For the Chinese leadership, the former Portuguese enclave of Macau is now the model post-colonial child: dutiful, attentive and obedient to parental dictates emanating from the north. By contrast, neighboring Hong Kong, a British possession for more than 150 years before its 1997 handover to Chinese rule, has turned out to be Beijing’s enfant terrible: querulous, petulant and defiant in response to Beijing’s paternalism.
On July 1, Hong Kong will mark 20 years since the Union Jack was lowered and the Chinese flag raised over the city. From Beijing’s perspective, it still stubbornly refuses to grow up. Regular anti-mainland street protests continue (some of them even featuring colonial flags symbolizing the good old days under the British), as do unrelenting demands for greater democracy.
Moreover, further raising the ire of the central authorities, a small but vocal group of separatists, most of them young and disillusioned with local leaders strung along by Beijing’s puppet strings, are calling for Hong Kong to declare itself an independent city-state à la Singapore.
While no one with a clear head believes this fledgling independence movement will ever fly, the so-called “localists” who promote the idea have crossed a red line for mainland authorities. In response, Beijing, once tolerant of its wayward Hong Kong child, is now taking a harder line and pointing to Macau – which has grown immensely wealthy since its return to Chinese sovereignty in 1999 thanks to high-rollers from the mainland – as an example of the kind of fealty and conformity it expects from Hongkongers in the future.
That was certainly the message delivered by Zhang Dejiang, chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress and the state leader overseeing Hong Kong and Macau affairs, during his three-day visit to the gambling hub last week. While Zhang, China’s third-most-powerful politician after President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang, never mentioned Hong Kong by name while in Macau, it was obvious that he had the recalcitrant city in mind in almost his every utterance.
For example, Zhang went out of his way to praise the people of Macau for their patriotism and high regard for the sovereignty and security of the nation – all points, in the eyes of mainland leaders, woefully lacking in Hong Kong.
Zhang’s unstated but nevertheless crystal-clear message: Patriots don’t insult the motherland, wave colonial flags and call for independence. Patriots don’t place their selfish interests above those of the nation. And patriots follow Beijing’s repeated directives to enact national-security legislation prohibiting and punishing subversion, something a compliant Macau legislature did way back in 2009 but which Hong Kong has yet to do because of the massive protest likely to be ignited by such a move.
Indeed, in 2003, the last time the Hong Kong government proposed an anti-subversion law, 500,000 people took to the streets to register their opposition and anger. The bill was subsequently shelved and its chief proponent, then secretary of security Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, forced to resign. Ever since, the Hong Kong government has been gun-shy about resuscitating the bill.
Mainland leaders, however, have shown no such reticence, all the while maintaining that Hong Kong is bound by Article 23 of its mini-constitution, known as the Basic Law, to implement national-security legislation outlawing acts of sedition and treason against the central government. Zhang’s not-so-subtle remarks in Macau are just the latest reminder of Hong Kong’s failure to live up to its obligations to the central government under the guiding “one country, two systems” principle agreed to before the handovers of both former colonies.
Zhang’s friendly visit to the Macau legislature served to underscore another contrast between the two cities. When Zhang came to Hong Kong last May, he studiously avoided the city’s raucous Legislative Council, to which two pro-independence lawmakers, Sixtus Baggio Leung Chung-hang and Yau Wai-ching, were elected last September. By the time Zhang arrived in the city, the duo had been unseated for turning their oaths of office into histrionic anti-Beijing protests, but the 27 pan-democratic lawmakers remaining in the 70-member body still manage to make the Legco chamber a place where mainland and local leaders are routinely denounced and debased.
Hong Kong’s unpopular chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, has suffered the indignity of having fruit and other objects hurled at him during his pained addresses to the chamber. Of course, nothing like that happened to Zhang in Macau, where a much smaller, tamer group of pan-democrats is kept on a tight leash.
In yet another thinly veiled dig at Hong Kong during his Macau visit, Zhang warned educators there against “instilling selfish desires and evil thoughts” in their students. Speaking at the Hengqin campus of Macau University, located just across the border in the mainland city of Zhuhai, Zhang told a seminar attended by students, professors and government officials that “teachers have a huge responsibility in grooming and molding” young minds and should not “lead them astray”.
Which, of course, is exactly what mainland officials complain is happening in mutinous Hong Kong, where – along with the Reverend Chu Yiu-ming – two professors, Benny Tai Yiu-ting of the University of Hong Kong and Chan Kin-man of Chinese University, founded the pro-democracy Occupy Central campaign joined by legions of students who crippled key commercial sections of the city during nearly three months of protests in 2014.
Chu, Tai, Chan and other Occupy leaders were arrested in March, two years after the last Occupy protester had packed up and gone home, on charges of committing a public nuisance; they now face a trial and, if convicted, up to seven years in jail.
In the wake of the arrests of the Occupy founders and other protest leaders, Zhang’s praise for Macau – and indirect criticism of Hong Kong – can be seen as part and parcel of the harder line now being taken toward dissent everywhere in China, including its two special administrative regions. Thus, as the 20th anniversary of the handover approaches in Hong Kong and the city prepares for a visit from President Xi to mark the occasion, the days of legal slaps on the wrist for those who publicly oppose the central government are over.
The Chinese leadership is determined to bring Hong Kong to heel and avoid any embarrassment during Xi’s July visit. That explains, among other things, why the organizer of the annual July 1 pro-democracy march, the Civil Human Rights Front, for the first time had its application to use Victoria Park as the march’s starting point denied by the city’s Leisure and Cultural Services Department.
The park holds several soccer pitches that have been the traditional gathering place for the tens of thousands of demonstrators taking part in the rally, which is held on the same day as the official handover celebrations. But this year, in another sign of the times, the venue has been given to a pro-Beijing group, the Hong Kong Celebrations Association, for the day.
Despite all the best efforts of the mainland leadership and their local minions to suppress dissent in Hong Kong, don’t count on the city suddenly turning silent and obedient on July 1 for Xi. There will be protests on that day and on many more anniversary dates to come.
At this point, distrust of the Chinese leadership, born of an uneasy handover two decades ago that has left too many Hongkongers feeling that their way of life has been threatened and compromised, is part of the city’s DNA.
Hong Kong – an international finance center with a population of 7.3 million and a highly educated younger generation demanding better housing, better jobs and better government – was never meant to be compared to Macau, a city of only 650,00 people living in a glitzy casino and entertainment culture largely dependent on nouveau riche punters from the mainland.
Sorry, Mr Zhang, but praise of one place meant as criticism of the other in this case only underscores the profound differences between the two while also revealing the central government’s inability to come to grips with its failed policies in Hong Kong.