(Note: This article was originally published in Hong Kong Free Press on April 14, 2020)
Anyone who might have toyed with the idea that clear verdicts in popular elections could give Beijing pause for thought must now be sorely disappointed. The elections were Hong Kong’s November District Councils poll (Dec. 2, 2019 post), and Taiwan’s January presidential contest (April 1, 2020 post).
The verdicts in both cases were as clear as such events can possibly be, and they derived from a common source. Hong Kong and Taiwan voters were agitated over Beijing’s constant pressure and interventions, all aimed at bringing those two errant territories back in line.
The “line” is Beijing’s “one country, two systems” formula conceived in the late 1970s to encourage Taiwan to accept its defeat in China‘s 1945-49 civil war. The formula was given a trial run to ease Hong Kong’s fears after Beijing demanded an end to British colonial rule in 1997. But as pressures from Beijing have intensified, so has résistance in the two errant territories because the formula has not worked out in practice to be quite what was advertised at the start.
Beijing’s solution? More of the same. If the relentless pressure is provoking more resistance, the answer must be to double down and carry on. Beijing has just sent out this message in a series of commentaries on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the promulgation of Hong Kong’s post-colonial Basic Law constitution. It formalizes all the designs and promises that Beijing made to Hong Kong before 1997, and the document has since become the chief source of authority for its governance.
Beijing authorities have continued to commend the “one country, two systems” model embodied in this document, and Hong Kong’s experience in implementing it, as the basis for Taiwan’s return to the national Chinese fold.
Hong Kong’s new Basic Law constitution was promulgated on April 4, 1990. Events celebrating the anniversary have been postponed due to the coronavirus flu epidemic but that has not deterred officials from their task. Incredibly, after all the street protests and court challenges that have filled the years since 1997, when the Basic Law went into effect, not a hint of deference to the dissent and challenges was in evidence.
On the contrary, the official message from Beijing was all about doubling down and overcoming the resistance on Beijing’s terms. The significance of the two recent protest elections, in Hong Kong and Taiwan, was ignored.
In Hong Kong, the keynote April 4th commentary came from Beijing’s newly appointed director at its official representative Liaison Office. Luo Huining arrived in early January, apparently to mark Beijing’s displeasure with his predecessor’s performance during Hong Kong’s still unresolved political uprising. The protests began last summer and culminated in the November District Councils election, although sporadic outbreaks remain ongoing (Jan. 20, 2020 post).
As an experienced official with a reputation both for political loyalty and for tackling difficult assignments, Luo Huinings anniversary statement carried the most weight and presumably conveyed Beijing’s current verdict on Hong Kong’s first 30 years under Chinese rule, with special reference to the latest protests. His statement appeared in the form of a long essay posted on the Liaison Office website and in the local pro-Beijing press.
Director Luo began with the familiar statement of purpose. The objective of “one country, two systems” as enshrined in the Basic Law was to promote national unification and China’s territorial integrity, as well as to safeguard Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability. The Communist Party had further elaborated on those objectives with the aim of safeguarding national sovereignty, security, and developmental interests.
The Basic Law promised Hong Kong “50 years without change” and that period is now already at the midway point. But some long-accumulating contradictions had emerged, especially during the anti-extradition law storm last year. The result has been a serious distortion in the implementation of “one country, two systems,” severely challenging the national constitution and Hong Kong’s Basic Law. These problems must now be rectified, he declared..
We must confront the challenges and firmly sustain the original spirit of “one country, two systems.” We must proceed with confidence in the national constitution and in Hong Kong’s Basic Law. We must not waiver or be uncertain in the face of these difficulties and external interventions.
Elaborating this last, Luo wrote that in carrying out the original spirit of “one country, two systems,” national sovereignty and security must be maintained. To maintain national security is a core feature of the correct implementation of “one country, two systems,” and a constitutional obligation under the Basic Law. Safeguarding national security is essential in order to maintain Hong Kong’s long-term prosperity and stability.
Specifically, a comprehensive national security legal system with strong law enforcement powers are needed in order to prevent external forces from carrying out division and sabotage by interfering in Hong Kong affairs (Ta Kung Pao, Hong Kong, April 5, 2020, Chinese only).
Luo Huining’s emphasis on national security explains the recent uptick in demands from Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing opinion leaders to exhume the national security legislation that was shelved after Hong Kong’s first major protest demonstration on July 1, 2003.
The legislation is mandated by the Basic Law’s Article 23. It says that Hong Kong must enact laws, on its own, to prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion against the Central People’s Government, or any theft of state secrets. These national security laws must also prohibit foreign political organizations from conducting political activates in Hong Kong and prohibit Hong Kong political organizations from establishing ties with foreign political organizations.
Pro-Beijing personalities routinely call for the passage of Article 23 legislation as the appropriate means of controlling pro-democracy activists and politicians. Now, with Beijing having cast the 2019 protest movement as a challenge not just to its authority but to national sovereignty and security as well, the stage seems set for another official push, as Director Luo wrote, to strengthen laws and enforcement mechanisms.
How this might be accomplished without provoking another massive protest upsurge is hard to see … unless Beijing really is contemplating a hardline crackdown. More likely, partisans are only engaged in a form of verbal sabre rattling … like last summer’s well-publicized military manoeuvres that were evidently meant to send a message without actually delivering it. But at the very least, officials seem intent on trying to mobilize public opinion on behalf of Beijing’s preferred solution.
Provocative Legislative Councillor Junius Ho Kwan–yiu has even launched a street-side signature campaign asking for a revival of the Article 23 legislation (Hong Kong Free Press, March 6, 2020).
But most striking were the views of Lau Siu-kai because they were so unusually blunt a reflection of what Beijing’s ideal-type Hong Kong government should be. Lau, now retired from his two careers as a university professor and government pollster, is a pro-Beijing commentator and leading member of the semi-official Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies. In a recent Chinse-language article published in the association’s journal, he targeted the “deep-rooted” contradictions Director Luo referenced.
Lau said what Hong Kong needed to achieve Beijing’s goals for the city is a government run by pro-Beijing patriots … instead of the vacillators now in charge who allowed themselves to be influenced by public opinion at home and abroad.
Lau said Hong Kong’s political unrest derived from a lack of national identity among Hong Kong’s youth. The government had not taken a firm stand in the face of popular resistance to the proposed national political studies curriculum, or to Article 23 national security legislation, or the need for stronger law enforcement (South China Morning Post, March 14, 2020, online).
Lau’s formal 30th anniversary essay was more circumspect, in line with official discourse. He elaborated on the theme that “some people” had misunderstood what “one country, two systems” was supposed to mean. Consequently, many young people are being influenced by foreign forces and by the distorted views of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy opposition. He then reviewed the main points of contention in Beijing’s argument with Hong Kong.
“One country” is primary. Its strategic objective is national unification. So, the concept absolutely does not mean balancing opposing internal and external, Chinese and Western, influences as is commonly said.
The Basic Law’s (Article 5) promise of safeguarding Hong Kong’s capitalist system and way of life for 50 years does not mean that between 1997 and 2047 absolutely nothing will change. The “high degree of autonomy” pledge does not mean the central government does not retain the power to make necessary changes. Patriotic pro-Beijing forces must be in charge so as to protect national security …. and so on (Ta Kung Pao, April 2,3, 2020).
Former Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying could not resist entering this debate to reinforce the official narrative in all respects. A long-time pro-Beijing loyalist, Leung was named Secretary General of the Basic Law Consultative Committee set up to solicit opinions from the public while the Basic Law was being drafted in the late 1980s.
Later, his abrasive personality and hard-line brand of patriotism combined to help make him a one-term Chief Executive. Hong Kong’s 2014-15 universal suffrage political reform campaign occurred on his watch, along with the Umbrella-Occupy Movement that blockaded major city streets for 79 days in late 2014. Undeterred and unapologetic, he maintains that the Basic Law is a perfect fit for Hong Kong.
Leung was among the guest speakers at an online university forum in Beijing on April 4. He used the occasion to criticize those politicians in the West who thought the Basic Law’s promises about a high degree of autonomy for Hong Kong, should mean complete autonomy.
Then there were those Hong Kong opposition politicians who thought the promise of electing Hong Kong’s Chief Executive should entail the popular nomination of candidates instead of nomination by an officially organized pro-establishment Election Committee, as Beijing demanded.
These critics seemed to think that genuine universal suffrage should mean absorbing the powers granted by the Basic Law to the central government. This must all be refuted with correct arguments so that Hong Kong society and the international community can understand the true meaning of the Basic Law and of “one country, two systems.”
His conclusion: the Basic Law is complete and correct, but the same cannot be said about the work of explaining it to a sceptical public both here and elsewhere (Ta Kung Pao, April 5, 2020; also, TKP, April 3; Wen Wei Po, Hong Kong, March 25;Ming Pao, April 7).
AN OPPOSING VOICE
Representatives of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy “opposition” were not invited to the Beijing seminar. Nor were they invited to contribute to the special 30th anniversary feature columns in the pro-Beijing press. Yet that opposition accounts for a majority of Hong Kong voters in contests that allow direct one-person, one-vote election. But soon after 1997, the authorities began referring to all such partisans as the “opposition,” and the practice has continued ever since. It is supposed to be a mark of official tolerance under the “two systems” formula that such people and their views are allowed to carry on.
The Basic Law was drafted by a 59-member committee working under Beijing’s direction. Of the committee’s 23 Hong Kong members, only two could speak for its then nascent democracy movement. The two were Martin Lee Chu-ming and the late Szeto Wah. Both resigned from the committee in protest after the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown that brought an end to China’s own 1980s democracy movement. The two men founded Hong Kong’s Democratic Party a few years later.
Martin Lee still has much to say, although he can no longer presume to speak for all of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy partisans. They have since splintered into many diverse pieces and Lee is arguably the most moderate of all. But he has continued to invoke the memory of Beijing’s then paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, who oversaw all the pre-1997 handover preparations before his death that same year.
Martin Lee regularly laments the course Deng Xiaoping’s successors have chosen to follow and likes to recall Deng’s ‘liberal and pragmatic’ approach toward Hong Kong. Whether accurate or not, Lee continues to argue that Deng would have proceeded differently. Now, 30 years later, Lee still holds out the hope that Beijing might honour Deng’s promise of a Hong Kong government … executive and legislature … elected by universal suffrage (SCMP, April 4, 2020).
Nevertheless, Lee has also grown increasingly pessimistic. He says the Basic Law was meant to protect Hong Kong. But in 2014 … during the controversy created by democrats’ attempt to fulfil the Basic Law’s promise of universal suffrage elections for Hong Kong’s Chief Executive … Beijing began proclaiming its right to “comprehensive jurisdiction” over Hong Kong.
Beijing them decreed a mainland-style election for Hong Kong’s Chief Executives with Beijing vetting and approving the candidates who would be endorsed by the same pro-establishment committee that now oversees the Chief Executive selection process.
Since then, says Lee, since those 2014-15 decisions, the Basic Law began losing its significance. As he sees it, the Basic Law can only be regarded to have succeeded in its original purpose if universal suffrage elections are introduced and Beijing stops meddling in Hong Kong (Apple Daily, April 4, 2020; also, Ming Pao, April 8)..
The two sides in this debate are now as far apart as they have ever been. Probably Leung Chun-ying explained it best in his own sarcastic way. Autonomy means one thing in Beijing’s eyes but something free of Beijing’s interreference in the eyes of Hong Kong’s democracy movement partisans and voters.
They fear the mainland justice system and spent six months last year bringing the city to a near standstill in order to let their fears be known. They also fear being obliged to vote for Beijing-approved candidates like Leung Chun-ying who will enforce Beijing’s political ways and means without question or restraint. That fear produced the 79-day street blockades in 2014.
But perhaps most ironic is the timing of this year’s handover anniversary. Regrets were expressed that celebratory events had to be postponed due to the coronavirus flu epidemic that has raced from the central Chinese city of Wuhan to points all around the globe.
Yet the spread of that new illness might have been prevented but for the Chinese government’s antiquated rules governing its political security. Enforced in Wuhan, they silenced local doctors who tried to raise the alarm. The silence was enforced on charges of spreading unsubstantiated rumours and undermining social order.
Here in Hong Kong, a noted medical authority was pressured into retracting an article he and a colleague published in Ming Pao Daily on March 18.. They had argued in the article that the new virus did indeed originate in the city of Wuhan and did originate in the old Chinese custom of eating wild animals.
Meanwhile, at the same time that this global tragedy was unfolding, Beijing’s newly appointed representative here came out to lecture Hong Kong on its obligation to accept Beijing-style concepts of sovereignty, security, and stability … as the mark of loyalty to Beijing’s “one country, two systems” governing formula.
Suzanne Pepper, draft, April 9, 2020.
Posted here on April 15, 2020