Nearly a year and a half after Hong Kong’s “umbrella revolution” (Sept.-Dec. 2014), the legacy of the seemingly unsuccessful protest still dominates Hong Kong’s political debate. This adds a new twist to the city’s already complicated relations with Beijing, writes GIS Guest Expert Joseph Dobbs.
Perceived interference by Beijing in Hong Kong’s internal affairs casts further doubt over the longevity of the “one country, two systems” framework designed to protect Hong Kong’s autonomy after the British returned sovereignty over the city to the Chinese. Ongoing street protests led by young people, including the more recent, unusually violent riots, and the falling number of Hong Kongers identifying with China point to the impact that increasing localism could have on the Special Administrative Region’s (SAR) stability.
Hong Kong’s economic leaders will undoubtedly be concerned that the question mark over the city’s political future would imperil its economic prospects. With legislative elections set for later this year and the controversial election of the city’s chief executive set for 2017, political debate in Hong Kong is virtually certain to remain tense. Any strong response from Beijing could darken SAR’s future still further.
During the last two months of 2015, five Hong Kong booksellers were reported missing. They later surfaced in China facing what are widely believed to be spurious criminal charges (two of the five have since returned to Hong Kong, but they refuse to comment on the situation). Activists and human rights groups in Hong Kong are convinced that it was all about gossipy books on the personal lives of leading Chinese Communist Party officials that prompted Beijing to abduct the five; the books had some circulation on the mainland. The case of the missing booksellers, particularly those believed to have been abducted from Hong Kong territory, is the clearest example of Beijing’s undermining of the autonomy it guaranteed the SAR at the handover in 1997.
Under the Joint Declaration on the Question of Hong Kong, signed by the United Kingdom and China in 1984, it was agreed that sovereignty over Hong Kong would return to China in 1997, but also that it would retain a high degree of autonomy with its own mini-constitution known as the Basic Law. An abduction of Hong Kong residents for actions carried out in the SAR would constitute a severe violation of both the Joint Declaration and the Basic Law. Hong Kong’s judicial independence and right of final adjudication are enshrined in Article 3.3 of the Joint Declaration, and reiterated in Article 19 of the Basic Law, of which Article 22 also guarantees that the mainland government will not interfere in the internal matters of Hong Kong.
Beijing’s impunity in part stems from a failure in 2003 of Hong Kong to “enact laws on its own to prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion against the Central People’s Government,” as outlined in Article 23 of the Basic Law. Such controversial laws could have been used to prosecute the booksellers in Hong Kong, but they were never passed after hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers took to the streets in protest.
There have been repeated calls from hardline pro-Beijing politicians, in Hong Kong and the mainland, for the SAR to implement anti-secession laws. In February 2016, the Beijing government-affiliated Institute for Hong Kong and Macao Affairs called for Hong Kong to “finish the job that should have been done long ago.”
The missing booksellers’ case is just the latest iteration of what many Hong Kongers see as an alarming erosion of Hong Kong’s rule of law, and the principle of “one country, two systems” itself. According to the University of Hong Kong’s Public Opinion Polling only half of Hong Kongers have confidence in “one country, two systems”, down from nearly 78 percent in 2007.
The international financial community is already beginning to have concerns about Hong Kong’s independence. The recent decision by HSBC not to return its global headquarters to the city, while largely an endorsement of London, was reported by Reuters to be partly based on the banking group’s concerns about Hong Kong. The Heritage Foundation’s 2016 Index of Economic Freedom ranks Hong Kong the highest in the world, but it noted that “ongoing efforts to erode the power of Hong Kong’s judiciary and Legislative Council and to intervene in the economy could undermine the rule of law.”
Localism vs. nationalism
Only 31.1 percent of Hong Kong residents identify as primarily Chinese, with 67.6 percent identifying first and foremost as Hong Kongers. The Hong Konger identity has been on the rise since the 2008 Beijing Olympics, when Chinese identity was predominant. What should be of the biggest concern to Beijing is the increasing disassociation with China among Hong Kong’s youth. As much as 82.6 percent of 18-29 year olds identify as Hong Kongers, with only 13.3 percent identifying primarily as Chinese. In Hong Kong’s postcolonial life, this age group has always been “less Chinese” than its elders, but Chinese identity among the young has been at a record low for the last several years, and the identity gap between the young and the old is wider than it has ever been.
To a large extent, the umbrella revolution has captured the hearts and minds of Hong Kong’s youth, an objective that the mainland government has been trying to achieve, most recently with its forcefully rejected proposals to implement a “Moral and National Education” curriculum in 2012. The increasingly politically active youth seeks to harness Hong Kong’s latent localism now, long demonstrated in anti-mainlander sentiments, and form a political movement to carry on the legacy of the umbrella revolution. The divide between Hong Kongers and mainlanders, politically and culturally, looks therefore set only to widen in the coming decades. The tendency may seem very important in the context of the SAR being set to reunify completely with the rest of the People’s Republic in 2047.
Many of the alumni of Hong Kong’s 2014 protests are seeking to enter the city’s limited democratic institutions; they refer to themselves as “umbrella soldiers.” In the 2015 District Council election, eight such “soldiers” were elected, although pro-Beijing parties still took nearly 55 percent of the vote. There has been a shift in focus among activists, away from making the negative case against Beijing, and towards a positive localist focus on Hong Kong’s future. Beijing will have listened with growing unease as leading activist Joshua Wong, who found fame around the world as a teenage democracy protester, called for a referendum on Hong Kong’s independence following the scheduled end of “one country, two systems” in 2047.
Most Hong Kongers either do not want independence from China or realize that it is next to impossible, but if the “umbrella soldiers” line of thinking makes its way into the mainstream political debate in Hong Kong, it is certain to elicit a strong response from Beijing. Hong Kong’s status after 2047 may seem like a distant issue, but the city’s near-term financial stability will rely on it being settled well in advance, so it can avoid a flight of capital in the 2030s. Hong Kong’s growing localism is having an immediate impact on the city. In February 2016, on the first day of the Chinese New Year, ostensibly in support of aggrieved local fish ball vendors, riots broke out in the city’s Mong Kok district. Protesters were reported to be demanding Hong Kong’s independence from China. Over a hundred were injured, mainly police officers. By international standards, the fish ball riots were tame. But in Hong Kong, they represented another worrying departure from the city’s tradition for peaceful protest and relative tranquility. It was an alarming sign of tumult that may be in store for Hong Kong-China relations.
Beijing’s next move
The reality facing Hong Kongers is that their city is less important to Beijing than it once was. In 2000, Hong Kong represented approximately 12.4 percent of China’s total GDP; by 2014, this share dropped to around 2.7 percent, a trend only set to continue. For Beijing, the bottom line is simple: the “one country, two systems” framework does not prevent political dissent and it no longer represents a viable model to replicate in Taiwan.
The January 2016 victory of the independence-leaning DPP party in Taiwan, following growing localism and anti-mainland sentiment on the island, will force a rethink in Beijing with ramifications for Hong Kong. As Hong Kong’s economic stability is less important to China as a whole and the integrity of “one country, two systems” is less important for Beijing’s broader goals, it is difficult to envisage a scenario in which the mainland’s interference in Hong Kong’s affairs decreases.
Beijing angrily responded to the recent Mong Kong riots, branding protesters as “radical separatists.” It is unlikely, though, that the mainland or the government in Hong Kong will push for anti-secession laws in the short-term; any such attempt would trigger massive protests. If, however, Hong Kong’s localism continues to creep toward a discussion of independence, Beijing is practically certain to toughen its rhetoric and press for locally enacted preventive measures. Beijing’s influence will be most acutely felt in the selection of candidates for the 2017 chief executive election. Embattled incumbent Leung Chun is unlikely to have endeared himself to his superiors given his handling of the 2014 umbrella revolution, but the absence of competent alternative candidates may see him remain on the ballot. Even if Mr. Leung is on the ballot, it is difficult to see a scenario in which he wins reelection against another pro-Beijing candidate, given his low poll ratings. However, as once popular and successful chief secretary to the administration Carrie Lam has ruled herself out of the running, it may prove difficult to attract candidates who would be up to the nearly impossible task of managing relations between the Hong Kong people and Beijing.
Beijing will likely keep its interference in the election as discreet as possible, to avoid turning moderate Hong Kongers away from the mainland’s desired candidates. It will be comfortable in the knowledge that its supporters pack the Election Committee that selects the candidates. Where Beijing will be more overt is in demanding that the Hong Kong government take preventative action against protests that could spark another Occupy movement. Expect the next chief executive to focus on alleviating some of the conditions that partly underpin young Hong Kongers angst, such as high rent costs and poor job prospects.
Beijing’s decision as to what to do about Hong Kong after the end of “one country, two systems” is arguably the most important factor in Hong Kong’s viability as a major financial center. Even moderate Hong Kongers will demand the city’s autonomy be extended, but Beijing will be neither obliged nor necessarily willing to grant this. The mainland government will be keen to control increasingly unruly Hong Kong, and by 2047 the SAR will have become an even less important part of China’s behemoth economy. That means protests and unrest will be the mainstay of Hong Kong’s politics for the foreseeable future. But with an assertive, powerful China as an adversary, victory for the city’s democracy campaigners is less and less likely.
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