As the 20th anniversary of China’s takeover approaches, Stephen Vines reports that the territory’s promised autonomy is fast fading

Predicting the outcome of elections has proved to be a challenging business in both Europe and the United States. Not in Hong Kong, where on March 26, barring a cataclysm, Carrie Lam will become the fourth Chief Executive, or leader of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, since it was established two decades ago.

Like the previous incumbents, she has to go through an election, but the only voters are the 1,200 members of the Election Committee, a majority of whom will vote as directed by the authorities in Beijing. Unlike previous polls, the Chinese government is making little effort to hide its hand. Not only have its mouthpiece newspapers in Hong Kong made the choice clear, but Zhang Dejiang, the third highest-ranking member of the Politburo, reportedly convened an unprecedented meeting to instruct ‘reliable’ Election Committee members how to vote.

There are other candidates in this somewhat farcical race, but the most prominent are also seen as being loyal to Beijing. What distinguishes Ms Lam, formerly the number two official in the current administration of the deeply unpopular Leung Chun-ying, is that she is viewed as the most dogged loyalist of all.

Unlike previous polls, the Chinese government is making little effort to hide its hand

The way this election is being conducted provides a vivid illustration of the withering autonomy of Hong Kong, which, alongside Macau, has a unique status within China. Beijing promised that the former British colony could preserve its own way of doing things, but this is now being blatantly ignored as new measures are introduced to extinguish the differences between the SARs and other parts of the mainland.

Marchers protest the abduction of dissident booksellers seized in Hong Kong in January 2016
Marchers protest the abduction of dissident booksellers seized in Hong Kong in January 2016

It appears that Deng Xiaoping, China’s paramount leader, genuinely intended to allow Hong Kong a ‘high degree of autonomy’ when he negotiated the handover of power with Britain, but this pledge was soon undermined after 1997. Much of the blame must go to Hong Kong’s bumbling first Chief Executive, Tung Chee-hwa, who referred all manner of decisions up to his masters, even when they showed little inclination to get involved in micro-managing Hong Kong affairs.

His successor, Donald Tsang (convicted of misconduct in public office in February), was no better. Leaders in Beijing treated him with suspicion, owing to his long service as a colonial official, making him insecure – a feeling apparently confirmed by the way he has been tossed aside since leaving office. But he was tolerated, though not trusted, while in office, because he was so assiduous in proclaiming his loyalty, and ensuring he did absolutely nothing to provoke unease among the people who matter in Beijing.

Things started to change when Xi Jinping assumed leadership of the Communist Party in Beijing

Fast forward to the ‘election’ of Leung Chun-ying in 2012, and things started to change even faster. China finally had a true believer who, unlike his predecessors, had been supporter of the Communist Party during the colonial era. Originally China had been planning to anoint businessman Henry Tang, another colonial retread, but a corruption scandal prevented that.

China’s general policy had been to keep true believers in the background, and use non-Communist figureheads to reassure those who remain nervous of the party. In some ways the hapless non-Communists were easier to control. While Beijing had no problems getting the Hong Kong government to do its bidding, however, it had less success with the people, who twice thwarted major plans to enforce greater control over the SAR. In 2003 mass mobilisation prevented the enactment of harsh anti-subversion legislation, and in 2012 a small parents’ group turned into a mass movement blocking plans for patriotic indoctrination in schools.

Things started to change when Xi Jinping assumed leadership of the Communist Party in Beijing. Extreme hostility to reform brought a crackdown on opposition, and the chill winds from the north did not take long to reach Hong Kong. In 2014, when central parts of the city were paralysed by protests against Beijing’s plans for a severely limited version of democratic reform, the government did not budge.

If that still looked like a passive approach to protest, it has since been replaced by more direct action. Dissident booksellers were seized in Hong Kong and taken across the border for interrogation and punishment; one of them remains in detention. More recently Xiao Jianhua, a leading businessman suspected of having dirt on the family of Xi Jinping, was also seized, and his whereabouts remain unknown.

Pro-democracy activists have been banned from running in elections, and the government has moved to expel six of the 35 legislators chosen under the limited system that allows half the chamber to be directly elected. Two have already been ejected; court action against the other four is being pursued on the grounds that they failed to take their oaths of office correctly.

DESTINY UNKNOWN: Businessman Xiao Jianhua, suspected of having dirt on Xi Jinping's family and seized in Hong Kong, is still missing
DESTINY UNKNOWN: Businessman Xiao Jianhua, suspected of having dirt on Xi Jinping’s family and seized in Hong Kong, is still missing

Media control has tightened considerably with most mass media news outlets now either under the direct control of mainland businessmen or run by companies that are close to the regime in Beijing. Bookshops, publishers and printers who once handled so-called dissident material have largely been eliminated.

But this may be no more than the beginning: Beijing is exerting growing pressure on the Hong Kong government to reintroduce the defeated anti-subversion legislation, and there are plans to legalise the rendition of suspects to the mainland in political cases. The pro-Beijing media is howling for public officials to pass loyalty tests, and for the central government to be able to intervene in wider areas of Hong Kong life where autonomy was once promised.

The independence of the Hong Kong judiciary is being undermined as judgements are pre-empted by ‘interpretations’ of constitutional law from Beijing. Institutions that made Hong Kong a focus for international business have seen their autonomy diminished.

Some young activists are calling for Hong Kong independence

President Xi is expected to preside over official celebrations on July 1, the 20th anniversary of the establishment of the Special Administrative Region. Other plans for this event have not been announced, but the police have let it be widely known that they have ordered bigger and better armoured vehicles to be delivered in time for the anniversary, while officers will be armed with longer-range rubber bullets.

If the government is showing its determination to resist protesters’ demands, and to meet the protests with force, on the other side traditionally peaceful anti-government forces are increasingly being sidelined by activists, many of them very young and quite dismissive of the restraint shown by their elders. Far more committed to street action, some of them are calling for Hong Kong independence, crossing a line that the Chinese state will not even contemplate. Even those who do not advocate independence are far more focused on Hong Kong, unlike the previous generation of democrats, who were highly concerned over events in the mainland.

China had a major opportunity when it resumed sovereignty over both Hong Kong and Macau to prove to the people of Taiwan that they could enjoy autonomy under the flag of the People’s Republic. This was one of Deng Xiaoping’s priorities, but if anything the experience of the past two decades has strengthened Taiwanese determination to remain apart.

Overall it is hard to see what has been achieved since 1997 unless, as in all one-party states, asserting control is viewed as an end in itself. A survey by Civic Exchange, a prominent local think tank, carried out last October, found that a staggering 42 per cent of those questioned wanted to leave Hong Kong. That number rose to 57 per cent among adults below the age of 30. Such a mass exodus is unlikely, but the desire for departure speaks volumes about the public mood.

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist, writer and broadcaster. A former editor at The Observer, London, he has worked in Asia for other international publications including the Guardian, Daily Telegraph and The Independent. He is the author of several books, including Hong Kong: China’s New Colony

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