Dark clouds over HK

Tags: Op-ed
On July 1, it was 20 years since the former British colony of Hong Kong returned to China. The celebrations of this historical event were presided over by Chinese president Xi Jinping. While security forces made sure that the Chinese guests did not encounter any untoward incident there were protests in the city that demanded more democracy for Hong Kong and criticised the Chinese government for interfering in Hong Kong affairs.

Hong Kong island in the Pearl River Delta not far from Canton had been acquired by the British as a war trophy for their victory in the first Opium War in 1839/41. Later on, in 1897, the British expanded their territory on the nearby mainland. This was done under a 99-year lease which came to its end in 1997. In preparing for the transfer, both the British and the Chinese made a lot of efforts to curtail public anxiety about the future of Hong Kong. It was agreed that the former British colony, while returning under the full sovereignty of the People’s Republic of China, would keep its legal institutions. Chinese reformer Deng Xiaoping developed the formula of “one country, two systems” that was to be in place for the next fifty years and that in 2047 could be extended by another 50 years.

As its origins are the result of a historic humiliation of China by a foreign power, the issue of Hong Kong is very delicate and a lot of face keeping is at stake. Essentially, three parties are involved, the people of Hong Kong, the Chinese leadership and Great Britain. On the surface every one of these three parties must have a big interest in securing the continuing economic prosperity of Hong Kong. During the past 40 years, Hong Kong has developed into a major international finance centre. It has greatly profited from the rapid rise of China to the position of the second largest economy, soon to be the largest economy in the world. The formula found in “one country, two systems” and the establishment of the Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong (SAR) seemed a good platform on which to further enhance Hong Kong’s prosperity. With its British influenced legal system, the rule of law and a tradition of transparent economic policies Hong Kong has distinct advantages over rivals such as Shenzhen or Shanghai, which are under the full control of the political and legal system of the People’s Republic.

Since Xi Jinping has been established at the top of the Communist Party of China in 2012, we have been witnessing a strong increase in his power. Some commentators are seeing in him the strongest Chinese leader since Deng Xiaoping, the main protagonist of the historical economic reforms. Not least under the guise of a high profile campaign against corruption Xi has managed to clear the decks of potential rivals and to prepare for the next party congress to be held in autumn 2017.

Up until now he has been successful and it looks as if the new top party bodies that will be composed under his leadership will be under his control. Part of the high profile of Xi Jinping is the international projection of him and of the People’s Republic. In this Xi plays the national card and satisfies those forces in the party who eagerly watch out for any slight their country might be given by a foreign power.

For Xi Jinping Hong Kong ranks high in projecting a newly self-confident China. Most notably Xi made it clear on his recent visit to Hong Kong that Great Britain has no voice anymore in Hong Kong affairs. He also made it clear that, while the legal system of Hong Kong is distinct from the mainland, political developments that alienate the former colony from the mainland are not acceptable. It is very clear that Beijing wants solid control over the political institutions in Hong Kong. On the one hand, this means that for high offices like the chief executive only candidates who are in the good books of Beijing are acceptable. On the other hand, it also indicates that China will not allow political offices to be elected by general suffrage. This puts the pro-Beijing forces in conflict with the democracy camp.

While China’s protagonists in Hong Kong claim that its citizens are only interested in economic prosperity and do not want political disruptions, democrats declare that human and political rights are universal and that in fact Hong Kong had been promised to become a full fledged democracy. It does, of course, not help that some within the democratic camp take extremist positions and through political actions such as mass demonstrations and in most extreme cases even advocacy of Hong Kong’s secession from the mainland deliberately embarrass the central leadership. It became evident during Xi’s most recent Hong Kong visit that his tolerance for a special Hong Kong path to democracy is limited and that he does not mind to get political obedience enforced more rigorously than in the past. This has led many observers to the yet most sober assessment of Hong Kong’s future since its return to China.

(The writer is Tokyo-based Far East correspondent of Neue Zurcher Zeitung)


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