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Chief Executive

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Hong Kong: What Went Wrong

“We are the meat on the chopping board,” said Martin Lee, founder of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party. “They have set a precedent for Beijing to legislate on Hong Kong’s behalf.” Or as Dennis Kwok put it, former member of the Legislative Council, put it rather more succinctly: “This is the end of Hong Kong.”

It’s a premature death. The ‘joint declaration’ of 1997 by which Britain handed over its wealthy colony on China’s south coast to the Communist regime in Beijing promised that Hong Kong could keep free speech, the rule of law and a high degree of autonomy for fifty years. Twenty-three years later, it’s over.

Those characteristics, so different from the Party dictatorship, contempt for human rights and lawlessness that rule in the rest of China, were precisely the qualities that made Hong Kong Asia’s financial capital. That was to Beijing’s advantage in 1997, so it agreed to live with ‘one country, two systems’. China would be reunited, but Hong Kong would remain different.

That served China’s purposes at the time, because it still needed a capitalist ‘window on the world’. It’s not very relevant today, when the country has the world’s second-biggest economy and companies that want to trade with China are much likelier to set up in Shanghai or Beijing. Hong Kong retains a residual value for Beijing, but it shouldn’t push its luck.

Most people in senior political, business and media positions in Hong Kong understood that and acted accordingly. They walked a tightrope, defending the territory’s essentially ‘democratic’ values, but they never, ever suggested that Hong Kong should have full democracy, because that would be intolerable to the Party in Beijing.

So the modus vivendi between Beijing and Hong Kong rattled along year after year, until eventually a new leader came to power in Beijing who dreamed of standardising, centralising and controlling everything. Last year, Xi Jinping started trying to whip Hong Kong into line.

Beijing pressured Carrie Lam, Chief Executive of Hong Kong’s government, to pass legislation that would let Beijing bring criminal charges against Hong Kongers, extradite them to China, and try them in Communist Party-controlled mainland courts (which have a 99% conviction rate). It would have ended Hong Kong’s autonomy and put every one of its residents at the mercy of the Party.

Lam reluctantly put the new law on the legislative agenda, and the people of Hong Kong, led by the students, predictably began demonstrating against it. This is a ritual dance that has been staged before, and when the citizens had adequately expressed their dislike of the proposed legislation, it was withdrawn.

It was never certain that this would work again, for Xi is very determined and Hong Kong’s importance to China has dwindled. But it might have worked, and won Hong Kong another five or ten years of autonomy. Indeed, Lam did withdraw the offending legislation (by slow steps, so as not to embarrass Beijing) – but the protesters did not stop.

The demos continued and grew more violent, and the demands escalated. By the end of 2019 the protesters were demanding full democracy, which was politically suicidal in the Chinese context. Then the coronavirus emergency shut everything down for a few months, and it looked like the political crisis had subsided. But of course it had not.

This week the Chinese People’s Congress in Beijing, the regime’s rubber-stamp parliament, will pass a special law banning subversion, separatism, acts of foreign interference and ‘terrorism’ in Hong Kong. The demonstrators are already back out on the streets, and the new law allows ‘security forces’ from the mainland to operate in the city. The stage is being set for the final act.

I don’t usually point out that I called things right (and I NEVER point out when I got things wrong), but it was blindingly obvious where this was all heading by mid-summer of last year.

On 31 July I wrote: “(The protesters) must never challenge the Communist regime’s ultimate control, but from time to time they have to demonstrate to Beijing that tolerating a local aberration like civil rights in Hong Kong is less costly politically than ending it by force. They have done enough to achieve that for now, and it’s probably time to stop.”

On 2 October I wrote: “The protesters have won what they originally came out for: the withdrawal of the extradition law. Their other demands will never be granted, because they imperil the ultimate authority of the Communist Party. It’s time to collect their winnings and step away from the table.”

On 24 November I wrote: “If they go on demanding free elections under universal suffrage for the Chief Executive and the Legislative Assembly, sooner or later Beijing will feel compelled to intervene and crush them regardless of the financial and reputational damage it would suffer. So it could go the distance, and end in tragedy. That would be a great pity.”

And then I stopped writing about it, because I couldn’t stand what comes next. I still can’t.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 14. (“Most…Beijing”; and “On 2 October…table”)

Hong Kong: Xi’s Choice

The crowds of protesters in the streets of Hong Kong continue to grow, and they have spread beyond Central (the business district) to Kowloon and Causeway Bay. The police are already using tear gas and pepper spray, and rubber bullets will be next.

It’s not exactly Armageddon, but it’s the most serious organized protest that China has seen since the pro-democracy movement on Tiananmen Square was drowned in blood 25 years ago.

Hong Kong isn’t exactly China, of course, in the sense that it doesn’t live under the same arbitrary dictatorship as the rest of the country.

While it has been under the ultimate control of the Communist regime in Beijing since Britain handed the territory back to China in 1997, the deal London made before the hand-over guaranteed Hong Kong’s existing social system, including freedom of speech and the rule of law, for another 50 years.

Indeed, the “one country, two systems” deal even stipulated that the “Hong Kong Special Administrative Region” would get more democratic as time went on. There was already an elected Legislative Council when the British left, but by 2017, Beijing promised, there would also be a democratically elected Chief Executive.

(The holder of that office is now chosen by a 1,200-person “Election Committee” that is packed with pro-Beijing members).

But free elections for the Chief Executive turned out to be more democracy than the Beijing regime could swallow, mainly because it’s terrified of the example spreading to the rest of China.

So it broke its promise: late last month the National People’s Congress (NPC) in Beijing declared that it will allow only three candidates to run for Chief Executive, and that all of them must be approved by a nominating committee chosen by the regime.

That’s what triggered the current wave of demonstrations. As Martin Lee, founding chairman of the Democratic Party, said at a pro-democracy rally in Hong Kong: “What’s the difference between a rotten orange, a rotten apple, and a rotten banana? We want genuine universal suffrage, not democracy with Chinese characteristics.”

Li Fei, deputy secretary-general of the NPC standing committee that wrote the new rule, said that opening up nominations would cause a “chaotic society”, and that the Chief Executive must “love the country and love the Party.”

It’s the classic Communist mind-set, and it left Hong Kong democrats with no options other than surrender or popular protest. Now thousands of people are out in the streets. Where does it go from here?

This confrontation comes at a particularly unfortunate time for Hong Kong’s pro-democratic movement, because the relatively new supreme leader in Beijing, President Xi Jinping, cannot afford to make any concessions.

Since he came to power two years ago, Xi has launched a massive anti-corruption purge that has made him a lot of enemies. At least 30 senior officials and hundreds of their family members and associates have been put under investigation or taken into custody. Thousands of other officials might also face arrest (and rightly so) if the purge spreads. About 70 officials have actually committed suicide in the past year and a half.

The campaign against corruption is necessary and long overdue, but it is widely resented by those who fear that they and their families might also be caught in the net (including the family and associates of former presidents Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin).

The resentment is all the deeper because Xi Jinping’s own family and associates are magically untouched by the purge.

Many powerful people in the Communist hierarchy would therefore be greatly relieved if Xi lost power, or at least was forced to end the anti-corruption campaign. If he were to surrender to pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, he would be giving those people an excuse to unite against him in defence of the Communist Party’s monopoly of power, and not just of their own personal interests.

Using excessive force to quell the protests, up to and including massacres, would also leave Xi open to criticism, of course, but mainly to criticism from abroad. As we saw in the suppression of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, in the end Communist Party cadres will usually support the use of violence in defence of their power and privileges.

As for the general public in China, the events in Hong Kong are already represented in the state-controlled media (to the extent that they are reported at all) as the anti-patriotic actions of people who are being manipulated by hostile foreign powers.

Many ordinary Chinese people won’t believe that, but they probably won’t risk much to support of the people of Hong Kong. (If the protests spread to the mainland, of course, it’s a whole different game.)

Xi Jinping would doubtless prefer to win his confrontation with Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement peacefully, but he will use as much violence as necessary to suppress it.

Massacres would do great damage to China’s relations with the rest of the world, but he knows where his priorities lie.

Hong Kong Referendum

“The oppositions in Hong Kong should understand and accept that Hong Kong is not an independent country. They should not think that they have the ability to turn Hong Kong into Ukraine or Thailand,” warned the Global Times, the most aggressively nationalistic of China’s state-run newspapers. Clearly, some important people in the Communist regime are very unhappy about the “civil referendum” on democracy that has just ended in Hong Kong.

In Ukraine, a democratic revolution was followed by foreign annexation of part of the country (Crimea), a mini-civil war in the east, and the threat of a Russian invasion. In Thailand, the voters’ persistence in voting for the “wrong” party led to a military coup. It’s ridiculous to suggest that Hong Kong’s referendum might lead to anything like that, but they are very frightened of democracy in Beijing.

The referendum, which has no official standing, was organised by pro-democracy activists in response to a “white paper” published by the Chinese government in mid-June that made it clear there could be no full democracy in Hong Kong. News about the referendum was completely censored in China, but almost 800,000 people in Hong Kong voted in it. They all said “yes” to democracy.

The referendum was really a tactical move by Hong Kong’s pro-democracy camp in a long-running tug-of-war with Beijing over how the “Special Administrative Region” should be governed. The voters were asked to choose between three different options for choosing Hong Kong’s Chief Executive – and all of those methods involved popular participation. That is to say, democracy.

That’s not how the Chief Executive is chosen now. He is “elected” by a 1,200-person “Election Committee”, most of whose members are directly or indirectly chosen by the Chinese Communist authorities in Beijing and their local representatives. That’s hardly democratic, but it is written into the “Basic Law” that was negotiated between London and Beijing before Britain handed the colony back in 1997.

The whole negotiation was a series of compromises between the British view that Hong Kong’s inhabitants should enjoy democratic rights, and the Chinese regime’s determination to have ultimate control of the city. One of those compromises was a promise that by 2017, twenty years after the hand-over, the Chief Executive would be chosen by direct elections.

So democracy was raising its ugly head again, and Beijing sought to head off the danger by publishing its recent white paper. There would indeed by direct elections in 2017, it said, but all the candidates would be selected by a “nominating committee” whose members would still be chosen, directly or indirectly, by Beijing – and all the candidates would have to be “patriotic”. In China, as in most dictatorships, “patriotic” means “loyal to the regime.”

The instant response in Hong Kong was the “civil referendum”, in which about 800,000 of Hong Kong’s 3.5 million registered voters have cast a vote in polling stations, online, or on a phone app.

Every one of those voters was voting for full democracy, since the referendum asked them to choose between three proposed methods for nominating candidates for Chief Executive, ALL of which involved direct public participation. And while 800,000 people is only a quarter of the adult population, it is almost half the number of people (1.8 million) who actually voted in the last elections for Hong Kong’s legislature.

The Global Times has denounced the referendum as an “illegal farce” and “a joke”. Hong Kong’s current chief Executive, Leung Chun-Ying, has loyally echoed Beijing’s view that “Nobody should place Hong Kong people in confrontation with mainland Chinese citizens.” After all, “mainland Chinese citizens” have no democratic rights at all, and the Communist regime wants to keep it that way.

But it doesn’t have to be a confrontation. As part of the “one country, two systems” deal that was negotiated with Britain 20 years ago, Beijing has already accepted that Hong Kong would enjoy “a high degree of autonomy, except in foreign and defence affairs” for the next 50 years. That includes the rule of law and civil rights like freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, free media and so on.

Mainland Chinese citizens do not have those rights, and the example of Hong Kong has not so far incited them to demand them. So why should a democratically elected Chief Executive in Hong Kong drive those 1.3 billion mainland Chinese citizens to demand democracy either?

Maybe the Chinese people will demand democracy eventually, but that is far likelier to come about as a result of a severe recession that destroys the Communist regime’s reputation for fostering high-speed economic growth, which is its sole remaining claim on their loyalty. It won’t come from some desire to emulate Hong Kong. So there is room for a deal between Beijing and Hong Kong that gives the latter more freedom, if everybody stays calm.

There are probably even people inside the Communist regime in Beijing who would welcome a demonstration in Hong Kong that a little more democracy for Chinese people does not necessarily lead to chaos, civil war and secession. (Which is, of course, what their hard-line rivals constantly predict would be the inevitable result of diluting the dictatorship.)
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 10. (“In Ukraine…Beijing”; and “The Global…way”)