Hong Kong nears tipping point with Beijing
By Kent Ewing
HONG KONG - This isn't the way it was supposed to be.
It's been 17 years since the clock struck midnight on a stormy July 1 and Hong Kong was officially handed back to China after more than 150 years of British colonial rule. Yet the same fears and protestations that accompanied that historic handover remain and, in some instances, have even intensified.
That was evident by the hundreds of thousands of protesters who, braving periodic thunderstorms and summer temperatures as high
as 32 Celsius, took to the streets to mark this year's anniversary of the handover.
While it is true that every July 1 since 1997 has been punctuated by a mass anti-Beijing rally, this year's demonstration stood out not just for the number of people who took part but also for their anger and fervor - among them not just the usual pro-democracy groups but also villagers from the northeastern New Territories whose homes would be destroyed by a government plan to build two new towns near the border with the mainland and whose cause has become caught up in the anti-government sentiment pervading the city.
In the annual numbers battle over turnout, the Civil Human Rights Front, organizer of the march, claimed 510,000 people took part - no doubt too high - while the Hong Kong police said 92,000 joined in - no doubt too low. A headcount by the University of Hong Kong public opinion program estimated turnout at between 154,000 and 172,000 - probably more like it.
Whatever the case, it was the largest July 1 protest in a decade, even if organizers did not achieve their stated goal of topping 500,000, the number of protesters who turned out in 2003 to oppose a national security bill, proposed by the administration of Hong Kong's first post-handover chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, that many feared would endanger freedom of speech and assembly in the city. The bill was withdrawn, and Tung would later resign from office.
This latest mass protest, on top of the 180,000 people who gathered on June 4 for the annual candlelight memorial honoring those who died in the government crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989, has put this city's population of 7.1 million on edge as Hong Kong continues its struggle of nearly two decades to claim its identity as a special administrative region of China.
The hapless Tung's two successors, derided by critics as mere lackeys who receive their orders from Beijing, have not fared much better than he did; Donald Tsang Yam-kuen left office in 2012 with a cloud of corruption allegations hanging over his head, and Hong Kong's current chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, is so unpopular that he cannot appear in public without suffering verbal abuse and having fruit and other objects thrown his way.
The Chinese leadership must be wondering: When will Hong Kong accept the reality that Beijing, not London, is its master now and turn July 1 into a day of unity and celebration rather than division and complaint?
The answer may be never - especially if the central government continues to demand an allegiance that too many in Hong Kong feel it has not rightly earned.
In the 1984 handover agreement between China and the United Kingdom, Hong Kong was promised a "high degree of autonomy" for at least 50 years after its return to Chinese sovereignty under a special "one country, two systems" formula then announced by China's paramount leader Deng Xiaoping. Moreover, the city's mini-constitution, known as the Basic Law, protects its common-law legal system during that time while also guaranteeing democratic elections for its chief executive and Legislative Council.
Back in the days before the handover, doomsayers warned that Beijing could not be trusted to deliver on these protections and guarantees; 17 years later, the hundreds of thousands of people marching through Hong Kong's streets clearly agree with them.
Their anger and alarm have been exacerbated by Beijing's recent release of a white paper asserting the central government's "comprehensive jurisdiction" (which many in Hong Kong interpret to mean "total control") over the city and referring to members of its independent judiciary as "administrators" who are expected to be "patriotic" in their rulings.
In response to the white paper, some 2,000 Hong Kong lawyers, dressed in black, staged a demonstration last Friday as a warning that Hong Kong's judicial integrity is at stake.
If the aim of the white paper was to put recalcitrant Hong Kong in its place, then the move has certainly backfired; on the contrary, its release has only added fuel to the fires of rebellion in the city and enhanced support for politicians who live on the radical fringes of Hong Kong's pan-democratic movement, advocate no compromise with Beijing and increasingly resort to violence in their protests against the long arm of the central government.
The white paper is widely perceived to be Beijing's attempt at a preemptive strike on Hong Kong's Occupy Central movement, which intends to shut down the city's central business district with a 10,000-strong army of demonstrators if Leung's government does not produce a plan for the democratic election of the chief executive in 2017 that "meets international standards."
The movement, founded by Benny Tai Yiu-Ting, an associate professor of law at the University of Hong Kong, pledges to use nonviolent civil disobedience to pressure the Chinese leadership into granting full democracy to Hong Kong, but it has been denounced as "dangerous" and "illegal" by central authorities and the Hong Kong government alike amid dire warnings that, should Tai and his followers carry out their plan, violence will inevitably erupt, irreparably damaging Hong Kong's reputation as global financial hub.
Taking their cue from Occupy Central, hundreds of students attempted to stage an all-night sit-in at the July 1 march's endpoint on Chater Road in Central District, but the road was closed and they were carted away by police in the early hours of the next morning.
A former director of the Hong Kong branch of China's official Xinhua News Agency, Zhou Nan, has accused "anti-China forces" (read the United States and Britain) of using the Occupy Central movement to seize control of Hong Kong's political development.
"Occupy Central ... is illegal and violates Hong Kong's rule of law," Zhou told a television interviewer in Beijing last month as the movement prepared to launch an unofficial online referendum on its plans for democratic reform. "It has demonstrated that a portion of the anti-China forces inside and outside Hong Kong are conspiring to usurp the jurisdiction of the city, which should never be allowed."
Also in that interview, raising the specter of the infamous crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square 25 years ago, Zhou said the People's Liberation Army could take action to restore order in Hong Kong if "riots" break out.
Another ex-official - Chen Zuoer, former deputy director of the State Council's Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office - described the people of Hong Kong as clinging to their "mentality as colonial subjects." He also repeated another controversial assertion in the white paper - that the two parts of the "one country, two systems" mantra do not carry equal weight; the country's interests, Chen insisted, always come first.
Meanwhile, Communist Party mouthpieces such as the People's Daily and the Global Times are full of vilifications of Tai and his movement as well as ominous prophecies of the chaos that will ensue if Occupy Central goes ahead.
But what, ultimately, has been the effect of all the lectures, admonitions and threats emanating from the north?
Well, a month ago, Occupy Central was losing steam as more radical elements worked to seize control of the movement; indeed, Tai pledged to shut it down if fewer than 100,000 people took part in its 10-day, unofficial referendum, which started June 20.
In the end - despite massive cyberattacks on the web platforms established for the referendum - nearly 800,000 people took part in a vote that presented three proposed models for democratic reform, all of which would allow the public, rather than a Beijing-controlled committee, to nominate candidates to be Hong Kong's next leader - an option already ruled out as contrary to the Basic Law by central authorities.
You can thank an inflammatory mix of controversial local housing policies, an ill-advised white paper and other gratuitous provocations from Beijing for the voter enthusiasm and defiance.
As the Global Times was quick to retort, however: A vote of 800,000 is "no match" against China's population of 1.3 billion.
Still, its seems every time Beijing opens its mouth, the central government loses further support in Hong Kong and confrontation becomes more likely.
Kent Ewing is a Hong Kong-based teacher and writer. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter: @KentEwing1
(Copyright 2014 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)