Is Hong Kong on Its Way to Becoming Just Another City in the P.R.C.?

A ChinaFile Conversation

On March 26, the roughly 1,200-person Hong Kong Election Committee chose Carrie Lam as chief executive—Hong Kong’s fourth leader since the United Kingdom returned the territory to Chinese rule in 1997. Unpopular with Hong Kong’s pro-democracy lawmakers and citizens, Lam’s election has exacerbated concerns about the mainlandization of Hong Kong. What does Lam’s election mean for Hong Kong’s future? —The Editors


In an era in which the boundaries between politics and populist entertainment are increasingly blurred, it should perhaps not come as any great surprise that the future of Hong Kong is being defined and determined by two pieces of political theater.

The most recent was last weekend’s chief executive election: an election in which only 1,194 voters were entitled to participate, but which nevertheless featured televised debates, campaign rallies—including John Tsang’s spectacular effort in an open-topped double-decker bus—and advertising posters in MTR stations across Hong Kong. Maintaining a pretense of the need to win “hearts and minds” among the (disenfranchised) population of Hong Kong was rendered more notable when seen alongside the dropping of a pretense of a different kind: whereas previously any suggestions of Beijing’s interference in Hong Kong were strenuously denied, there now seemed to be no squeamishness in acknowledging that Carrie Lam was Beijing’s preferred candidate and that loyalist election committee members were casting their votes for her in accordance with Beijing’s directions.

This elaborate piece of political theater concluded with a live broadcast of the vote count, giving the appearance, if not the reality, of transparency and openness. Given that the outcome was regarded by most as pre-determined, the theatricality points to some recognition from Beijing of the role of public opinion in the Hong Kong political process, and marks Hong Kong’s continued distinction from the rest of China: you won’t see the next candidate for mayor of Beijing driving down Wangfujing in a double-decker bus any time soon.

But the implications of another piece of political theater are more ominous for Hong Kong’s future. The oath-taking protests by a number of pan-democrat and localist legislators last year could be seen as part of the ongoing theater of Hong Kong’s political protest culture. Their actions prompted an “interpretation” of the Basic Law by the National People’s Congress that added a number of new requirements into the law and was applied retroactively to disqualify two lawmakers from the localist Youngspiration party. The Hong Kong government is now seeking to disqualify six additional legislators in a court case relying on the same National People’s Congress (N.P.C.) interpretation, while the Youngspiration duo have appealed their disqualification to the Court of Final Appeal.

The rule of law as applied by an independent judiciary is ultimately what distinguishes Hong Kong from the mainland. These cases have real potential to lead to a showdown between the judiciary and Beijing: the N.P.C. interpretation contains uncertainties which may not withstand the analysis of some of the world’s finest legal minds sitting on Hong Kong’s Court of Final Appeals bench. To the extent Hong Kong courts start making the “wrong” decisions, we may see further unsolicited interpretations of Hong Kong law by Beijing, or interference in the judicial appointment process. This is the space to watch, and is what will truly determine whether the curtain falls on Hong Kong and it becomes “just another P.R.C. city.”

Hong Kong is Beijing’s unrequited love. Twenty years after Britain signed over its colony to China’s Communist government, try as Beijing might to nurture love, most Hong Kong residents—from those born under the British crown to those birthed on the mainland—believe that their city is different. They are not Chinese, and that distinction must endure. Which is to say that Beijing, and the Hong Kong government, have moved from courtship to threats.

Beijing has made repeated interventions into Hong Kong civic life, periodic reminders that the “two systems” part of Deng Xiaoping’s “one country, two systems” hasn’t ended Hong Kong’s colonial status. The National People’s Congress has issued several opinions—permitted under Hong Kong’s constitution—to steer local court cases. Beijing’s amendments to Hong Kong’s constitution have kept the city from granting full voting rights. Thus, Sunday’s selection of Carrie Lam was made not by voters, but by 1,194 powerful tycoons and trade group representatives using a system pulled from an Anthony Trollope plot.

Hong Kongers have halted out-and-out propaganda; the push for so-called moral, civic, and national education ceased in 2012, after crowds protested. Yet demographic changes have achieved some of Beijing’s desires. The steady flow of mainland arrivals means there’s more competition in Hong Kong: a run on kindergarten places, public housing units, and college seats, and a continuous swell in housing prices stoked by cash-rich mainland buyers. The biggest concern uttered by people in their teens, twenties, and thirties during the 2014 Umbrella Movement was the prospect that they would forever sleep on their parents’ couches.

In 2016, Beijing’s power to alter Hong Kong lives was most keenly felt. Many people were shaken when five members of a book publishing house, which issued works critical of Xi Jinping, vanished. It’s widely assumed that all were kidnapped by state security and held on the mainland. Talk about Hong Kong’s independence spread from university dorms to working class housing estates. When the philosophy’s most popular promoter, Edward Leung, ran for legislature (LegCo) last summer, the local government suddenly changed the rules and blocked his candidacy and others. A record number of voters chose several other young people who each favored independence or Hong Kong’s right to determine its future. To Beijing, such talk smacked of separatism. In November, the National People’s Congress’ standing committee ejected two newcomers from office and prohibited independence talk from future candidates or in the LegCo chamber. Days later, after the results of the U.S. election, I called a Hong Kong friend to commiserate. “At least,” he said with a hollow laugh, “you still have a constitution.’’

During the 2014 occupation, Hong Kong students swaggered through town wearing sweatshirts emblazoned with the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of “Hongkonger.” Soon students started to wear garb reading, “Hong Kong is not China.” Lewis Lau, a favorite blogger in that camp, echoes Benedict Anderson’s argument that identity is not imposed, but is agreed to by a people. “Hong Kong,” he writes, “is not a nation because she says she is not. Once she decides she is, she is.”

China can demand obedience and love. It can demand that Hong Kongers claim “Chinese” as their identity, although each year, fewer do. It will take more than legal opinions and threats to smother their belief.

Under the “one country, two systems” principle, Hong Kong is a P.R.C. city, but one within a special administrative region that is supposed to enjoy genuine autonomy protected by international law. While I am aware of the dangers of China predictions, still, Hong Kong will never be just another P.R.C. city. The circulating narrative that Hong Kong is being overtaken by, say, Shanghai, or will just become another Shanghai, is focusing too narrowly on economic data points and completely misses what makes Hong Kong special, and distinct from other P.R.C. cities: its core values, a record of a functioning rule of law, independent courts, a complex diverse culture and society, and, most important, the people.

In what other P.R.C. city can lawyers, judges, and legal experts march through the streets to protest political interference in judicial interpretation of the constitution without being disappeared, detained, tortured, or charged with subverting state power afterwards? In what other P.R.C. city are there annual June Fourth commemorations and related activities drawing hundreds of thousands of people with no one detained afterwards? In what other P.R.C. city can over 100,000 citizens peacefully occupy key areas for 79 days to press for genuine universal suffrage to elect their next chief executive, and then, following the “failed” movement, have their young leaders elected to the LegCo in one of the highest voter turn-outs?

Hong Kong’s future is not yet written despite intensifying efforts of Beijing to create a “Hong Kong with Chinese characteristics.” But the challenges are formidable. In addition to serious local problems of housing, social security, and economic inequality fueling social frustrations, the selection of yet another Chief Executive by Beijing further undermines “one country, two systems.” Facing the looming danger of politicized misuse of the courts to punish nine Occupy leaders for the exercise of fundamental rights protected in local and international law, the courts will have to demonstrate it will handle the cases “in an impartial, professional, and apolitical manner, and free from any interference” as required by Hong Kong law (and by China and Hong Kong’s international human rights obligations).

The ongoing battle over what Hong Kong will become is a messy uphill struggle. And the stakes are high for not only Hong Kong’s 7.3 million people: the delivery (or not) on promises made to the Hong Kong people will impact the future of mainland China, the region, and the world. But despite the overwhelming disparity in power between Beijing and Hong Kong and despite ongoing challenges and developments, the will among the next generation to meet these challenges is becoming clearer. If I were a betting person, I would not bet on the leaders in Beijing. These young people are not daunted by the consequences of throwing eggs at a brick wall, and they know history is on their side.

Is Hong Kong becoming “yet another Chinese city?” In some ways, no. In other important ways, it is worse—because it is becoming a caricature of what a mainland metropolis had been.

Hong Kong retains a largely fair and independent judicial system. It continues to practice Common Law, though Beijing retains the ultimate right to render a final decision. It has a world-class financial system, and a convertible currency that is an integral part of the world financial system. Hong Kong people continue to enjoy unobstructed access to information and the rights for lawful assembly by large numbers. Permits to do so are rarely denied. Just to name a few.

However, since the 1997 handover, much has changed for the worse—while many parts of China have surged not just economically, but in arts and technology. Shenzhen is just one of many examples. Thirty years ago, it was a city better known for its rice fields. Now it’s the richest in China, with a Silicon Valley-like district, Nanshan, that has a higher per capita income than Hong Kong.

Hong Kong has been led by a succession of leaders ignorant of Chinese Communist Party history, who have bent over backwards to institute policies they thought would please Beijing’s leaders. All of them believed Beijing wanted a city just like another one in China. To that end, local leaders tried often forcibly and mindlessly to impose policies that seemed “patriotic.”

One such example was the failed attempt by the outgoing Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, shortly after he assumed office in 2012, to impose a school curriculum on the history of China that read like a sophomoric propaganda sheet of the 1950s handed out by a mainland press.

In fact, what Beijing wants is clearly stated in its Constitution: “The Communist Party of China must persist in taking economic development as the central task, making all other work subordinate to and serve this central task.” Turning Hong Kong into “yet another Chinese city” has to be low in Beijing’s priorities. It has too many much larger Chinese metropolises with far more momentous problems on its plate.

It was no accident that the two most politically “correct” leaders, Tung Chee-hwa, Hong Kong’s first chief executive, and Leung, Tung’s protégé, have been let go unceremoniously. The former for medical reasons, the latter for family ones.

All of them including the disgraced second Chief Executive Sir Donald Tsang have collectively moved Hong Kong towards a copy of mainland’s presumed but outdated model. What a pity.

One of the recurring themes in the contributions so far has been the role of law—both Hong Kong’s common law system and public international law—in maintaining Hong Kong’s distinctiveness. Sadly, the evidence suggests that the governments in Beijing and Hong Kong have been taking active steps to “harmonize” Hong Kong’s legal system with that in the mainland.

Beijing’s three-pronged attack on Hong Kong’s judiciary is a prominent example. First, the National People’s Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC) has not hesitated to “interpret” the Basic Law of its own accord, short-circuiting pending or imminent litigation in Hong Kong; in the November 2016 “interpretation” concerning oaths of office, the NPCSC went further—dictating outcomes to the Hong Kong Judiciary. Second, pro-Beijing actors have consistently sought to “other” Hong Kong’s common law system, typically through race-baiting rhetoric directed at judges not of Chinese ethnic descent—even those who are Hong Kong permanent residents. Third, Beijing has overtly demanded political loyalty from Hong Kong’s judges, for example in the State Council’s 2014 White Paper. Recent suggestions that Beijing will intensify its use of NPCSC “interpretations” show that such pressures are unlikely to decrease under a Carrie Lam administration.

This contempt for Hong Kong’s common law judiciary is symptomatic of a broader willingness to rewrite or discard the doctrine of “one country, two systems” enshrined in the Basic Law and the Sino-British Joint Declaration. The abductions of Lee Bo and Xiao Jianhua from Hong Kong soil by mainland state security are the most obvious examples. One could scarcely imagine a clearer-cut violation of the territory’s autonomy. Yet the Hong Kong authorities have, for the most part, maintained a supine silence in relation to both abductions. Nor has the Hong Kong government confined itself to sins of omission. As I observed last year, Hong Kong officials have suggested that the Sino-British Joint Declaration lapsed in 1997—and that China’s “basic policies” set out in Article 3 were never of binding effect anyway.

Hong Kong’s government must take much of the blame for this state of affairs. The city’s officials are keen to trumpet the notion that Beijing will preserve Hong Kong’s rule of law to maintain its status as a financial and investment hub. However, justifying rule of law in purely commercial terms amounts to admitting that rule of law is only worth keeping insofar as it is good for business. Small wonder that Beijing has increasingly justified its undermining of Hong Kong’s rule of law by invoking the overriding imperative of “state security”—a phrase defined so broadly in the National Security Law as to be utterly meaningless. In the absence of any willingness by Hong Kong’s officials to reverse the tide of Beijing’s encroachment, it will only be a matter of time before the key marker of Hong Kong’s distinctiveness is obliterated.

The question of whether Hong Kong is on its way to becoming just another city in the P.R.C. cannot be answered without first addressing another question: What is it like in other cities in the P.R.C.?

In 2011, the Communist Party, in an extremely rare move, allowed the village of Wukan in Guangdong to hold free elections, permitting villagers to choose their own mayor following mass protests over land rights and corruption. Fast-forward five years, and Lin Zuluan, the elected leader, has been arrested on corruption charges himself. After a typical televised confession, in which he admitted to his crimes, he was sentenced to three years in prison.

The incident is an illustration of how Beijing has tightened its control across the country since President Xi Jinping took power in 2013. Many have drawn parallels between the situation in the Southern China village and Hong Kong, and the “failure” of the experiment in Chinese Democracy sends a clear message to all those who harbor hope that such a system could be compatible with the Communist Party agenda. What does this mean, then, for Hong Kong and its fight for democracy under “one country, two systems”?

Exactly one day after Carrie Lam—widely known as Beijing’s favored candidate in the latest election—was elected as the next chief executive in the city, it was announced that the leaders of the pro-democracy Occupy protests in 2014 have been charged with variations of the public nuisance offence, and may face up to seven years in prison. That same week, China jailed two activists who voiced support on social media for the movement. It remains to be seen how the courts will rule in Hong Kong, but even in the judicial branch, independence is quickly eroding. Apart from the startling National People’s Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC) interpretation issued last year in the midst of the oath-taking saga involving two localist legislators, Chinese legal scholars are now even calling for the exclusion of foreign judges after the court convicted seven police officers for assaulting a protester during the Occupy movement.

We now turn to Macau, Hong Kong’s neighbor under the same the political arrangement. While the Hong Kong protests in 2003 against the enactment of Article 23—the national security law which prohibits acts of “treason, secession, and subversion”—was effective in delaying the legislation of the law, in Macau the same law was passed back in 2009.

Lam’s stance on Article 23 itself is ambiguous. While she called it a “constitutional duty” to enact the law, she also said that the government should not force the legislation if there is not a favorable environment. Whether or not Hong Kong ends up as just another city in the P.R.C. depends much on Lam’s term and developments over the next couple of years. But there are enough warning signs. In the legislature, not only has the government sought to remove more pro-democracy lawmakers through court action, thus threatening their veto power in the geographical constituencies—and hence their ability to reject motions and bills by fellow lawmakers—but they’ve also installed Andrew Leung Kwan-yuen as the President of the legislative body, seen by some as a puppet of Beijing. And now, despite the popularity of another pro-establishment chief executive candidate John Tsang—a man who, notwithstanding his equally questionable position on Article 23, has gained the support of both the public and pro-democracy election committee members—Beijing has chosen to back a candidate over whom they could more easily exert their control, rather than one who could perhaps truly unify the differences in the city. Quartz’s headline for the election results speaks no truer words: “Hong Kong’s Election Results Are in, and Beijing Won.”

When Britain transferred the sovereignty of Hong Kong to China in 1997, confidence rested on the hope that Hongkongers could dance to their own tunes in a gradual integration process. Hong Kong’s cramped space hardly displays the signature landmarks of new Chinese cities, but it offers a culturally diverse society with sufficient institutional integrity that attracts global talents.

There have been numerous large-scale protests in the 20 years since 1997. The Umbrella Movement in 2014, however, brought the normal life of the city to a standstill for 79 days. The turmoil laid bare the intense power-struggles in China, questioned the legitimacy of its appointees in Hong Kong, tested the neutrality of the civil service, and triggered a new activism among a young generation.

China’s post-reform rise has pulled Hong Kong into its orbit rather than the other way round. Immigration and emigration continue to blur many borders. The umbrella movement heightens public awareness of the increasing power of the Chinese government to structure local institutions and values, as social cleavages, identities, and political commitments are redefined.

Pro-establishment forces have doubled down on efforts to achieve “harmony.” They marginalize dissenting voices through increasing control of the legislature, public bodies, media, education, and judiciary. These maneuvers have deepened distrust and frustration. Hong Kong independence, a term hardly raised in the umbrella movement, has gained salience in public political discussions. Some reckon that it is a straw man for the chief executive to advance his hardline political agenda. Others believe that it is the mindset of frustrated advocates, mostly from Hong Kong’s younger generations who see no other way to bring about a representative government accountable to citizens.

Nonetheless, Hong Kong’s political turmoil cannot be treated in dichotomous terms. The recent election of a new chief executive is illuminating. Pan-democratic candidates for the election committee swept the highly professional sectors (legal, IT, health, architectural, engineering, accounting, education, higher education, welfare, medicine). Energies behind the campaign of John Tsang, a centralist candidate, are telling. Has the city’s politically silent professional backbone stirred? Has the peeling away of Hong Kong’s core institutions touched a raw nerve? Sadly, last week’s prosecution of nine leaders of the Umbrella Movement—students, law-makers, and academics—signals that pro-establishment hardliners may not care to change course any time soon. Framed as upholding law and order, the highly selective prosecutions seem intended to mock the very idea of “the rule of law” and the Movement’s cause.

Where is the city headed? Let me respond with an ordinary story.

On a grey December afternoon in 2014, I walked around what remained of the Umbrella Movement at Admiralty. A young man of about 14 asked if I could take a photo of him. He wore a uniform slightly small for his growing frame. “Sure,” I obliged. He had taken a detour from school and needed to hurry home before his parents would get worried. He handed me an old camera, straightened his school tie, and stood solemnly. “Why do you want a picture taken?” He lowered his eyes and said, “Granny, I want to remember this.”

When I first visited Hong Kong a decade and a half ago, the city was radically different from any other Chinese city that I had seen. I remember watching a television interview with Martin Lee of the Hong Kong Democratic Party and feeling a sense of excitement for open political debate that I had not felt for years; I remember reading through the newspapers ever so carefully, as if each and every character on the page deserved all the attention I could give; I remember visiting a Chinese-language bookstore and being overwhelmed by the selection, as was my suitcase on my return trip to Shanghai.

Having already spent a few years in China at this point, it was exciting to see a city that was simultaneously culturally Chinese yet also home to an open society. Although already part of the PRC, Hong Kong was definitely not just another PRC city.

These first impressions have led me to follow Hong Kong’s course over the past 15 years. There have been moments of optimism—the shelving of Article 23, the resignation of Tung Chee-hwa, the abandonment of the national education program. Yet these moments of optimism have been more about resisting what some now call “Mainlandization” than about actual positive change.

And there have been ever more moments of real pessimism—the sham elections; the escalating attacks against journalists; the kidnapping of booksellers and the sudden conservatism of the publishing industry; the arbitrary disqualification of democratically elected representatives; and Beijing’s growing propensity for using “interpretations” of the Basic Law to rationalize ever greater control.
Rather than Chinese politics and society evolving toward the openness of Hong Kong, Hong Kong is instead being gradually forced into Beijing’s troubled political model.

This is a process that clearly goes against the majority’s will and as such is not happening without a fight—a fight that has only become increasingly contentious since the end of the Occupy protests in 2014. As cross-border tensions have grown, some commentators have attributed these developments to anti-Mainland bias. Such analyses, however, overlook the real driving force in Hong Kong-Mainland relations: Beijing.

At the handover in 1997, Beijing inherited a politically stable and economically developed city with a robust legal system, independent media, and developed civil society. Yet Beijing’s emphasis upon stability and control has ironically been destabilizing. The past 20 years have brought growing politicization and doubts about the justice system, ever greater conservatism in media, and rapidly expanding political divisions and conflict.

China’s rulers are often portrayed as pragmatic technocrats—in the most sympathetic of portrayals, they are the carefully selected best of the best, skillfully engineering the rise of a new global superpower. Yet the case of Hong Kong raises serious questions about the Chinese Communist Party’s ability to handle a complex society without recourse to patriotic education and draconian media controls.
While Beijing is increasingly treating Hong Kong like just another PRC city, Hong Kong still is not just another PRC city, and hopefully will not become one anytime soon.