Hong Kong—Now What?

A ChinaFile Conversation

David Schlesinger:

Hong Kong’s tragedy is that its political consciousness began to awaken precisely at the time when its leverage with China was at its lowest ebb.

Where once China needed Hong Kong as an entrepôt, legal center, financial center, talent center, and education center, now the situation is reversed. Hong Kong is dependent on China—without Chinese deals Hong Kong’s law firms, investment banks, and private equity players would swiftly relocate elsewhere; without Chinese tourists Hong Kong’s hotels and shopping emporia would shudder and shutter; without Chinese-linked opportunities Hong Kong’s young people would face under- or unemployment.

Hong Kong went through 150 years of relatively benign colonial rule by Britain without London ever creating true democratic consciousness or institutions and without Hong Kong ever truly demanding more of a say in its administration. Hong Kong’s business elites vied for British favor and awards, from business monopolies to the sovereign’s bestowed knighthoods.

China surely counted on the change of suzerain leading to a simple change of focus from London to Beijing—and, frankly, in the case of many in the business and political elite that’s exactly what happened.

But for the many thousands of young people especially who expected more democracy, who are demanding more of a say in their future, who are developing a sense of Hong Kongness as distinct from Chineseness, there is nothing but disappointment in the air.

With Hong Kong being but a 7.5 million–strong irritation or embarrassment in a wider polity of 1.3 billion people, however, no one could reasonably expect the tail to shake the dragon.

Hong Kong should focus on what is vital for securing that which has always made it unique and special.

First: define the terms. The requirement that judges and the Hong Kong Chief Executive should love China and love Hong Kong must be defined as simple, transparent patriotism and nothing more. In other words, it must not be confused with loving the Communist Party, or having to favor the Party or Party controlled companies in any court case or government decision. It should be only as natural as the President of the United States, for example, reciting and believing in the “Pledge of Allegiance,” making no further claims upon conscience or belief.

Second: protect freedom of speech. University governing councils must respect and defend the right of students and faculty to explore all areas of inquiry. Media must refrain from self-censorship and must be called to account when they waver and rewarded when they stand true to principle. Businesses must not use economic sanctions to punish media’s journalistic activities or commentary and must, instead, recognize that free expression and inquiry ultimately improve the business environment through transparency.

Third: preserve the independent judiciary. Police, prosecutors, and judges must never allow themselves to be politicized and must stand absolutely firm as bastions of the community’s principled conscience.

Finally, Hong Kong people should come to terms with their distinctness within a dependence on China, with the equality of interchange and discussion that implies. Ultimately, Hong Kong’s having a future that is more palatable and positive for the young people of today depends more on China evolving than on any other factor.

Mei Fong:

Hong Kong is like a 45-year-old still living at home forced to ask permission to borrow the family car.

This is sad, but why should the rest of the world care, given ISIS, Putin’s antics, and other conflagrations?

Here’s why: The 1997 Hong Kong handover was a 50-year deal brokered by the Brits and Chinese. Called One Country Two Systems, the deal basically allowed Hong Kong to more or less go on as it had been, with a few provisions where China called the shots (e.g., military.)

One Country Two Systems was always a winged bird that could not fly. Hong Kong was supposed to be given some kind of extended adolescence, a 50 year rumspringa before growing up, joining the family business, getting in line. What happens after 50 years? It was never clearly stated. Either Hong Kong was going to have to change to fit China, or, as Hong Kong’s former masters hoped, China would have changed enough that Hong Kong would fit in. That looks increasingly unlikely.

We should all care what happens to Hong Kong. Many of us will live to see 2047 and the end of One Country Two Systems. The way things are going, it certainly doesn’t bode well for Hong Kong, nor for the China that folks optimistically hoped would have opened enough, not just to tolerate but permit free press and rule of law.

Nicholas Bequelin:

“Do you think we’re going to end up like Tibet?” We’re in the spring of 2011, and the abrupt question from my Hong-Kongese running coach, as we going up a seemingly never-ending section of steps, almost has me tumble down in shock.

You see, we’ve never discussed politics, current affairs, or my profession. Mostly our conversations revolve around nutrition (my being a vegetarian clearly pains him), training discipline (“If there are no gyms around, you can use bricks”), and the fact that no current Hong Kong pop stars even remotely measure up to their peers from the 1980s (the decade he was born).

While the parallels with the situation in Tibet remain limited—not withstanding the display of armored personnel carriers in the streets—the steady rise of disquiet among ordinary Hong Kong people about the poor performance of their local government and its successive Chief Excecutives has been the paramount factor leading to the clash with Beijing. A clash that, as David rightly points out, could only realistically have come to one outcome.



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But it is a mistake to argue, as many do today, that the clash was ineluctable and that Hong Kong’s fate was sealed back in 1984. In fact, the recent events were precipitated by the almost coincidental convergence of three separate factors:

The first factor was—and remains—the growing anxiety about how long ordinary Hong Kongers would be able to maintain their livelihood and distinct identity. (Everyone in Hong Kong knows that, ultimately, the game is up, but, as the truism goes, the certainty of death doesn’t prevent us from living.)

The second factor was the deep cultural and political divide between the established pro-democracy establishment, and the post-colonial digital natives, socially more radical younger generations.

The third factor was the elite power play in Beijing as Xi Jinping forcefully established his authority at the helm of the Communist Party of China.

Let’s look briefly at these three factors, as it is their very interplay, now that Beijing has put its foot down, that will shape what happens next:

1. A growing sense of alienation:

Through a series of crises in recent years, Hong Kongers have come to realize that their government is largely inept when it comes to defending the interests of the average person, hopelessly subservient to the property development tycoons, and tone-deaf to demands and criticisms.

From the destruction of the Star Ferry pier to the massive reclamation of the harbor, from the granting of the Cyberport project without public tender to Li Ka-shing’s son, to the empty promises regarding affordable housing, Hong Kong people have had a growing sense that the government is watching out for its members' collective interests. (The colonial government out of self-interest, and possibly colonial unease, was, in fact, far more responsive to public needs.)

But it’s the influx of mainland visitors that has broken the proverbial camel’s back. The average Hong Konger simply has been crowded out: from public transportation, from shopping malls (the territory's biggest public spaces), from hospitals, from schools, and from the property market—long the best route for members of the salaried class to getting ahead. Measures initially designed to reduce the influx of mainland buyers driving up property prices ultimately have played out against Hong Kong residents, raising the bar of entry too high for the average citizen while doing virtually nothing to prevent the influx of hot money from the mainland.

Two high-profile cases have solidified long-held suspicions of the erosion of the civil service’s reliability and impartiality. In one case, the former head of the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), Timothy Tong (Tong Hin-ming), was found to have vastly exceeded the limits set on the value of gifts and reception expenses, including during some of his no fewer than 19 trips to the mainland. (As Under-Secretary for Security, Tong had been one of the active proponents of the drastic anti-subversion laws back in 2003.) In another case, Rafael Hui (Hui Si-yan), the former Chief Secretary, was exposed as a having colluded for years with one of the main property development groups in the territory and now faces trial.

2. A Generational Clash:

A collateral damage of the growing sense of futility surrounding the Hong Kong government has been the establishment of the pro-democracy political parties. While this at first seems counter-intuitive, one has to remember that the electoral system for the legislature (the Legco) is irremediably rigged by the presence of “professional constituencies” (representatives of various business sectors), and that as a result the opposition (the pan-democrats) can, at best, be a nuisance, but never a constructive force.

Meanwhile, the way the Chief-Executive (C.E.) was chosen until now—by a small, hand-picked committee—almost guaranteed that he would have no real support in the Legco, as the main pro-Beijing parties place a higher imperative on keeping their electorate happy than seeing the C.E.’s proposed legislation go through. This made the C.E. a lame-duck from the get-go and originally provided the incentive for Beijing to reform the electoral system and promise “universal suffrage” reforms.

As a result, the post-1980, and post-90 generations of politically active Hong Kongers have come to the conclusion that traditional political parties that “play the game” have been helpless in preventing the erosion of Hong Kong’s way of life.

Hong Kong's new generation of student activists, like elsewhere around the world, have mobilized political energies through cyber-activism and media-grabbing actions rather through the slow build up of political organizations. They are more radical than their elders, because they think traditional politics cannot achieve much, but also because they are less cognizant of the inner-workings of the Communist Party. More assertive of their separate identity as “Hong Kongers,” they have little patience for the ritual declaration of patriotism that their elders always were careful to stress. In due time, this provided Beijing with a powerful opening to denounce the organizers of Occupy Central as the disloyal tools of unspecified “foreign forces” that they could not easily rebut.

Another dimension of the relative radicalism of the new generation that contrasted with established democrat politicians was its members' embrace of civil disobedience. While this played well as a tactic to expose the mendacity of the political system, it constituted an unacceptable challenge to Beijing, was unlikely to gather large support in Hong Kong, and left the movement open to the attack that it was bent on breaking the law and disrupting business. This argument resonated with the business sector, multi-national companies, and more than a few foreign diplomats. Scare-tactics did the rest. The cultural divide between the two generations runs deep: in the eyes of veteran democrats, the young radicals are politically naïve, ignore the fundamentals of building sustainable political movements, and delude themselves if they think Hong Kong can ignore the reality that it is now part of China. Tactically, they commit mistakes that leave them open to effective counter-attacks from Beijing, and risk precipitating crises for which they have no real solution (cue to Benny Tai’s interview with Bloomberg after the NPC decision, in which he admitted that the movement had failed.)

In the eyes of the new generation, many of whose members rub shoulders with mainland students attending Hong Kong universities in larger numbers than ever, veteran democrats have nothing to show for years of play-by-the-rules battles against the authorities and Beijing, and are themselves naïve if they think that they can find common ground with the Communist Party.

So how can we explain that these two generations came together in the end, and joined forces around Occupy Central? That’s where elite politics in Beijing, the last of our three factors, come into play.

3. A New Emperor in Beijing:

If there is one thing on which most observers agree, it is that Beijing’s own actions and vitriolic rhetoric did more to shore up support for Occupy Central than anything else. The publication of the White Paper, the evocation of a PLA intervention, and what appeared to be a coordinated, full-out assault by every single Beijing proxy in Hong Kong provided a general sense of repulsion that turned into sympathy for the movement and facilitated a rapprochement of all the pro-democracy forces, irrespective of generation.

Beijing’s response, again, was not a given. The Communist Party reacts generally poorly to direct challenges, but the timing of this particular challenge was especially bad: Xi Jinping was in the middle of a take-no-prisoners drive to create his own faction at the expense of the two others occupying the terrain: the “Shanghai gang” (Jiang Zemin and his protégés) and the “shop-keepers” (Hu and the Party School gang.)

Having already had several conflicts with the hardliners (over Bo Xilai, Zhou Yongkang, and the direction of economic reforms), Xi had no interest in picking new fights. If anything, in all areas where he has found it to be politically expedient, Xi has tried to “out-hardline” the hardliners. This has been manifest in a range of realms: notched-up ideological and media controls, suppression of online and actual dissent, attention to giving greater “face” to the PLA, and the embrace of a tougher tone in foreign policy. He also explicitly introduced tougher policies in Tibet and Xinjiang. He was clearly not going to brook challenges from Hong Kong.

So where does Hong Kong go now? Unless governance improves and Hong Kong people regain a modicum of confidence that the territory’s authorities are watching out for the people's interests and resisting, rather than enabling, the erosion of the rule of law, tensions will only continue to increase, to the detriment of both Beijing and Hong Kong.

As David suggests, protecting the integrity of the existing institutions that have guaranteed the rule of law and the prosperity of the territory are more important and reasonable goals than trying to force a one-party system to enable greater democratization. But this requires convincing Beijing that Hong Kong’s specificities ought to be preserved out of interest for the P.R.C., whether it is for its international reputation (China has taken extreme care to fulfill treaty obligations to the letter for three decades, enjoying the benefits of being a member in good standing in the global community), or because having Hong Kong as a laboratory of ideas and practices can help China surmount its challenges.

In the meantime, can Hong Kong's local governance improve even if the next Chief-Executive is not designated though universal suffrage? In theory, yes. But in practice, each Chief-Executive has been worse than the previous one.