The tragedy of Hong Kong and Beijing’s evident determination to end “one country, two systems” as swiftly as possible is that the relationship need not have been this destructive.
At the time of the handover in 1997 after 156 years of British rule, there was some apprehension about the sovereignty of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). But there was also a lot of good will and optimism that the end of colonial status heralded a bright future as part of the fast-developing People’s Republic of China.
Optimists took former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping at his word. Hong Kong’s retention of its civil liberties and judicial system was to be a model for how the CCP would encourage Taiwan to form a political union with China.
Treating Hong Kong with respect, and adhering closely to the promises about the territory’s future embedded in the 1984 Joint Declaration and the Basic Law constitution, were therefore in the CCP’s best interests.
Extreme optimists even went so far as to dream that the CCP would look closely at Hong Kong with an inquisitive eye and open mind. They would see the social harmony created by freedom of expression, administrators with political legitimacy and a trustworthy judicial system, and contemplate this as a template for its own gradual political reform.
At the other end of the opinion spectrum, the most crass, realpolitik observers said it was unthinkable that the CCP would destroy international confidence in Hong Kong as a business hub for China by riding roughshod over the territory’s social, political and judicial structures.
Sadly, all these hopeful visions were wrong. The CCP never saw Hong Kong as anything more than a piece of unfinished business from China’s “century of humiliation.”
Granting Hong Kong special status was a temporary inconvenience agreed to in order to get the British to leave quickly and quietly. After that the CCP’s imperative was, and is, to establish its mastery over the territory and impose its administrative system as quickly as possible.
The evidence of the CCP’s intentions was there in the 1980s and onwards for those who cared to look.
The party’s first instinct was to do what comes naturally. It moved to take control of Hong Kong by subversion. In the run-up to 1997, the CCP infiltrated Hong Kong society at all levels with agents of influence, and to intensify the already substantial United Front Works Department operations in the territory.
Hong Kong’s leading business people were bought off with promises of special access to the Chinese market and assets in return for political support.
Even the triads were seduced by being lauded as “patriotic organizations,” and on occasion being used as the party’s militia on the streets of Hong Kong.
These incursions spoke not of a coming family reunification or partnership with Hong Kong, but of a takeover by an adversary intent on establishing clear dominance.
That demand for submission and unquestioned loyalty was set out from the start when Beijing picked the pleasant but ineffectual shipping magnate Tung Chee Hwa as the first Chief Executive.
If Beijing had been interested in developing a mutually respectful relationship with Hong Kong and its people, it would have picked the head of the civil service, Anson Chan, to lead the territory’s administration. Polls showed she was the clear favorite of Hong Kong people to be their governor.
Her appointment would have sent a positive signal not only to the territory but to the world at large that the CCP understood and appreciated what made Hong Kong a special place.
That was not the party’s intention. Moreover, what has become clear beyond doubt in recent days, months and years is the CCP under Xi Jinping’s leadership is determined to end the “one country, two systems” guarantees well before the 2047 deadline envisaged in the Hong Kong Basic Law.
Indeed, in 2017 the then British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson urged Beijing to initiate political reform in Hong Kong, as envisaged in the 1984 Joint Declaration. A spokesman for the Beijing government retorted that the declaration is not a treaty, but “as a historical document, no longer has any practical significance.” He added that “it is not at all binding for the central government’s management over Hong Kong.”
The extradition bill, which critics fear will legalize Beijing’s practice of grabbing and spiriting away people in Hong Kong it considers dissidents, will be pushed through.
Anger at the bill may have brought out more people onto the streets in protest than at any time since Hongkongers’ outraged response to the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989.
But for Beijing, that is not important, just like the Umbrella Movement occupation of Central in 2014, which demanded political reform. The CCP has made it clear as day that it intends to keep tight control over who is allowed to be a candidate for public office in Hong Kong and who will be selected.
The CCP did pause for thought in 2003 when about 500,000 Hongkongers marched in protest against a proposed anti-sedition law that looked like a direct attack on the territory’s right to freedom of expression. But in some ways, the extradition bill can be seen as accomplishing, via a different route, Beijing’s insistence on being able to stifle dissent.
Not too much confidence should be placed on Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s promise that the extradition law will not be used for political purposes.
From the beginning, the CCP indicated by word and deed that Hong Kong might prove to be an unwelcome virus that infected China with alien ideas and demands. After all, the Cantonese region of Guangdong province, of which Hong Kong is a cultural and ethnic part, has a long history of being a hotbed of revolution.
There were warnings when in the negotiations for the 1984 Hong Kong Basic Law mini-constitution the CCP would only agree to vague wording about political reform. Articles 45 and 68 of the Basic Law speak about progressing towards the ultimate goal of Hongkongers being allowed to directly elect their Chief Executive and all the members of the Legislative Council.
But there are no commitments about the timing of reforms.
At the moment, the Chief Executive is selected by a 1,200-member committee appointed by the CCP from a list of candidates approved by the CCP. In the 70-seat legislature, 35 members are directly elected and the other 35 are chosen by various special interest groups representing sectors of the economy and municipal councils. This system ensures that the majority of legislators are beholden to Beijing’s patronage.
Even if greater direct elections are allowed, the CCP has made it clear it has no intention of giving up ultimate control of deciding who runs Hong Kong. The 2014 Umbrella Movement occupation of central Hong Kong was in response to a decision by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress in Beijing to allow the direct election of the Chief Executive, but only with stringent limitations.
Beijing, said the committee, would continue to vet and select the candidates, to ensure “the Chief executive shall be a person who loves the country and loves Hong Kong.” The ruling insisted that “the method for selecting the Chief executive by universal suffrage must provide corresponding institutional safeguards for this purpose.”
In the eyes of the CCP, of course, loving the country means loving the CCP.
The Party now faces challenges in Hong Kong entirely of its own making. One striking picture from the demonstrations of the last few years is that they are dominated by young people, who were no more than toddlers at the time of the handover in 1997.
These are not people whose objection to the actions of the CCP and its agents stem from alien concepts of British colonial rule. These demonstrators simply want to keep the rights and freedoms that are part of Hong Kong civic culture.
With that has gone an extraordinary increase in the proportion of Hong Kong people who identify themselves as Hongkongers and not Chinese.
At the time of the handover, about 47% of poll respondents said they were happy with their new, exclusively Chinese identity. That has dropped to 21% in a recent survey.
But the long-term threat to the CCP is another number. In several surveys, only one in six young people between the ages of 18 and 29 years identify as Chinese compared to 65% who identify as Hongkongers. The remainder said they are both Chinese and Hongkongers.
The actions of the CCP have even given birth to an independence movement in Hong Kong. They have also made it inconceivable that Taiwan will voluntarily enter into any kind of political union with the PRC.
For the most part, Hong Kong’s people only come out in large numbers when they see intolerable actions by the administration, and then the marchers are almost always entirely peaceful, as they were in the anti-extradition law march on Sunday.
But since Beijing began to demonstrate that there will be no meaningful political reform and that Hong Kong’s current freedoms are destined for the scrap heap, elements among the territory’s activists have inevitably become more confrontational. Wednesday’s riots outside the Legislature to force postponement of debate on the extradition treaty were, sadly, probably a hint of things to come.
Beijing has only itself to blame. There can only be a tragic ending to the story when Hongkongers have been left no alternative but to take to the streets to express their opposition to what is being done to them.