Hong Kongers are used to being a pawn in the game of superpowers. In 1997, Britain handed the city over to China under the “one country two systems” principle leaving it “Special Administrative Region” status. The principle was enshrined in the Basic Law, the legal framework for how Hong Kong would be governed from that point on.
The recent ruling by the National People’s Congress (NPC) on the fate of Hong Kong is just a staging post in China’s advance to consolidate its status as rising superpower. The decision is best viewed through this lens. Hong Kong is a sideshow in the main act: President Xi Jinping’s ambition to cement China’s economic and geopolitical stature as a superpower.
The NPC ruling
The Hong Kong pro-democracy camp is incensed. In an interview with me, Emily Lau, a legislator and Chairwoman of the Democratic Party, slammed the move as “totally unacceptable and ludicrous”. Lau believes the decree reneges on a promise of universal suffrage made by the Chinese in the Basic Law. The British and Chinese drafted the law in line with the Sino-British Joint Declaration before the handover. It’s a roadmap for how Hong Kong should be run. Thearchitecture does account for universal suffrage in the selection of Hong Kong’s leader. And this is where the crunch lies.
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In one sense, the NPC, a rubber-stamp parliament, did deliver universal suffrage, but with Chinese characteristics. The decree gives a wide berth to what Lau and democrats like her were hoping for: that Hong Kongers themselves, not just a Beijing-connected elite, would finally get to choose who ran their city. Instead, what’s emerged is a plan for a 1200-member committee to select one of up to three candidates to run the city. To win, a candidate will need 601 votes.
The victor would undoubtedly need to be a Beijing loyalist. Li Fei, deputy secretary-general of the NPC’s Standing Committee, flew to Hong Kong to explain Beijing’s position. He told a meeting of democratic and establishment legislators that, “As long as they give up their biases, the universal suffrage plan in line with the Basic Law and the NPC decision would also be the best choice for them.”
Shouts calling Beijing’s new plan, “shameful”, greeted Li as security escorted the hecklers out of the auditorium.
The arrangement slams the door on hopes that Hong Kong would have free and direct elections in 2017. If Hong Kong legislators vote down the reform package, as some plan to do, then the selection would revert to business as usual. Years of political struggle by the democrats to secure one person one vote would be in vain.
Beijing uses state organs
Well-known analyst at the Chinese University of Hong Kong Willy Lam told me that the new measures were “draconian and an adulteration of the one country two systems model. We can even say it’s dead. Beijing sees itself as controlling all aspects of life in Hong Kong.”
A David versus Goliath scenario some would say, where the pan-democrats rallying around the Occupy Central movement have no hope of winning in concrete terms. China’s use of state organs to manage Hong Kong illustrates the point. People’s Liberation Army soldiers are undertaking training drills at their garrison in central Hong Kong. This morning Hong Kong police lined up for their normal routine, but in greater numbers than usual.
Lam highlighted the recent raid by the anti-corruption commission, on the home of media tycoon Jimmy Lai, as an indicator of how far Beijing was prepared to go. Lai owns the anti-Beijing Apple Daily newspaper. Officers from the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) stormed Lai’s premises after leaked documents showed he’d donated money to pro-democrats. The ICAC is regarded as a bastion of independence in Hong Kong, unafraid to target billionaires like the Kwok brothers in high profile anti-graft cases. Anything that questions that independence raises the spectre of how long Hong Kong’s legal system could remain outside of political control.
Xi is a nationalist, who believes in China’s pre-eminence on the world stage. It is no secret he would like to restore what he regards as China’s past glory. In a public relations coup, Xi coined it the “Chinese Dream”. The president has asserted power via economic, domestic and regional policies. His geopolitical strategies are geared towards this goal.
Take his economic ventures outside China. Forays into territories where governments may be more receptive to Beijing than to the West are growing. Countries like Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka and Cuba, well-known for their skirmishes with the West over human rights, and where democracy can be a dirty word, are receiving frequent visits from Chinese officials.
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After talks with Cuban President Raul Castro in July, Xi said, “China is full of confidence about the future development of relations between our country and Cuba, and that we will forever be good friends, comrades and brothers of Cuba.”
Xi is also pivoting China to the West, extending Beijing’s reach into frontier regions. The massive economic development of Xinjiang represents the regions’ significance, with its rich resources and its access to massive markets in Central Asia. Framed through the China Western Development Project, Beijing’s go west strategy aggressively promotes economic development in those provinces.
Foreign direct investment shot up more than eight times between 2005-2012, from US$50m to $408m. This week, the China-Eurasia expoopened in Urumqi, bringing thousands to this historic city to talk trade, transport and finance. Also known as the Silk Road revival, the western extension has come at a huge cost to Uighur minorities. Directives outlawing aspects of Islamic identity – headscarves and beards were banned in the city of Karamay for two weeks in August – marginalise the Uighurs in their own home.
China’s policies in East Asia mirror this nationalism. Territorial disputes in the East China Sea and South China Sea have inflamed tension in the region. The result has been to send Vietnam and Philippines into the arms of Japan, China’s great political foe in the region.
Losing core values
In this context, the arrival of Beijing’s strict restrictions on universal suffrage is no surprise. A slow deterioration of Hong Kong‘s character is likely to be the outcome of the political upheaval. Transparency, accountability and rule of law, the pillars of a healthy democracy, now rest on shaky ground. Lam said, “People feel the nature of Hong Kong has changed. This ruling will destroy Hong Kong’s formula for success. To say this would lead to the death of Hong Kong is an exaggerated notion, but certainly the core values of Hong Kong have been eroded.”
The death of Hong Kong has been predicted before, at the handover in 1997 and during the SARS crisis in 2003. The territory has historically endured waves of turmoil – from the Cultural Revolution in China to the War in Vietnam, when refugees arrived on its shores needing to be fed and clothed.
But the survivability of Hong Kongers as they fight back and emerge stronger each time is partly what makes Hong Kong Hong Kong. In 2013, 54 million people visited these crowded rocks. Forty million were Chinese mainlanders. Those figures alone signal Hong Kong’s ability to hang on to, moreover promote, its celebrity status. But, as Beijing rolls back Hong Kong’s freedoms, this city of seven million people could slowly morph into just one of China’s 660 cities. This may not transpire in the short-term, but it could in the longer-term. After surviving so much, a loss like this would be hard to swallow.
Zarina Banu is a freelance writer, focusing on economics and business-policy in the Asia-Pacific.
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