Monday, September 8, 2014

One country, two systems — and one puppet master



Try to imagine for a moment how Hong Kong’s boisterous push for democracy must look to the Communist Party in Beijing.

A bit of history is in order. First, in 1842, British imperialists forced the Qing Emperor to cede Hong Kong after deploying gunboats against China for daring to oppose the opium trade. In subsequent years, the British showed scant regard for their Chinese subjects, banning them from white-only residential areas and never allowing them so much as a sniff at a vote.

However, before London finally handed Hong Kong back in 1997, the last Governor mischievously sowed the seeds of democratic ambition, an act of political sabotage the equivalent of introducing a killer weed into foreign soil.

Since the time of Hong Kong’s return, Beijing has stuck quite faithfully to the “one country, two systems” framework, allowing the so-called special administrative region a “high degree of autonomy”.

As Mr Li Fei, a senior official from Beijing who was sent last week to explain China’s universal suffrage proposals, remarked: “The central government is implementing democracy in Hong Kong 17 years after the handover, much faster than Britain did in its 150 years of rule here.”

However, far from being grateful, the mollycoddled Hong Kong residents are pushing for the whole nine yards. To add insult to injury, they look down on mainlanders whom they mock as ill-mannered and nouveau riche.

So brainwashed are Hongkongers by their former imperial overlords that some might imagine they are ashamed of being Chinese. All the while, Hong Kong residents behave outrageously (or exercise their civil liberties, as it is known in the West).

Only last week, rowdy protesters ridiculed Mr Li. One man stripped himself virtually bare, a reference to what he said was Beijing’s naked tyranny. Imagine such open mockery of Chinese leaders in Beijing. The man would be frogmarched to the nearest cell.


Such ingratitude must be all the more galling given that Beijing could cancel the whole universal suffrage jamboree if it chose.

At the time of the handover, Britain was still a power to be reckoned with. China’s gross domestic product, then roughly US$950 billion (S$1.19 trillion), was only two-thirds of Britain’s. Now China’s economy is four times as big. Despite the reversal of power, Beijing has stuck to the deal.

Naturally, it has insisted on establishing a mechanism for pre-screening candidates. Otherwise, it would risk Hong Kong electing some anti-Beijing rabble-rouser whom it would be obliged to veto. It stands to reason that Beijing cannot tolerate such an open challenge to its authority.

Now look at the same set of facts through the eyes of Hong Kong democrats. From their perspective, though Beijing may be sticking to the letter of the deal, it has gutted democracy proposals of all meaning.

Beijing is insisting that all candidates are vetted by a nominating committee comprising 1,200 of Hong Kong’s great and good. These are mostly well-connected, tame pro-Beijing businessmen who would never allow a true democrat to rock the boat — or, in this case, their luxury yacht. The proposed system can even be seen as a retrograde step.

At least under the present system, democrats have a chance of making the ballot for Chief Executive, Hong Kong’s Mayor-equivalent, since they require only one-eighth of nominating committee votes.

That is not all, say democrats. Beijing is also beginning to erode some of the civil liberties on which Hong Kong’s quality of life, not to mention its future as a financial centre, depends. The judiciary is under pressure to step into line and the knives are out — in one case literally — for independent journalists. Critics have complained that nominally independent civil servants do Beijing’s bidding. Take the suspiciously timed recent raid on the home of Mr Jimmy Lai, an anti-Beijing media mogul who has helped fund the democratic cause.

Beijing’s proposal on universal suffrage has presented democrats with a dilemma. They could set their teeth against the plan, voting it down in the legislature and organising civil disobedience on the streets. Indeed, that is what they say they will do.

However, Beijing has spoken. Such protests are not going to make it change its mind.

At worst, they might provoke a show of force from the central government that would tear the veil off the one country, two systems facade.

If this episode demonstrates anything, it is that power resides with Beijing. Mr Alex Lo, a columnist for the South China Morning Post, wrote last week about how the presence of Mr Li, Beijing’s emissary, relegated Hong Kong’s own officials to irrelevance.

Instead of playing an active role in the discussion, the city’s supposed representatives, from the Chief Executive down, “stayed on the sidelines like secretaries and clerks to the mainland honchos”.

Sad to say, the man who stripped down to draw attention to Beijing’s naked power was on to something. It is now clearer than ever that Hong Kong’s “high degree of autonomy” is something of an illusion.


David Pilling is Asia editor of the Financial Times.

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