November 12, 2016
HONG KONG’S Legislative Council, or Legco, has descended into chaos over how members should take their oaths of office after elections in September. Pro-establishment lawmakers dominate the 70-member chamber, thanks to a voting system skewed towards those who support the government and the Communist Party in Beijing. Despite that, voters elected half a dozen candidates who want Hong Kong to be more independent—some even favour outright separation from China. At their oath-taking two members of a new party, Youngspiration, pledged allegiance to “the Hong Kong nation”, used the imperial Japanese pronunciation of “China”, and displayed a banner declaring that “Hong Kong is not China”.
The theatrics by Sixtus Leung and Yau Wai-ching at times seemed puerile. On November 7th the central government made clear that it was in no mood for farce. Its rubber-stamp parliament, the National People’s Congress (NPC), issued a ruling aimed at barring Mr Leung and Ms Yau from Legco (see article). Few doubt that the NPC will get its way. Other independence-leaning lawmakers may also be ejected.
The intervention has angered many in Hong Kong. Though the NPC oversees the territory’s constitution, its rulings were always intended as a last resort in a place that was promised “a high degree of autonomy” on its reversion from British rule to China in 1997. In this instance, Hong Kong’s own judiciary had just begun hearing a case brought by the territory’s government aimed at disqualifying the two members. Never before have Hong Kong’s courts been pre-empted like this. The ruling undermines the judicial independence that makes the territory so successful as a global financial hub.
Worse, it betrays the NPC’s refusal to acknowledge how the Communist Party’s own miscalculations have created today’s dissent. In 2014 the NPC declared that Hong Kong would not get the full democracy that many thought they had been promised: only candidates approved by the Communist Party’s backers in Hong Kong could become chief executive. Public anger erupted into weeks of protests that spawned a “localist” movement. Its members called for self-determination for Hong Kong.
The party’s hard line fuelled support for them, especially after a Hong Kong bookseller dealing in gossipy tales about China’s leaders appeared to have been kidnapped by the party’s goons and taken to the mainland. Four of his colleagues were also snatched away, either while visiting the mainland or, in one case, from Thailand.
Hong Kong is still far freer and more open than anywhere on the mainland—home to a lively press, a mostly clean and efficient civil service and a political culture still largely unrestrained by fear. But the Basic Law only promises that Hong Kong will keep its capitalist way of life until 2047. Many people worry that China will tighten its grip long before the reprieve runs out. Every sign that it is doing so plays into the localists’ hands. Hours before the NPC’s ruling, thousands took to the streets in anticipation of what it would say; some shouted “Hong Kong independence” and scuffled with riot police.
The best way to ease the desperation that feeds the separatists’ cause would be to give Hong Kong’s citizens what they want: full democracy. Alas, the Communist Party is as unlikely to agree to that in Hong Kong as it is in the rest of China (local elections under way on the mainland are of a kind that North Korea would admire—see article). The party is spooked by the thought of localists gaining power.
Once, Hong Kong was viewed by China’s rulers as their star exhibit for wooing Taiwan back into the fold. Now they are beginning to view the territory as yet another restive province with ungrateful subjects—a better-washed version of Tibet or Xinjiang. China does not appear to be mulling the use of its troops to crush unrest—that would be calamitous for business and the much-vaunted policy of “one country, two systems”. But it is baring its teeth. It is not only Hong Kongers who should be concerned. So should all those who look to Hong Kong’s freedom and prosperity as a future path for China itself.
This article appeared in the Print Edition with the headline: China’s new Tibet
Tags: Basic Law, China, China's intervention, China’s new Tibet, Communist Party, democracy, freedom of speech, high degree of autonomy, Hong Kong, Hong Kong booksellers, Hong Kong Independence, Hong Kong’s freedom and prosperity, Hong Kong’s judiciary, Hong Kongers, human rights, independence, judicial independence, Legco, Legislative Council, localists, National People's Congress, NPC, puerile, rule of law, Sixtus Leung,, Tibet . Xinjiang, Yau Wai-ching, Youngspiration