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    Greater China
     Nov 29, 2012

Beijing signals new hard line on Hong Kong
By Kent Ewing

HONG KONG - When a mainland Chinese official accuses unnamed "external powers" of interfering in Hong Kong affairs, it's a given that he is referring to the United States and Great Britain - and perhaps Taiwan as well.

It's also a given that, 15 years after Hong Kong's handover from British to Chinese sovereignty, such a cryptic, undocumented allegation is the clearest signal yet that authorities in Beijing have completely lost the plot in their management - check that, mismanagement - of a city that is supposed to remain a largely autonomous Special Administrative Region of China until 2047.

And what of Beijing's pre-handover pledge to grant full democracy


to Hong Kong's 7.1 million people? At this juncture, that looks like an empty promise.

It's almost as if Chinese leaders have deliberately set out to antagonize and alienate the city. That, of course, would be stupid, and there is no such plan. What may be even more obtuse, however, is to aim at winning hearts and minds but only wind up losing them due to arrogance and ineptitude. That's what has happened.

How else to explain last week's 6,000-word article by Zhang Xiaoming, a deputy director of the State Council's Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, published in Wen Wei Po, a Hong Kong newspaper long known for its pro-Beijing views. In the article, originally a chapter in a report to the 18th Communist Party Congress, held earlier this month in Beijing, Zhang commits just about every offense possible for a mainland official addressing Hong Kong.

First of all, without presenting so much as a scrap of evidence, he alleges foreign interference in Hong Kong elections when everyone knows that it is Beijing's heavy hand that is most visible in the city's politics. That's why Hong Kong has an unpopular chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, who is widely perceived as a Beijing stooge, and a 70-member Legislative Council (Legco) that is paralyzed by divisions created by a system that sees only 35 of them democratically elected.

True, the British and the Americans have made no secret of their support for greater democracy in Hong Kong, but there has been no indication, as Zhang charges, that they have directly intervened in Hong Kong politics.

It's not the fault of Washington or London that Hong Kong's political machinery is gnarled by a "one-country, two-systems" formula that has turned Legco into an unseemly battleground and placed three successive post-handover chief executives - first the hapless Tung Chee-hwa, then the scandal-plagued Donald Tsang Yam-kuen and now Leung, who assumed office in July - in the impossible position of simultaneously trying to please their masters in Beijing and their constituents in Hong Kong.

Rather, it is Beijing's ham-fisted meddling that has led to this formidable impasse, and Zhang's article provides further proof that, 15 years on, the Chinese leadership's understanding of Hong Kong remains woefully inadequate.

Zhang did not stop with his unsubstantiated allegation that foreign forces "get deeply involved in local elections and help coordinating campaigns for opposition parties." He went on to say that the central government must "take necessary measures to prevent external interference", raising the specter of reviving proposed national security legislation that was shelved in 2003 after 500,000 people took to the streets in a protest that marked the beginning of the end of the Tung administration.

Tung, citing ill health, would resign from office less than two years later - although, at 75, he is today the picture of good health.

Understandably, the city's pan-democrats - identified as the "opposition" by Zhang - reacted with alarm to the lengthy Wen Wei Po article, worried that it could be a signal that Beijing, under the new leadership of Xi Jinping, selected as President Hu Jintao's successor at this month's party congress, will take a harder line on dissent in Hong Kong when his term begins in March.

As vice president, one of Xi's tasks has been to oversee Hong Kong affairs over the past five dysfunctional, protest-ridden years, and he probably doesn't much like what he has seen - especially, no doubt, the recent trend among some protesters to carry colonial-era flags.

So Zhang's article - in which he also maintains that the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress (NPC) has the legal authority to overrule Hong Kong judges in interpreting the Basic Law, the city's mini-constitution - could be seen as a warning to pan-democrats and their supporters to tone down their protests or risk a stronger reaction from central authorities.

As the pan-democrats and most of Hong Kong's legal community see it, however, the Basic law guarantees the city judicial independence and a common-law legal system for 50 years after the handover.

Adding to their concern, Zhang's article was published in the wake of a controversy caused by former justice minister Elsie Leung Oi-sie, a prominent pro-Beijing figure, who criticized Hong Kong judges and lawyers for their failure to understand the "evolving" nature of the concept of rule of law under Beijing's central authority - remarks that prompted members of Legco's justice and legal affairs panel to invite her to one of their meetings to explain herself.

Leung declined, saying she did not want to be subjected to an interrogation that she anticipated would resemble the "McCarthy hearings" - a reference to the infamous, anti-communist congressional witch-hunt led by US senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s.

Meanwhile, retiring Court of Final Appeal justice Kemal Bokhary, who has been a thorn in Beijing's side since the handover, has stated that his tenure on the court was not extended because of his liberal rulings while also warning that the rule of law is under threat in the city.

Bokhary and his fellow judges were famously overruled by the NPC Standing Committee in a 1999 case in which they granted right of abode in Hong Kong to mainland children born before their parents became permanent residents of the city. A WikiLeaks report later revealed that the judges all considered quitting the city's top court in protest after the standing committee issued an "interpretation" of the Basic Law that effectively overturned their decision. In the end, they decided to stay on.

Bokhary, 65, has reached the retirement age set for Hong Kong judges, but there is a shortage of judicial talent in the city these days and extensions can be granted. Bokhary asked for one but was refused. When he was replaced by Judge Robert Tang Ching, who is nine months his senior, naturally, people wondered why.

This atmosphere of distrust has only been exacerbated by Zhang's 6,000-word shot across the bow.

Under Xi's watch, Beijing has adopted a strategy of wining the affection and loyalty of the people of Hong Kong by dispensing a raft of economic goodies - such as turning the city into a hub for trading in the Chinese currency, the yuan, and relaxing travel policies to boost the number of mainland tourists who visit Hong Kong to wine, dine and shop.

Even so, the strategy hasn't worked as the flood of mainland visitors has further crowded the city's already congested streets and transport system and driven up prices. At the same time, nouveau-riche mainland investors are buying up Hong Kong property, contributing to the highest-yet cost of buying a home, which is now an impossible dream for most of the city's residents.
With resentment of mainland visitors and leaders at an all-time high, this is hardly the time for Cold War-style allegations of foreign interference and calls for anti-sedition laws. Such threats will only deepen the rancor that an increasing number of Hong Kong people feel toward their mainland brethren and lead to further protests.

If ever there was a time for Beijing's vaunted push for "soft power," this is it - right here on its own recently reacquired soil.

Kent Ewing is a Hong Kong-based teacher and writer. He can be reached at kewing56@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter: @KentEwing1

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