Hong Kong's autonomy, dying in full view

28 April 2020

By Keith B Richburg

This article first appeared on the Australian Strategic Policy Institute 'The Strategist'

It may have gone unnoticed as the world continued to deal with the coronavirus pandemic that the Chinese Communist Party has taken the opportunity to effectively kill off Hong Kong’s ‘one country, two systems’ experiment.

The system agreed to when the territory was returned to China did not die of natural causes or attrition. The CCP, with the acquiescence of vassals in Hong Kong’s government, killed it and announced its demise in a press release shrouded in legalese.

Hong Kong’s Basic Law, the mini-constitution that has regulated China’s relations with the city for 23 years, says that ‘no department of the Central People’s Government … may interfere in the affairs’ of Hong Kong. The clear principle of non-interference was never in dispute, until now.

In a stunning turn on 17 April, Beijing’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong issued a broad new interpretation, saying that it and the companion Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office in Beijing ‘most definitely’ had the right to get involved in local issues, including commenting on political disputes. The liaison office said it was ‘authorised by the central authorities to handle Hong Kong affairs’. In other words, the principle of non-interference no longer applies.

Even more shocking for many residents, their China-appointed leaders agreed. Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, the unpopular chief executive whose approval rating stands at negative 54 points, said the mainland government had given Hong Kong a level of autonomy, but she added, ‘That doesn’t mean it lost the power to supervise the city.’

This change came after the liaison office warned that elected opposition lawmaker Dennis Kwok of the Civic Party was abusing his office by filibustering the appointment of a key committee chair to vet government-proposed bills. The filibuster has for centuries given minority politicians some sway over decision-making. Beijing sees it as a weapon for political subversion.

In further evidence that autonomy is now effectively dead, top Hong Kong judges complained about mainland interference in judicial affairs after the Chinese state-run media warned them not to ‘absolve’ protesters.

And pro-Beijing voices have begun referring to the protests as ‘terrorism’. The new, hardline head of the liaison office, Luo Huining, said on 15 April that Hong Kong needed to quickly pass a long-stalled law against subversion that would give police sweeping new powers.

Early on 18 April, 15 prominent opposition figures and pro-democracy leaders were arrested, purportedly for their roles in ‘unauthorised protests’ in August and October. They included media tycoon Jimmy Lai Chee-ying, whose newspaper, Apple Daily, is the most openly pro-democracy, and 81-year-old lawyer Martin Lee, a former head of the Democratic Party known as the ‘father of democracy’. The timing, as the liaison office stepped up attacks, appeared suspicious.

The massive protests from June 2019 until January this year erupted over demands that the government withdraw a bill to allow suspects wanted in China to be arrested in Hong Kong and taken to the mainland. But after an often violent crackdown, with police firing tens of thousands of rounds of tear gas and rubber bullets and beating demonstrators, the protests quickly morphed into demands for police accountability, amnesty for those arrested and a revival of Hong Kong’s stalled political reform process.

The protests halted as fears of the coronavirus spread and people stayed indoors, schools and public facilities were closed and gatherings were restricted to no more than four people. The police seem to be using the hiatus to gain the upper hand before the protests resume.

Beijing’s immediate concern is September’s legislative council election. In district council elections, pro-China and pro-establishment candidates suffered a shocking defeat. Pro-democracy and localist candidates won control of 17 of 18 councils and tripled their number of seats, devastating the pro-Beijing camp.

Beijing and the local government appear to be using the coronavirus ‘lull’ to clear the decks, hoping to prevent another landslide defeat. They may seek to pass the anti-subversion law before losing control of the legislature.

In the process, they have shown that they’re willing to forgo what’s left of the idea of Hong Kong as an autonomous city.

The ‘one country, two systems’ approach was always unlikely to succeed. In 1997, China, run by a brutal and authoritarian one-party dictatorship, claimed sovereignty over a modern and successful city with a free press, an independent judiciary and a quasi-democratic political system that respected human rights and personal freedoms. There was no modern precedent.

China was supposed to be responsible for foreign policy, defence and other matters of state, while Hong Kong would be largely left alone to run its economy and its internal affairs, including its politics and its legal system. That arrangement was supposed to remain in place for 50 years, until 2047.

Everyone observing the transition knew Beijing’s leaders wouldn’t be able to refrain from meddling for that long. Hong Kong, after all, was anathema to China’s communists, who prize obedience and control while crushing dissent.

The experiment has ended quickly.

Beijing tried to limit Hong Kong’s autonomy over the first two decades, but mostly relented in the face of local opposition. In 2003, when China tried to force Hong Kong to adopt a draconian anti-subversion law, Article 23, hundreds of thousands of people poured into the streets to protest and Beijing gave in. When China tried to force Hong Kong to implement a ‘patriotic education’ law, requiring local pupils to declare a love of ‘the motherland’ and extol the CCP’s virtues, people again took to the streets to protest and the plan was scrapped.

The biggest outbreak of dissent, before last year’s protests, was the 2014 ‘Occupy’ movement that paralysed part of the business district for 79 days. Then, Beijing accelerated attempts to bring Hong Kong to heel.

The 2015 booksellers case, in which five members of a local publishing house were kidnapped by Chinese agents, showed that mainland security officials were willing to breach local autonomy to snatch someone they considered a threat.

Then came the unprecedented de facto expulsion of Financial Times journalist Victor Mallet, who was denied a visa to work in Hong Kong, out of retribution for a luncheon talk at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club by a local pro-independence activist, which infuriated Beijing.

Since then, Hong Kong immigration authorities appear to have weaponised the right to deny entry in order to enforce mainland political priorities, a common practice in China but one unheard of in Hong Kong. This shift was underlined in March when Beijing expelled American journalists from the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post, and then stipulated that they wouldn’t be allowed to work in Hong Kong.

For decades, journalists forced to leave China have found Hong Kong a safe haven.

The Hong Kong government refused to comment on immigration matters, saying only that cases were decided ‘in accordance with the law’.

Hong Kong’s handover to China in 1997 passed largely anticlimactically, overshadowed by a local health epidemic, H5N1 or ‘bird flu’, and a financial meltdown that bankrupted corporations, collapsed the value of currencies and wiped out a generation of wealth across Asia.

Now the city’s autonomy is similarly overshadowed by a zoonotic pandemic and a looming global economic crisis. The death of Hong Kong is happening in plain sight, if anyone is paying attention.

Author

Keith B. Richburg, director of the Journalism and Media Studies Centre at the University of Hong Kong, spent more than 20 years overseas for the Washington Post, serving as bureau chief in Beijing, Hong Kong, Jakarta, Manila, Nairobi and Paris, as well as New York City. He also was the Post’s foreign editor from 2005 to 2007. Image: MN Chan/China Photos/Getty Images.