Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Hong Kong's 'second handover'

A China watcher offers a reading of what lies ahead for the Fragrant Harbour.

NOV 17, 2014


THE visiting senator, an influential member of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, leant forward, looked the veteran intelligence officer in the eye and asked: "So, Tom, how is this protracted Occupy protest movement going to end?" Back came the answer in a heartbeat: "Badly for Hong Kong, I am afraid! Not so for Beijing."

"Pray explain," said the senator as he loosened his tie in the stuffy, windowless conference room inside the US consulate in Hong Kong, which is known to all staff there as The Vault because of its high-tech defences against all known forms of electronic eavesdropping. He was en route to Beijing for a conference and had asked for the briefing.

Tom paused for a full minute, as if to collect his thoughts, before he began: "Whether force will be used to clear the streets is no longer the key issue, though obviously, if a lot of blood is shed, then the situation will become even more dire. What really matters is that Pandora's box has been forced open.

"According to my well-connected sources, who have access to Beijing's thinking, the protests have triggered what may be termed as the Second Handover since Hong Kong reverted to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. Beijing will re-evaluate every aspect of its dealings with Hong Kong. All cards will be reshuffled. Not immediately, of course. The central government will still hand out a few goodies, if only to prop up the HK Chief Executive, C.Y. Leung, and help the dust to settle. After that, the gloves will come off.

"To be sure, Beijing will honour every bit of its joint declaration with the Brits, as it has done so scrupulously in the past 17 years. But it will tighten up on everything else, especially the already precious little political elbow room now enjoyed by the Hong Kong government. Yes, it is still going to be One Country Two Systems, but from now on, it's One Country above all else. From Beijing's perspective, it has been overly tolerant of all those in Hong Kong who keep harping on and on about Two Systems and downplaying the One Country half of the formula laid down by Deng Xiaoping. It will signal to Hong Kong: Enough is enough."

The senator sat up: "But the Hong Kong people won't stand for it, surely? Doesn't Beijing value Hong Kong as the jewel in its crown? Shouldn't it worry about those who, as a result of that hardline stance, would choose to up and leave?"

Tom: "Well, as far as Beijing is concerned, they can go suck on it. There is a Chinese phrase that goes something like, 'you spurn the cup offered in respect and so must now swallow whatever is forced on you as penalty'. Jewel? Once upon a time, maybe. At the time of the handover in 1997, Hong Kong's contribution to China's GDP (gross domestic product) was about 20 per cent. Now it's down to less than 3 per cent. Shanghai will overtake Hong Kong as a financial centre. Bottom line? China does not need Hong Kong. Hong Kong needs China.

"Exodus of talent? You seriously think China, with 1.3 billion people, will really lose a lot of sleep over that? If losing two generations is the price for reminding Hong Kong people that they were, are and always will be part of China, Beijing will gladly pay it in the blink of an eye.

"And the sad part of it all is that the Occupy protests have unleashed precisely this rejection of Chinese identity and revulsion against China among many of the young in Hong Kong. But unlike the politicians who shout the loudest about democracy, these young people are the least able to emigrate. Will we, for example, accept a few hundred thousand of them? So, the bitterness, the alienation, the tension will continue to simmer, maybe even grow. Periodic outbursts and protests will become a feature of life here. That's why I said at the beginning that it is going to be bad for Hong Kong."

The senator thought for a while, then asked: "What about Taiwan? Won't all this hardline stuff push the Taiwanese further away from the motherland?"

The intelligence officer shook his head: "No, Beijing is not overly worried about Taiwan, according to my sources. Taiwan's economic dependence on the mainland is growing by the day. Beijing feels it has already got the island neatly boxed in. As long as we do not provoke a war by egging Taiwan to declare independence, Beijing can wait for the day when we come round to accepting the geo-strategic reality that Taiwan has to return to the Chinese fold. When that day comes, when we have struck a strategic deal with Beijing, the Taiwanese will sue for reunification."

Another long pause. Then the senator said softly: "Well, the way I hear it from you, it is going to be all bleakness..."

Tom: "I am afraid so, though come June, when the Legislative Council has to vote on a motion to have one-man-one-vote for the election of the next chief executive but from a slate of two or three candidates first vetted by a select committee of 1,200, there's an outside chance that the pan-democratic opposition will fail to deny the government the two-thirds majority that it needs. Then Hong Kong people will get to vote.

"The anger now is that the 1,200 committee members are all handpicked by Beijing and therefore, there's no real universal suffrage. People are up in protest against this pre-selection. But, Mr Senator, as you know only too well, even we Americans do not elect our president directly. There is pre-selection and there is a two-tier process and the presidential election is by an electoral college.

"So, if between now and June, Beijing signals that it can accept a more democratic select committee, with wider representation, then the people will have to decide whether that is preferable to not voting at all because if the motion fails to carry, then it is back to square one - no one-man-onevote. Beijing has indeed left open the window for negotiating a more representative select committee. Existing seats allocated to trades and industries that are declining, such as fisheries and textiles, can be passed on to women and youth groups, or academics or whoever can make the committee more representative.

"The pan-democratic opposition, all 27 of them, has said it will vote as a bloc and veto the motion. But all it takes is for six of them to change their mind and cross over to vote for the motion. In local parlance, they accept that it is pragmatic to at least pocket this concession from Beijing first. Then, universal suffrage will proceed, albeit not in the form the young students and other protesters now demand. After this precedent is set, who is to say more changes cannot happen when the political environment in China changes!"

The senator leant forward again and asked: "Will that happen?"

Tom: "Mr Senator, as the Cantonese here will say, 'you ask me, I ask who!'"


The writer is senior executive vice-president of Singapore Press Holdings' marketing division.

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