinping’s rise is old news chronicled at each step along his way up the ladder. What’s new is Hong Kong’s own unexpected elevation to a new theoretical status within reigning party orthodoxy. The adjustment was formally enshrined by the 19th Congress in Xi’s new governing strategy. It will be known henceforth as the Thought of Xi Jinping, which was adopted by the congress as an amendment to the CCP’s Constitution. These formalities make Hong Kong’s status as permanent as anything can be (Oct. 23 post). They also mark a clear dividing line between pre-and post-October 2017.
RE-CAP: Before and After the 19th Party Congress
The original formulas and designs that governed Hong Kong’s return to China in 1997 were painstakingly negotiated between Britain and China. Their efforts were written into the new Hong Kong Basic Law, which went into effect on July 1, 1997. Included among its 160 articles was one, Article 5, that contained a vague promise about Hong Kong’s “existing way of life” being guaranteed for 50 years from 1997.
Most of the original Basic Law designs are still present in the newly formulated Thoughts of Xi Jinping and the amendment that adds them to the party’s constitution. But the 50-year guarantee is nowhere to be seen. Instead there are new unfamiliar injunctions that anticipate Hong Kong’s cross-border “melding” and “organic” integration within the larger national whole, referred to in local shorthand here as the “mainland.”
The new melding is to proceed while Hong Kong somehow maintains the existing post-1997 “one-country, two-systems” formula with a “high degree of autonomy.” This last is presented in the same ill-defined style as the old 50-year guarantee. But what seems clear enough … given Xi Jinping’s new emphasis on cross-border melding and merging, plus the reality of ever-increasing mainland intrusions into Hong Kong’s political way of life … is that the 19th Party Congress heralds a change in Hong Kong’s post-1997 status. It officially marks the point at which Beijing finally came clean and acknowledged its aim of integration between Hong Kong and the mainland.
In point 12 of his 14 new governing principles presented to the Party Congress, Xi said: “The combination of the Center’s comprehensive jurisdiction over the Hong Kong and Macau Special Administrative Regions, with the guarantee of their high degree of autonomy, must be maintained in an organic way【有機結合】.”
Further on in Section 11 of his congress report, Xi said the development of Hong Kong and Macau is to proceed in close coordination with that of the mainland so that they can be absorbed 【融入】into the great national enterprise. Cross-border cooperation is a major goal. Priority is to be given to the development of the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macau Greater Bay Area project, cooperation between Guangdong, Hong Kong, and Macau, and regional cooperation in the pan-Pearl River Delta area.* After he delivered it, Xi’s report was adopted by the Congress, and the party’s constitution was amended accordingly (Eng. trans.: China Daily, Oct. 25).
Mainland officials are now out and about saying nothing has changed. If so, the most logical way of interpreting their assertions is to assume that integration is what Beijing had in mind all along. In fact, the 19th Congress only adds an exclamation mark to highlight the impact of Beijing’s growing intrusions during the past three years. The intrusions actually extend all the way back to the beginning, in the 1990s, while the building blocks of Beijing’s new governing establishment were being put in place here. But people believed in the Basic Law’s promises then. Now they don’t.
Practical implications during the past three years especially can be felt and seen in the shifting perspectives of Hong Kong’s democracy movement partisans and activists. Until recently they saw themselves as striving to achieve and secure the promises and guarantees written into the original Basic Law as they understood them: eventual universal suffrage elections, plus all the standard rights and freedoms that were supposed to guarantee Hong Kong’s way of life and set post-1997 Hong Kong apart from one-party mainland rule, maybe for 50 years, hopefully forever.
At least those were still the aspirations before the 19th Party congress, although the independence advocacy was already gaining ground among those who saw as futile the old rules of adversarial politicking … the “loyal opposition” approach … within the Basic Law framework. Now, after Hong Kong’s explicit and formal theoretical uplift, the Basic Law’s promises seem irrelevant. Autonomy can no longer be contemplated in the same way as before now that Beijing has decreed Hong Kong’s future in terms of melding and organic integration. Those strange new terms have yet to be defined, but if recent experience is any indication they anticipate a bleak future for the old ideals and aspirations.
Instead of striving to achieve, partisans are now digging in their heels and struggling to hold the line. They can only hope to preserve what they still enjoy against the mainland juggernaut. Recent intrusions include: Beijing’s rejection of all Hong Kong’s universal suffrage proposals, the local booksellers’ involuntary brush with mainland law enforcement, mainland-style political vetting for election candidates, the oath-taking saga and consequent disqualification of six Legislative Councilors, challenges to judicial independence including use of Hong Kong’s courts to advance Beijing’s aims, local media self-censorship, challenges to academic freedom including free speech on campus, patriotic vigilantes invading heretofore safe spaces, the new national anthem law, and a new three-year compulsory Chinese history course for junior secondary school students.
Hong Kong’s democracy movement partisans have pushed back at every step against this rising tide and have succeeded in keeping its most extreme consequences at bay. But a sense of inevitable defeat now looms larger than ever before. The current rear-guard action is only the latest case in point. It entails the Hong Kong terminus of China’s new high-speed rail line, formally known as the Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Rail Link or XRL for short and 高鐵 in Chinese. The timing is perfect: a brand new high-tech symbol linking Hong Kong with Xi Jinping’s vision of the new Chinese century.
THE NEW RAIL LINK
This struggle actually began almost a decade ago and looking back, it appears like a prelude introducing all the themes of recent Hong Kong political history: social activism, youth involvement, environmental concerns, public order defiance, anti-mainland resistance, and political representation.
Although no one saw the railway issue as anything particularly crucial at the time, in 2009-10, it can be remembered now especially for marking the introduction of Hong Kong’s younger generation into the democracy movement. They were a surprise entrant and called themselves the post-80s generation … those born after 1980. They and their immediate successors, the post-90s, would take the lead in Hong Kong’s democracy movement a few years later and even their opening scene had a dramatic flair.
It took the form initially of a low-keyed street-theater ritual they said was inspired by Tibetan pilgrims. A few columns of young people appeared without much advance notice or explanation, doing a slow-step penitential march to the beat of a single drum. They alternately walked exactly 26 steps, then kneeled, and kowtowed in a gesture of supplication each carrying a few grains of rice in outstretched hands.
They performed this exhausting ritual from January 5-8, 2010, moving into town from the suburban New Territories. Curious onlookers dismissed it as street theater antics by disaffected youth protesting poor job prospects in an economy recovering too slowly from the Asian financial crisis. But the young people were not just play acting. They were headed for the old court house in downtown Hong Kong that was being used as a temporary home for the Legislative Council.
They were converging there with hundreds of others who had organized a festival of protest around the building. Their efforts were timed to coincide with a January 15-16 debate preceding the vote to authorize funding for the Hong Kong section of China’s new high-speed railway.
At that point, in the public square outside the old court house, people began talking to the protesters and discovered they were not poor disaffected youth or suburban villagers but secondary and college level students and graduates. They saw themselves as activists with a purpose, protesting multiple points of social injustice. The new rail link was only one of many.
No one knew much about it except that the project was going to cost billions of dollars, Hong Kong would have to pay for it, and Beijing was insisting that it be built to complete a southern extension of its new nationwide high-speed rail link. The grains of rice the marchers carried were meant to symbolize a traditional way of life that was actually being destroyed by property developers and their projects in many parts of the suburban New Territories. The homes scheduled for demolition along the swath of land needed to construct the new line from the mainland border crossing were only the most immediate focus of protest. The 26-step ritual symbolized the 26-kilometer length of the proposed railway link (Jan. 29, 2010 post).
Participants claimed 10,000 protesters turned up at the height of demonstration on January 15-16. Police said only 1,700, but they also claimed that 1,200 officers were on hand to turn back the siege when protesters tried to storm the building and blocked its exists overnight after funding was approved on January 16. Besides being a first with young people in the lead, they also boasted later that it was the first Hong Kong protest coordinated via mobile phones and Twitter accounts.
The years since have seen the usual delays and cost overruns. But having failed to block the project with arguments about disruption, cost-effectiveness, and expensive white elephants, concerned citizens began searching for ways to minimize its impact. Arguments focused first on the route … whether to share lines with existing rail links or construct a new one dedicated for XRL use alone. It was officially decided the latter would mean less disruption.
The next point of argument was where the terminus should be located. Critics suggested sites in suburban locations, but the official argument prevailed. For most effective use the trains must run directly into the center of town. The rationale was convenient access to transport links and inner-city destinations. ** But now in the wake of the 19th Party Congress, the official arguments seem more like direction from above to enforce cross-border integration, which is what Hong Kong critics had sensed from the start. They saw the XRL as just another of Beijing’s projects aimed at erasing the mainland-Hong Kong border.
END OF THE LINE: Co-Location
The site chosen for the terminus was West Kowloon, officially projected to become a major hub for all manner of existing and planned aspects of urban life. Construction is now well advanced with completion scheduled for next year. The critics’ penultimate effort has also just been defeated in a manner cleverly executed by Chief Executive Carrie Lam. This she and her officials accomplished with the help of pro-establishment legislators who easily out-voted the pro-democracy caucus depleted by six members disqualified in the oath-taking saga (Sept. 6, 2017 post).
The final argument has been underway for months. It concerns customs and immigration control procedures at the Hong Kong terminus. All manner of possibilities have been suggested. But Beijing and Hong Kong officials are insisting that for the sake of all-around convenience, mainland officers must be stationed at the Hong Kong end of the line in West Kowloon.
They say that travel documents cannot be checked on the train itself. Nor can immigration officials check documents at any transit stop along the way. Only West Kowloon will do. A new name has been coined for the arrangement: co-location 【一地兩檢】… meaning one-location, two checkpoints. It refers to the presence of both mainland and Hong Kong officials checking travel documents for all departures and arrivals at the same West Kowloon site.
According to the Hong Kong government’s July 26, 2017 press release announcing these details: “With respect to the application of laws and delineation of jurisdiction, the Mainland Port Area will be regarded as outside the territorial boundary of the HKSAR.” *** And within that West Kowloon special zone, mainland officials will have the authority to enforce mainland laws. The extent to which those of Hong Kong can apply is as yet unclear.
The main legal problem with this arrangement is that it violates Article 18 of Hong Kong’s Basic Law which says that “national laws shall not be applied in Hong Kong.” Never mind, say the officials, who have devised a three-step procedure based on Article 22 of the Basic Law. This says that if there is a need for central government departments to set up offices in Hong Kong, consent must be obtained from the Hong Kong government and the central government in Beijing.
The Civic Party and others formed a Co-location Concern Group after the government’s July announcement. Critics asked for a public consultation to consider the implications. But Carrie Lam said no need. Instead, a non-binding motion in the Legislative Council would suffice to demonstrate public approval.
This is the effort that democrats have just lost in the form of a 38-22 Legislative Council vote on November 15. They were all in agreement and voted against. But the council is constituted in such a way that even if the six disqualified legislators were present, the result would have been the same. Special by-elections to replace them will not be held until next year.
Meanwhile, Carrie Lam has hastened to begin her three-step procedure. She has already completed step one by signing an agreement with neighboring Guangdong province. This was done on November 18. Step two will come in the form of an authorizing decision from Hong Kong’s old nemesis, the National People’s Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC).
That will leave only step three, the most difficult: approval of the implementing details by the Legislative Council. It will at least allow scope for airing objections to the plan but probably the most democrats will be able to do is delay passage. This they will attempt with their usual filibustering tactics, which their opponents might succeed in preventing permanently if the maneuver can be accomplished before next year’s by-elections. But that’s another intricate story soon to come.
The Hong Kong government will, in any case, be arguing that the proposal for co-location check points is to entail leasing about a quarter of the West Kowloon Station to the Chinese government. This is based on yet another Basic Law article, which says that all land and resources within Hong Kong are actually Chinese “state property.” The Hong Kong government is “responsible for their management, use and development and for their lease or grant to individuals, legal persons or organizations for use or development” (Article 7).
In this way, the mainland-Hong Kong border seems set to advance 26 kilometers into the heart of Hong Kong sometime before the end of 2018. Mainland officials will perform their duties in West Kowloon as if they were on mainland soil. The leasehold will comprise two levels and include the waiting hall for departing passengers, platforms, passageways, and escalators (SCMP, Ming Pao, Nov. 19). Train compartments will also be under mainland jurisdiction. Suspect booksellers and absconding Chinese tycoons can then be delivered more efficiently into the hands of mainland law enforcement without the use of shadowy cross-border “agents.”
Two quotes reflect contrasting Hong Kong and Beijing perspectives on this latest mainland intrusion. Legislator Charles Mok, anticipating defeat on the non-binding XRL motion wrote: “So the democratic camp has no choice but to unite and stand firm on our principles, and fight to our last stand … We may not win every battle to come, but we have to make sure we do not give up on any one of them” (HKFP, Oct. 23).
Beijing professor Tian Feilong wrote from the other side. “The co-location plan is provocative precisely because, at one stroke, it allowed the state power that had always been kept outside the SAR’s borders to legally enter its domain. The plan thoroughly ruined the opposition camp’s idea of an imaginary, fully autonomous Hong Kong, and suggests what it will become – a city increasingly integrated with the mainland (SCMP, Aug. 9).
* Xi Jinping, Oct. 18, 2017, inaugural speech, 19th CCP Congress (Chinese):
Posted by Suzanne Pepper on November 20, 2017