Beijing bares knuckles over Hong Kong

Protesters attend a pro-democracy rally next to the Hong Kong government complex

At a press conference that senior Beijing official Li Fei held here on Monday, journalists were told: questions must be in Mandarin, not Cantonese or English. This was despite the presence of simultaneous interpreters.

In Hong Kong, a city where language is thoroughly politicised, the stipulation was a small but unmistakable show of who's boss.

There was also no coddling of Beijing's hardline decision on Hong Kong's constitutional reform announced a day earlier.

There will be a nominating committee to pre-screen candidates for the chief executive post. The committee's 1,200 members will be drawn from the same sectors as a current panel. Candidates must get at least half their votes. There will be two or three candidates, no more. This effectively means that Hong Kongers will be choosing from a couple of Beijing-anointed candidates.

Setting out such strict rules with little room for negotiation - without even trying very hard to disguise it as something more palatable - shows clearly how the Beijing central government's attitude towards Hong Kong has changed, suggesting that its distrust of the city has only hardened in the 17 years since the July 1, 1997 handover from the British.

Beijing's announcement angered the pro-democracy camp, with the Occupy Central movement vowing to go ahead with its civil disobedience campaign and Hong Kong legislators saying they will scuttle any reform proposals based on the rules.

If so, Hong Kong will be in - as former chief executive Tung Chee Hwa said on Wednesday - for endless "bitter squabbles and paralysis".

Beijing, Mr Li made clear, is prepared to accept this. It has taken into account the consequences of its decision, he added.

So why such a bare-knuckled approach by Beijing, even at a relatively early stage in the Constitutional reform process, prior to a second round of public consultation? The most important factor is Beijing's core strategic interest in Hong Kong, which has been consistent from the 1980s when the late Deng Xiaoping made it clear that getting it back from the clutches of the British is a matter of China's national security and territorial integrity.

Only patriots who "love the country and love Hong Kong" can be in charge, he declared. "They must respect their culture, sincerely support the country's sovereignty over Hong Kong and not undermine its prosperity and stability."

At the same time, Beijing has had an abiding suspicion of the loyalties of certain groups in Hong Kong, especially after the Tiananmen incident in 1989 when large swathes of Hong Kongers actively supported the student activists. Since then, it has accused the city of being a potential base for subversion to undermine the Chinese government, a charge it has made again in recent times.

Several recent developments appeared to have deepened such suspicions, resulting in a tightening grip on the city to pre-empt what Beijing appears to believe to be an oncoming crisis. One is the rise of Occupy Central, which Beijing perceives as a direct challenge to its authority and which thus requires a robust response. The second is the emergence of colonial-era symbols such as the Union Jack touted by fringe groups.

This relates to a particularly sore point - the belief that some Hong Kongers are consorting with "foreign forces", such as when activists Dr Martin Lee and former Hong Kong Chief Secretary Anson Chan travelled to Britain to raise concerns about the political situation here to British lawmakers.

Says Chinese politics academic Steve Tsang: "Beijing doesn't understand nuances or subtlety, and cannot understand what people like (Occupy Central organiser) Benny Tai are trying to do - to use Occupy as a negotiating strategy. They took what he said at face value and assumed he was out to paralyse Hong Kong.

"If they were more confident and felt less threatened, they could have relaxed the (reform) rules a bit more."

In Beijing's mind, it is time to put its foot down on what it feels to be increasing insubordination on the part of Hong Kongers, such as when a massive protest in 2003 prevented the passing of a security law, and the scuttling of plans in 2012 to introduce national education in schools.

As a commentator quoted by the nationalistic China paper Global Times said: "Things must be under Beijing's control." All this came in tandem with other evolving forces.

For the past two years, a popular narrative propagated by the Chinese media and pro-establishment figures in Hong Kong has been about Hong Kong's diminishing value to China, and its eroding edge against other glittering cities such as Shanghai.

Just last week, a new report by a research firm in Guangzhou stated that in 1997, Hong Kong's gross domestic product was 15.6 per cent of China's total; last year, it plummeted to 2.9 per cent. Another factor is the fact that the original raison d'etre for the one-country two-systems framework - as a model to woo Taiwan - is essentially dead.

Hong Kong's political developments are closely watched in Taiwan, and reports about "Beijing's broken promises" have been reported on the front pages of some of its newspapers the past week.

But with the model holding no appeal for most Taiwanese anyway - even those in the pan-blue pro-unification camp - Beijing has little to lose.

A third change is the new leadership in Beijing, with President Xi Jinping essentially taking a "very assertive approach", not just in Hong Kong, but also across the board, Prof Tsang notes.

What might be the final clincher in Beijing's calculations though are Hong Kongers themselves.

A minority are idealists, many of them steadfast in holding on to their principles. But the majority are pragmatic. Even those who take part in protests and rallies go home at one point, having vented their anger.

As one China observer puts it: "Hong Kong will be chaotic for a while, but how long can it last? Hong Kongers themselves will not accept it."

xueying@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on Sep 5, 2014.
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