Chinese President Xi Jinping’s speech opening the nation’s twice-a-decade Chinese Communist Party Congress was watched by journalists and foreign affairs specialists around the world. What happens in the People’s Republic of China matters.
In Beijing, both local and international broadcasters seemed eager to interview younger people on what they thought of their president and party leader’s speech. Every person interviewed seemed equally eager to express both admiration of Xi Jinping leadership and for the man as a person, as well as pride in what they perceived as their country’s rise in status.
“Xi Jinping is everybody’s hero,” a young man told an international network. “We must support the party to make our nation a superpower.”
For me, following the events in Beijing from Hong Kong and watching these interviews, what I saw did nothing to instil a sense of pride. All I see is yet another example of what divides the people of this Special Administrative Region from our supposed motherland and nation.
Missing in all these interviews was any substantive comment on policy or any statement of personal expectation. No one expressed an opinion as to what they believed to be best for either their party or country.
It was as if these people had subconsciously disconnected any sense of participation or responsibility for what happens in their country — all that is left to a leader to decide.
Acutely missing in all these interviews and all the broadcasts leading up to the Congress was one word: hope. As far as I am aware not a single person or local commentator on CGNN, China Daily or Global Times ever stated what they hoped to hear.
In Hong Kong the day went by just like any other. Though it dominated the news, I have not heard anyone even mention the week-long event, let alone discuss what is being said.
It could not be more different from when Hong Kong elects our councillors and legislators. Political power in this city may be a stacked deck, but there is nothing (yet) stopping those elected from questioning government policy.
On the day the Congress opened I tried raising the subject with a friend, knowing he usually has much to say on local and international politics. What I received was a shrug of the shoulders.
“Yeah, I heard about it. So what? Nothing changes. And what can we say?”
Even within my family, and among our wider social circle, it is an event that has never once been brought up in conversation. The mahjong tables, once the parlour of political discourse, now only chatter to the sounds of tiles being played and to reminiscences of old times.
The 19th Communist Party Congress is, if we need reminding, the seminal event of our nation’s political system; an event when our only political party “elects” its leadership for the next five years and defines party ideology. It is at this event that our national government lays out the direction we must take as a nation. It is also meant to be a congress.
Yet it is a congress with Chinese characteristics. It is a congress of one: of one party and one ideology. There is no discussion or criticism, nor is any other viewpoint represented. The party speaks to itself, listens to itself and applauds itself on cue.
It is a peculiar sight for most Hong Kong people, at once so familiar and yet culturally and ideologically so alien. Hearing a leader speak uninterrupted for three and a half hours on how “socialism with Chinese characteristics” — and not market reforms — have led the country’s rejuvenation, how the party and its ideology must be central to the lives of everybody and how it was necessary to maintain ideological discipline, sounded all too familiar to my grandparents’ generation.
They had heard similar lines, and witnessed a similar personality cult, grow across what was then a border. It was a regime the majority in Hong Kong had fled. But now there is no border, and no recognition of any distinction.
“It is time for China to take centre stage,” declares Xi. But what I would like to ask my president is why is this important? What is the attraction of this outdated and imperial mindset that led in the past to such inequities and abuse? What is wrong with a multipolar Asia, perhaps united in federation as Europe has tried to achieve?
And why must we feel pride in national displays of strength? Who is really threatening China? There is no country knocking on our door and making demands that we trade. What use is strength in a world that is not and does not seek to bully? Make China great again — could we not just leave Donald Trump to play this particular game?
Perhaps instead we Chinese might find pride in the way our nation has and can continue to provide a better life for all our peoples. To seek not to be powerful but just and fair, and to reunite with Taiwan and our large diaspora not through claiming them as ours but by setting an example.
Could we Chinese people also discuss with the party that represents us, and those party leaders who in our name have power over us, that some of us feel strongly that our country would be better if we were granted rights other governments afford to their own citizens?
May we talk of freedom of conscience, of press freedom and the rule of law —ideals that though guaranteed in Hong Kong by Beijing are nevertheless now being challenged? These are ideals that are more central to who I am and the nature of the society in which I am a part than any concept of socialism with Chinese characteristics or greater national power.
Even if it is not to be, could those who represent me and my society speak of our wish for democratic reform? Can we expect our local delegates, those who represent Hong Kong at the congress, to initiate a debate on the advantages of democratic reform as our national economy transitions from being investment to consumer based?
After all, Hong Kong has some experience of this, and as a city may well prove a good model for development.
Knowing the answers to such unreasonable questions — indeed knowing that such questions are likely to be construed by our own local SAR and national governments as a threat to national security — is perhaps why so many of us shrug our shoulders.
Perhaps so many Hong Kong people do not wish to watch not only because we know we have no voice, but also because what we see will remind us of a regime many of our families once fled.
Now there is no border, and yet for many Xi’s message of power only serves to underline our continued colonial status. When once what was demanded were our taxes, we must now pay a far heavier toll in undivided love and unquestioning loyalty to the Motherland. In this our silence says so much.
Xi was also keen to stress Beijing “comprehensive jurisdiction.” This is regardless that both the principles of the Sino-British Joint Declaration and the Basic Law suggest otherwise on common law understanding.
Professor Lau Siu-Kai, rolled out as always on such occasions, may be right in stating “Hong Kong’s power comes from the central government.” But what neither he nor Beijing seem to acknowledge is that under international law the powers the central government leases to the Hong Kong SAR government are themselves derived from an international agreement with Britain, and that the central government is treaty bound to lease these powers to an SAR government for a period of 50 years.
And in a clear allusion to ideas of Hong Kong independence, Xi reiterated the Party line that issues of national unity and sovereignty were paramount, and that he would not allow anyone to “separate any part of Chinese territory from China.”
Yet this, perhaps deliberately, misses the point. The problem is not that people want independence, but that our government has singularly failed to acknowledge, let alone address, any of the issues of identity that are the reasons why a minority of mostly young, idealistic and angry people have begun to advocate separation.
These calls for independence are deliberately provocative, but they are also a reaction and represent the desperate cries of a people who feel their core identity, values and way of life are under threat.
Democracy with Chinese characteristics is contingent on a people who, like those interviewed in Beijing, have no expectations. It requires people who do not ask questions, as it is a system that broaches no criticism.
If everyone loves Xi Jinping and the party, it is because no one is allowed to hate them — at least openly. It is a charade that unfortunately for our central government, most Hong Kong people have learnt to see through. Unfortunately for Hong Kong, we have no choice.