The political scene in Hong Kong today, following President Xi’s 19th party congress confirmation of Beijing’s cross-border intentions, is reminiscent of events soon after the first big anti-Beijing protest march on July 1, 2003. That was when half-a-million people unexpectedly turned out to vent their anger over the government‘s proposed Article 23 national security legislation.
Article 23 of Hong Kong’s post-colonial Basic Law constitution stipulates that the Legislative Council must outlaw all acts of treason, secession, sedition, subversion, theft of state secrets, and foreign political interference.
The attempt was shelved after a few Legislative Councillors from the usually compliant pro-business Liberal Party lost their nerve and withdrew support for the government’s bill. Beijing officials by all later accounts were shocked at the size and anger of the July First crowd. Public celebrations afterward and a District Council election campaign kept the alarm bells ringing.
Official decisions were made then that Hong Kong is still living with today in the form of previously undeclared restrictions on progress towards universal suffrage elections, while the Article 23 threat remains.
Looking back: The Guardians
At the time, in 2003, a favorite official refrain was “study the Basic Law.” We have read it backwards and forwards, replied Hong Kong activists. We’re only demanding what we see written there. But what officials meant was: read it from our perspective, not yours.
In the midst of this standoff, several elderly gentlemen, collectively known as “Basic Law guardians”, began arriving from Beijing, in early 2004. They were all authorities on Hong Kong’s Basic Law and their message was based on the assumption that Hong Kong had not yet grasped the fundamentals: Beijing’s sovereignty, the Article 23 mandate, patriotic loyalty, and so on.
It was actually rather amusing to watch the guardians and read daily headlines proclaiming what was essentially the general public’s first encounter with a mainland-style city-wide political education campaign, complete with exemplary villains and long doctrinaire guides to correct political thinking.
The guardians’ presentations were mainland-style for such occasions: stern, dogmatic, and angry when pestering reporters threw out unsolicited inconvenient questions.
A Beijing professor, Xiao Weiyun, arrived in January and set the tone with words that remain pertinent today. He said the Basic Law’s drafters had actually been thinking mid-21st century for a wholly elected Hong Kong government as the Basic Law promised. He also emphasized that it was for the central government to decide because “in one country with two systems, one country is prior and fundamental.”
The public was the target because the public had rebelled against the national security legislation and persisted with their “power to the people” slogan.
The slogan itself was a violation of the whole concept of national sovereignty and the security required for its protection because power doesn’t belong to the people, explained the guardians. It belongs to Beijing. But the mainlanders had no power to enforce. Beijing abided by the Basic Law and did not intervene directly, so the public was free to do as it pleased.
Activists pushed back and the community as a whole essentially disregarded the guardians’ 2004 message. The result was Hong Kong’s Occupy rebellion a decade later, and the disillusionment that has grown as expectations for autonomy failed to materialize. They evolved instead from autonomy, to thoughts about self-determination, and on to independence.
Xi Jinping’s report to the 19th party congress is Beijing’s response to Hong Kong’s long season of dissent. Responding in turn, the concerned public is still pushing back. But everyone has more-or-less learned they can no longer ignore the implications. This subtle difference was reflected in a statement by Elsie Leung, a long-time member of Hong Kong’s patriotic community, who was Secretary for Justice in 2003.
She told an interviewer recently that society has moved on since then. In 2003, she said, the public did not “understand”; now they do. She didn’t explain exactly what people now understand or what she meant by her use of the word.
But like all such official statements that are now constantly pleading for “better understanding of the Basic Law,” what she actually seemed to be saying was: understand what we officials mean by what we are saying, accept it, and know there is no point in asking for anything more!
In any event, the Beijing officials who arrived to publicise President Xi’s new theoretical construct are behaving differently than their 2004 predecessors. This time it’s all much smoother. There have been no intemperate outbursts or condescending putdowns, only measured, sternly worded declarations of facts that Hong Kongers are being told they should recognize as self-evident because they have no other choice.
There have been many official speeches to publicise its significance since the party congress ended in late October. The most important – in terms of speakers, messaging, and target audiences – were the presentations by Beijing officials Li Fei, Leng Rong, and the new head of Beijing’s representative Liaison Office here, Wang Zhimin.
They and others have in effect been conducting another public political education exercise, with special emphasis targeting young people and Hong Kong government officials.
Li Fei: Autonomy defined
Li is well known here as the bearer of tidings that pro-democracy partisans do not want to hear. He heads the Basic Law Committee under the National People’s Congress Standing Committee and is best remembered for arriving from Beijing on August 31, 2014, to deliver in person Beijing’s restrictive verdict on electoral reform.
The verdict and his stern-faced delivery provoked a furious response from activists on that day itself, resulting in the city-wide student strike a few weeks later, and the 79-day Occupy Movement street blockades that followed. “8.31” has since become the code word for all that is wrong about Beijing’s response to Hong Kong’s democracy movement.
This time he came to preside over a seminar, held on November 16, for invited guests at the Convention Center in Wan Chai. Additionally, his speech was transmitted by video link to secondary schools throughout the city. All were invited to join the excise but not ordered to do so. Only 50 of Hong Kong’s 500 secondary schools took up the government’s offer of televised transmission.
Li Fei reiterated the main points of Xi Jinping’s party congress report emphasising what it means for Hong Kong. In particular, he sought to explain the apparent contradiction in Xi’s declaration that the central government would exercise “comprehensive jurisdiction” over Hong Kong while permanently retaining the “one-country, two-systems” formula along with its old promises of “Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong” and a “high degree of autonomy.” All this is to continue while Hong Kong is, in Xi’s words, melding and integrating to become part of the national economic development mainstream.
Li addressed this apparent contradiction directly. He explained it as a kind of division of labour. The central government will jointly govern Hong Kong along with its own local government, and Beijing will exercise direct control over important matters.
Local autonomy would be confined to local affairs and remain the responsibility of local officials, as delegated by Beijing.
Beijing has thus acknowledged, finally, what it means by “a high degree of autonomy.” As a result, the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region should be known henceforth as a semi-autonomous territory. Since the conditions that authorize this design were all written into the Basic Law, as promulgated in 1990, it’s safe to assume this was Beijing’s intention all along, give or take a few contingencies.
Besides explaining this previously unacknowledged evolution of Hong Kong’s status, Li Fei’s main concern was the lack of respect Hong Kongers and especially young people are displaying for China’s sovereignty and constitutional authority.
They behave as though the Basic Law is an autonomous document in its own right, with authority deriving from the handover agreements negotiated between London and Beijing before 1997. In fact, the Basic Law’s authority derives solely from China’s national constitution, said Li, to which Hong Kong owes allegiance.
He was naturally dismissive of all the new talk about localism, self-determination and independence. He did not differentiate among them, lumped all together, and denounced these advocacies as slanderous and heretical.
He also noted, ominously, that they are continuing to circulate due to the legal loophole left by Hong Kong’s continuing failure to implement Article 23 national security legislation. He assumes that such examples of free speech will be outlawed once the Article 23 legislation is allowed to do what it was intended to do.
Leng Rong and Wang Zhimin: Hong Kong and National Development
Leng heads the Literature Research Office of the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee and was the featured guest speaker at an exclusive gathering of Hong Kong government officials on November 23. Liaison Office Director Wang Zhimin also spoke at the meeting, which was closed-door and reportedly the first such high-level briefing by Beijing officials for Hong Kong government counterparts.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam sat in the front row flanked by members of her Executive Council. Also in the audience were department heads, political appointees, and other high-ranking members of the Hong Kong governing establishment – 240 in all.
Each person received a collection of study materials that included videos on China’s economic, political, and diplomatic progress from China’s state broadcaster CCTV, plus a copy of the Chinese constitution, a copy of Hong Kong’s Basic Law, a copy of President Xi’s report to the 19th party congress, and a transcript of the widely publicized speech by Wang Zhiming at the Boao Youth Forum in early November.
Leng reportedly elaborated on the spirit of the 19th party congress and emphasised the importance of integrating Hong Kong’s development with that of the mainland. He noted the basic fact, known to all, that Hong Kong’s economic growth is dependent on that of the mainland.
Hence President Xi and state leaders had concluded that Hong Kong’s future development plans must be coordinated with mainland development strategies.
Wang Zhimin reportedly reiterated the main points of his earlier lecture focusing on the younger generation. These points he has organized into six relationships that must be handled well, as all have not been, given especially the proclivity of Hong Kong activists to “misunderstand” China.
The six relationships: (1) between Beijing and Hong Kong; (2) Beijing’s comprehensive jurisdiction and Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy; (3) one-country, two-systems; (4) the national constitution and Hong Kong’s Basic Law; (5) national development and that of Hong Kong; (6) differences between Hong Kongers and mainlanders in terms of thought and ideology.
So if Hong Kongers still don’t get the 19th party congress message it won’t be for Beijing’s lack of trying. The problem with Beijing’s effort is that it’s still avoiding the main underlying reason for the “misunderstandings.” In fact, Hong Kongers understand well enough. That’s just the trouble. It can probably be reduced to one simple principle: freedom of political expression.
When mainlanders are presented directly with the contradiction between Hong Kong and mainland ideas about this principle, and are reminded that Article 23 legislation will impact the simple intangibles that Hong Kongers value most: their freedom to read, write, speak, publish, demonstrate, and associate, then mainlanders have no answer except to admit that yes, Article 23 legislation will affect that freedom.
Which is exactly why Beijing officials are so insistent that the legislation is essential to what they think the Hong Kong-mainland relationship should be.