Communist Party-driven mainlandization is the biggest threat facing Hong Kong.
“Mainlandization” means attempts by the Communist Party and its allies to exert greater control over Hong Kong politically, economically, socially and culturally, to integrate it into the mainland before the end of the 50-year “one country, two systems” period in 2047.
Before the Umbrella Movement the Party already had a plan to achieve that. The fake suffrage it attempted to implement in 2014 and 2015, against which the Umbrella Movement was a reaction, was a key part of that plan.
The Party’s response to Hong Kong people’s defeat of fake suffrage has been to speed up mainlandization and expand it into areas where it had previously made few inroads.
The idea is that if the changes come fast and furious, Hong Kong will be overwhelmed and “hostile elements” will not have the strength to withstand them all. The strategy is to transform every aspect of governance and society while preserving the pretence that Hong Kong institutions continue as before.
Mainlandization, can be considered according to sector of society. The sectors are
- Government, civil service, Legco and police
- Cross-border abductions
- Mega-infrastructure projects
- Demographics and tourism
- Business and the economy
- Civil society (the United Front)
- Media and the book industry
- The judiciary and rule of law
The overview ends with education and the judiciary because these are the areas which have been the most resistant to mainlandization, and for that reason they are where the Party and Hong Kong government have invested major effort in the post-Umbrella period.
Much more could be said about each area as well as about other areas not covered here. It is primarily intended to show a pattern of imposition. If one looks at one or two examples of mainlandization, one may not see the imposition aspect, but in an overall view it’s clear.
This is alarming. But none of the ways the Party is trying to make Hong Kong more like the mainland are irreversible. Many of the attempts to mainlandize are encountering strong resistance.
Government, civil service, and police
Fake suffrage would have given the Communist Party a permanent stranglehold over the formal political system with no legal obligation to implement any further changes. Still, its control over the Hong Kong government is greater than ever.
The Chief Executive and her political appointees act as little more than proxies of the Party. The Hong Kong government has followed the Party line regardless of the interests of Hong Kong people.
Recent examples include co-location for the express rail link, the Party’s Basic Law interpretation over oath-taking, a new mainland law on the national anthem, and Party agents’ abductions of Lee Bo and Xiao Jianhua in Hong Kong.
On all these matters and others, the Hong Kong government simply adopts the Party line.
A relatively non-corrupt, efficient and unpoliticized civil service has been one of Hong Kong’s saving graces, but the government has increasingly used various agencies and departments to deny services and facilities to perceived enemies of the Party.
For example, the Leisure and Cultural Services Department banned the pro-independence Hong Kong National Party and the localist Youngspiration from the Victoria Park New Year’s Market on ludicrous “public safety” grounds. The Companies Registry continues to refuse to register the political party Demosistō more than a year after it applied, without giving any reason. It also rejected the application of the National Party.
Before the 2016 Legislative Council election the Electoral Affairs Commission suddenly demanded that prospective candidates sign a new additional form pledging fealty to the Basic Law. Returning officers then disqualified six potential candidates on political grounds.
Legco started low and is getting lower. With only half of its 70 seats filled through free and fair elections, it was hardly a paragon of democracy to begin with. But now it is apparently to be scrubbed of any elected representatives with political views deemed unacceptable by the Party.
Six pro-democracy Legco members were disqualified after the National People’s Congress Standing Committee interpretation of the Basic Law on oath-taking in November 2016. In addition, the Hong Kong government has brought criminal cases against four elected pro-democracy Legco members for statements made and actions taken as part of their work in Legco: Cheng Chung-tai was convicted of flag desecration; Long Hair was acquitted of misconduct in public office and awaits trial for contempt of Legco; Baggio Leung and Yau Wai-ching await trial for unlawful assembly.
This pattern represents a new trend, unprecedented attacks on the little democracy Hong Kong has. Also, Kenneth Leung is being sued by Leung Chun-ying for defamation.
The police force
The police force has more links than ever with its mainland counterparts, and both top officers and ordinary officers go to the mainland more than ever. Since the Umbrella Movement, the force has become more insulated than ever from accountability, and inspires deep distrust among many Hong Kong citizens.
Both during the Umbrella Movement and since, in lieu of viable solutions to political problems, the police have been used as the guard dogs of the regime. And they have been impotent in pursuing potential crimes in which Party agents are implicated.
Prior to the abduction of Lee Bo in December 2015, few people thought the Party would kidnap people off the streets of Hong Kong and transport them to the mainland. Loo Bo’s kidnapping probably did more than any other event to damage confidence in “one country, two systems”.
And then it happened again, this time to the mainland tycoon Xiao Jianhua staying at the luxury Four Seasons hotel. This didn’t excite nearly as much alarm, perhaps because it was seen as an internal Party matter.
But it should have, coming so soon after Lee Bo’s abduction. Until then, some might have argued Lee Bo was a one-off, perhaps even a “mistake”. Now it’s clear that the Party will not allow the law to prevent it from abducting people in Hong Kong.
Just as alarming as the actions of Party agents in Hong Kong has been the utter toothlessness of the Hong Kong government and police to do anything about them. In neither Lee Bo’s nor Xiao Jianhua’s case did the police so much as determine that a crime had been committed.
Hong Kong people are left with the prospect that their government and police either cannot or will not protect them even in Hong Kong, let alone elsewhere.
These include the Hong Kong-Macau-Zhuhai bridge, the rail link to connect Hong Kong to the mainland express rail system, and related to that, the plan to “co-locate” mainland immigration authorities at the express rail terminus in Hong Kong.
To this can be added the annex to the Palace Museum in Beijing, an entire museum in its own right to be built at the West Kowloon Cultural District. These projects were initiated by the Party and implemented by the Hong Kong government with minimal participation or approval by Hong Kong people. They are enormously expensive, unnecessary, and unwanted.
The transport links are meant to integrate Hong Kong more closely with the mainland. The vision is of a Pearl River Delta mega-city with Shenzhen and Zhuhai, in which Hong Kong will be submerged.
The express rail link was originally estimated to cost Hong Kong$39.5 billion. Then the cost rose to $65 billion, and now, most recently, to $84.42 billion. Seven years after the initial approval for funding the government announced a co-location arrangement under which mainland immigration authorities will operate in Hong Kong, in direct contravention of Basic Law Article 18.
The project has become the Party’s Trojan horse, introducing mainland law enforcement to Hong Kong.
The cost of the main section of the Hong Kong-Macau-Zhuhai bridge is unknown, though announced to have gone over the initial estimate of Hong Kong$17.74 billion, with Hong Kong contributing $7.62 billion. In addition to that, Hong Kong will spend $48.5 billion on the Hong Kong section of the bridge infrastructure.
The Palace Museum annex in Hong Kong is the result of a secret agreement between the Hong Kong government and the Party.
Even the board of the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority, itself a government agency, was not informed of the agreement until after it had been made, let alone given any say in the matter.
It is unclear who will administer the museum, but it will presumably involve mainland government agencies as the collection it houses will continue to belong to the Palace Museum in Beijing.
According to Hong Kong government statistics, from 2003 to 2014, 828,000 mainlanders settled in Hong Kong, about 11 percent of the overall population, 63,000 new arrivals every year.
Mainland immigration is by far the biggest contributor to population growth in a city with one of the lowest birth rates in the world. The vast majority of these mainland immigrants arrive through the One-Way Permit Scheme, which is intended family reunification, but the Hong Kong government has no control over who comes.
Hong Kong is an immigrant city par excellence. Virtually everyone came here from somewhere else (mostly China) within the last century. But many feel the post-handover immigrants are different and represent an attempt by the Party to change the demographics of Hong Kong.
Before the 1997 handover, most immigrants had fled the mainland, and had mixed feelings at best about the Party.
Post-handover immigrants appear to be apolitical or inclined to support the Party, not necessarily actively but because that is the only political culture they have ever known.
In addition to immigrants, over 40 million mainland tourists visit Hong Kong every year, more than five times the size of Hong Kong’s population, and enough to have a decided impact on the cityscape. This has driven up retail property prices, and led to global luxury brands displacing smaller locally-owned businesses. Because of the tourists and the immigrants, Putonghua is heard more often on the streets and in neighborhoods where recent immigrants are clustered.
Business and the economy
Since the handover, Hong Kong’s business elites have had a cozy relationship with the Party, which regards them as a major ally. After it ruled out genuine suffrage in Hong Kong in 2014, it expected trouble, and so it summoned 70 tycoons to Beijing to remind them of the importance of loyalty.
These days, however, the sands are shifting beneath the tycoons’ feet. The Party is shunting them aside in favor of mainland companies, many Party-owned or with close links to the Party. According to a 2014 Reuters report, “Chinese companies are consuming ever bigger chunks of the city’s key sectors including real estate, finance, power, construction and the stock market.”
That Hong Kong’s economy has become increasingly dependent on, linked to and colonized by the mainland’s is not entirely a matter of the gravitational pull of the latter due to its sheer size. It has been driven by government policy on both sides of the border.
The economy is where the Party faces least resistance, because most business people either support or don’t dare object to it, while Hong Kong government officials refuse to use the mechanisms at their disposal to regulate it.
Hong Kong could promote a more diverse economy by supporting local initiatives and facing outward toward East and Southeast Asia and beyond, positioning itself not as “a China growth derivative” as one market analyst put it but as a regional hub.
Civil Society (the United Front)
The term United Front (統一戰線) refers to the various organizations in Hong Kong aligned with the Party and used by it to further its interests. This includes loyalist political parties, the Federation of Trade Unions, the Heung Yee Kuk of New Territories rural committees, and so-called “patriotic” associations often named after the places in China from which their founders originally came.
These groups have a strong presence in lower-income and working-class parts of the Hong Kong. The Party is attempting to extend its tentacles all the time: Derek Lam of Demosistō recently reported, “Of Hong Kong’s six major religions, five are already firmly under the control of the Chinese Communist Party.”
The Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong is the largest political party in Hong Kong. Since Hong Kong has no law on political parties they have no obligation to disclose the sources of their income.
One can only look at the tip of the iceberg: the DAB’s annual fundraising auction in 2014 raised $68.38 million. This was in contrast to $2.8 million and $2.35 million raised, respectively, by the pan-democratic Democratic and Civic Parties at their auctions.
The DAB’s total income for 2008 to 2014 was Hong Kong$460 million. This money is largely used to maintain a permanent presence in as many parts of the city as possible, especially lower-income areas, which in turn function as its vote banks.
As much as anything else, the United Front is meant to promote a Party-friendly environment. Many UF groups are known for their low-cost banquets and excursions for the elderly. The FTU is known for its adult education classes. People who take up these opportunities tend to be older and relatively uncritical of the Party.
The United Front is also the primary pool for rent-a-crowd mobilizations when the Party thinks a street presence will be of some benefit in projecting an image of a “divided” city. There have been many reports of pro-Party “demonstrators” being paid and provided with meals and transportation to attend events.
The United Front’s biggest challenge is recruiting the next generation. Most Hong Kong young people despise the Party. Recent mainland immigrants may be its most obvious replenishment pool. Its efforts at appealing to the young often take bizarre and maladroit forms, such as the Hong Kong Army Cadets Association.
As Christine Lo put it in her 2010 book, Underground Front, Hong Kong is the only place in the world where the ruling party is underground. It’s everywhere and nowhere all at once. It wants to be the air you breathe.
Media and book industry
Hong Kong media are seen by both journalists themselves and the public as practising self-censorship. Freedom of the press is increasingly threatened. It is unusual to come across criticism of the Party’s top leaders in the mainstream press.
The Party owns outright its low-circulation mouthpieces, Wen Wei Po and Ta Kung Pao. A number of other news outlets are considered pro-Party, due to their ownership or editorial stance.
There are two reputable neutral daily newspapers, Ming Pao and low-circulation Hong Kong Economic Journal. One of Ming Pao’s editors, Kevin Lau, was nearly hacked to death in a cleaver attack while walking on the street in 2014. Another was fired in 2016, supposedly for business reasons, to the outrage of the Ming Pao Staff Association and much of the public.
Apple Daily is the only explicitly pro-democracy daily. During the fight for genuine suffrage in 2014, it suffered cyberattacks on its website, its distribution centre was picketed by Party supporters, its newspapers were destroyed at pick-up points, and its owner, Jimmy Lai, had his electronic communications hacked, his house firebombed, and was physically attacked by Party supporters.
The biggest English-language daily, South China Morning Post, was bought in 2016 by Alibaba, which has close ties to the Party. It announced it purchased SCMP to, among other reasons, provide a better image of China to the world.
The largest free television station in Hong Kong, TVB, has long been criticized as following the Party line. It is owned by mainland media mogul Li Ruigang through a web of business relationships and company structures apparently in breach of Hong Kong regulations restricting ownership of Hong Kong broadcasters by non-Hong Kong entities.
The only pro-democracy journalism can be found in online-only media outlets. These are the main sources of news for many Hong Kong people, especially young people.
The Party’s Liaison Office is Hong Kong’s biggest owner of book distributors and retailers. It has an 80 percent market share and owns 51 bookstores.
It has camouflaged its ownership: it owns Guangdong New Culture Development, which in turn owns New Culture Development Hong Kong, which in turn owns Sino United Publishing Group, which in turn owns Commercial Press, Joint Publishing, and Chunghwa, three major bookstore chains.
Several reports have documented the chains’ censorship of books on “sensitive” political topics, such as the Umbrella Movement, which are not presented from the Party’s point of view. The ownership structure is apparently in violation of Basic Law Article 22.
The Party and Hong Kong government have tried hard to exert greater control over universities. Their lesson from the Umbrella Movement was that, since students played a central role, more attention had to be given toward better “educating” them.
Universities had been relatively free spaces in Hong Kong society. Post-umbrella, universities have become key battlegrounds.
Upon the request of the government’s Education Bureau, the Hong KongU governing council, dominated by government appointees, made repeated attempts to punish Benny Tai and the HKU Public Opinion Programme for conducting the OCLP referendum in June 2014.
Tai has been singled out for attack in Party-owned newspapers and, most recently, by pro-Party Legco member Junius Ho, who in a rally dedicated to driving him from the university also said independence advocates should be killed.
The Party and Hong Kong government have pressured public university governing councils to play a more pro-government role. Resistance to the political interference has been strong, with calls to end the CE’s position as chancellor of all public universities and for diversification of university councils.
But as has been seen in the recent controversy over Hong Kong independence banners on campuses, the pressure has led university administrations into following the Party line.
Much circumstantial evidence suggests that professors consider the “sensitivity” of an issue when deciding what to pursue research and teach. The Party’s effort to control universities is a long-term project.
The Party’s efforts to mainlandize secondary and primary schools are long-standing. In 2012, a large campaign by a coalition of civil society groups forced the Hong Kong government to all but scrap a planned Moral and National Education subject.
The government’s climb-down was a significant victory, but it still intends to introduce elements of national education into the school system through a variety of avenues, and there are frequent protests against introduction of new materials.
Language is a political battleground in Hong Kong. Cantonese is widely considered central to Hong Kong identity. There is persistent controversy surrounding the Hong Kong government’s policy, going back to 2003, of promoting the teaching of Chinese in Putonghua, even though there is no scientific research to show that this is an improvement.
While the decision is left up to schools, efforts to promote Putonghua had by 2015 resulted in 72 percent of government-funded primaries and 37 percent of government-funded secondary schools teaching Chinese in Putonghua.
Some have recently switched back to Cantonese after becoming disillusioned with the results of teaching Chinese in Putonghua. But the pressure to teach Chinese in Putonghua is bound to continue.
Judiciary and rule of law
Along with education, the judiciary and rule of law were seen, prior to the Umbrella Movement, as the other area of Hong Kong society which had largely escaped mainlandization. But the judiciary has come under heavy pressure since.
While most of Hong Kong responded with shock and indignation to the White Paper on Hong Kong issued by the Party in June 2014, the legal community was particularly offended because the White Paper described the Hong Kong judiciary as an “administrative” body that had to cooperate with other parts of the government and be “patriotic”.
Lawyers demonstrated by holding a silent march from Hong Kong’s High Court to its Court of Final Appeal. To the legal community, the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law were sacrosanct.
Since, then, the Party has pushed Hong Kong to fulfill the vision of the judiciary articulated in the White Paper. The Hong Kong government originally planned to use prosecutions of those arrested during the Umbrella Movement to test judicial independence, but the majority of its cases were so weak, it never got far with that plan.
Then along came a godsend, the Chinese New Year 2016 clashes in Mong Kok between police and protesters. If there’s anything the generally conservative judiciary abhors, it’s violence by non-state actors.
The Hong Kong government’s been aggressively prosecuting Mong Kok defendants and getting a much higher percentage of convictions than usual as well as long prison sentences of up to three years each. This seems to have shifted the priorities of at least some in the judiciary away from paying due regard to civil rights and toward “deterrence”.
With newfound confidence, the Hong Kong government appealed the community service sentences of 15 activists (and suspended sentence of one) in two cases, one related to the Umbrella Movement, one preceding it, and got prison sentences for all 16, ranging in duration from six to thirteen months.
Parts of the judges’ rulings sounded politically biased, referring to “unhealthy trends in society” (civil disobedience and what they saw as disrespect for the law) and invoking “deterrence” to justify harsher-than-usual sentences. It was hard to avoid the conclusion that Hong Kong now had its first full-fledged political prisoners.
Probably the single most damaging act against the independence of the judiciary has been the NPCSC’s interpretation of the Basic Law, handed down during an on-going court case brought by the Hong Kong government against Legco members Baggio Leung and Yau Wai-ching over their Legco oath-taking.
The interpretation all but compelled the High Court judge to decide in favor of the Hong Kong government and disqualify the two from Legco. For the second time in less than three years, the law community marched against the interference.
But the Hong Kong government wasn’t done. It applied to the High Court to disqualify four more elected members of Legco, and the High Court gave them the boot as well. An unelected government, with the help of a dictatorship’s ruling, was using the High Court to kick democratically elected representatives out of office.
Whatever else may be said about the High Court’s disqualification of six elected Legco members, it is clear that it has not protected the rights or interests of voters.
The overall effect of the many manifestations of mainlandization outlined here is a crisis of public confidence in the “one country, two systems” policy and the supposed guarantee to Hong Kong of a “high degree of autonomy” in all matters except defence and foreign affairs.
There is widespread public distrust of the Hong Kong government, the police, the Party, and, increasingly, of other institutions such as the judiciary and university administrations.
A substantial number of Hong Kong people have concluded that “one country, two systems” really no longer exists, and the Basic Law has failed Hong Kong. More Hong Kong people are looking for other solutions, whether self-determination or full independence, as the only means of preserving what they thought had been promised.
This article is the fourth in a five-part series on the Umbrella Movement three years after its beginning in September 2014. The first article is “Why I wrote ‘Umbrella’, a 600-page account of the Umbrella Movement”; the second, “The Umbrella Movement after three years: So much accomplished, and much still to do”, and the third, “Three years on, the Umbrella Movement fallout determines Hong Kong politics today.” Kong is the author of Umbrella: A Political Tale from Hong Kong. He envisions a day when September 28 will be Hong Kong’s national day and “Raise Your Umbrellas” its national song.