Anyone who might have toyed with the idea that clear verdicts in popular elections could give Beijing pause for thought must now be sorely disappointed. Two such elections were Hong Kong’s district council poll last November and Taiwan’s presidential contest in January.

Both verdicts were as clear as could possibly be, and they derived from a common source. Voters in Hong Kong and Taiwan were agitated by Beijing’s constant pressure and interventions, aimed at bringing the two errant territories back in line.

A pro-Hong Kong protester flag reading ‘Free Hong Kong, revolution of our time’ flies above a Democratic Progressive Party rally on election day, January 10, in Taipei. Photo: Viola Kam/United Social Press.

The “line” is Beijing’s “One Country, Two Systems” formula, conceived in the late 1970s to encourage the Republic of China government to accept defeat in China’s 1945-49 civil war. The formula was given a trial run to ease Hong Kong’s fears after Beijing demanded an end to British colonial rule in 1997.

But as pressures from Beijing have intensified, so has resistance in the two territories because the formula has not worked out in practice as advertised.

Bejing’s solution? More of the same. If relentless pressure provokes more resistance, the answer must be to double down and carry on. The Chinese Communist Party has sent out this message in a series of commentaries on the 30th anniversary of the promulgation of Hong Kong’s post-colonial Basic Law. It formalises all the designs and promises Beijing made to Hong Kong before 1997, and the document has since become the chief source of authority for its governance.

Chinese authorities have continued to commend the “One Country, Two Systems” model embodied in this document, and Hong Kong’s experience in implementing it, as the basis for Taiwan’s return to the national Chinese fold.

Hong Kong’s new constitution was promulgated on April 4, 1990. Events celebrating the anniversary have been postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. But that has not deterred officials from their task. Incredibly, after all the street protests and court challenges that have filled the years since 1997, when the Basic Law went into effect, not a hint of deference to the dissent and challenges was evident.

Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters rally in Taipei on election day on January 11. Photo: Viola Kam/United Social Press.

On the contrary, the official message from Beijing was all about doubling down and overcoming the resistance on its own terms. The significance of the two latest elections in Hong Kong and Taiwan was ignored.

Beijing’s verdict

In Hong Kong, the keynote April 4 commentary came from Beijing’s newly appointed director at its official representative Liaison Office. Luo Huining arrived in early January, apparently to mark Beijing’s displeasure with his predecessor’s performance during Hong Kong’s still unresolved political uprising. The protests began last summer and culminated in last November’s district council election, although sporadic outbreaks continue.

As an experienced official with a reputation both for political loyalty and for tackling difficult assignments, Luo’s statement carried the most weight and presumably conveyed Beijing’s current verdict on Hong Kong’s first 30 years under Chinese rule, with special reference to the latest protests. His statement appeared in the form of a long essay posted on the Liaison Office website and in the local pro-Beijing press.

Director Luo began with the familiar statement of purpose. The objective of “One Country, Two Systems” as enshrined in the Basic Law was to promote national unification and China’s territorial integrity, as well as to safeguard Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability. The Communist Party had further elaborated on those objectives with the aim of safeguarding national sovereignty, security, and developmental interests.

Luo Huining. Photo: Apple Daily.

The Basic Law promised Hong Kong “50 years without change.” That period is now already at the midway point. But some long-accumulating contradictions had emerged, especially during the anti-extradition law storm last year. The result has been a serious distortion in the implementation of “One Country, Two Systems,” severely challenging the national constitution and Hong Kong’s Basic Law. These problems must now be rectified.

We must confront the challenges and firmly sustain the original spirit of “One Country, Two Systems.” We must proceed with confidence in the national constitution and in Hong Kong’s Basic Law. We must not waver or be uncertain in the face of these difficulties and external interventions.

Elaborating this last, Luo wrote that in carrying out the original spirit of “One Country, Two Systems” principle, national sovereignty and security must be maintained. To maintain national security is a core feature of the correct implementation of “One Country, Two Systems,” and a constitutional obligation under the Basic Law. Safeguarding national security is essential in order to maintain Hong Kong’s long-term prosperity and stability.

Specifically, a comprehensive national security legal system and strong law enforcement powers are needed in order to prevent external forces from carrying out division and sabotage by interfering in Hong Kong affairs.

Local elaborations

Luo’s emphasis on national security explains the recent uptick in demands from Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing opinion leaders to exhume the national security legislation that was shelved after Hong Kong’s first major protest demonstration on July 1, 2003.

Protest against Article 23 on July 1, 2003. Photo: Stand News.

The legislation is mandated by the Basic Law’s Article 23. It says that Hong Kong must enact laws, on its own, to prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion against the Central People’s Government, or any theft of state secrets.

These national security laws must also prohibit foreign political organisations from conducting political activities in Hong Kong and prohibit Hong Kong political organisations from establishing ties with foreign political organisations.

Pro-Beijing personalities routinely call for the passage of Article 23 legislation as the appropriate means of controlling pro-democracy activists and politicians. Now, with Beijing having cast last year’s protest movement as a challenge, not just to its authority, but to national sovereignty and security as well, the stage seems set for another official push, as Director Luo wrote, to strengthen laws and enforcement mechanisms.

How this might be accomplished without provoking another massive protest upsurge is hard to see, unless Beijing really is contemplating a hard-line crackdown. More likely, partisans are only engaged in a form of verbal sabre rattling, like last summer’s well-publicised military manoeuvres, that were evidently meant to send a message without actually delivering it.

Photo: May James/HKFP.

But at the very least, officials seem intent on trying to mobilise public opinion on behalf of Beijing’s preferred solution. Provocative legislator Junius Ho Kwan-yiu has even launched a street-side signature campaign asking for a revival of the Article 23 legislation.

Most striking were the views of Lau Siu-kai, because they were so unusually blunt a reflection of what Beijing’s ideal-type Hong Kong government should be. Lau, now retired from his two careers as a university professor and government pollster, is a pro-Beijing commentator and leading member of the semi-official Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies.

In a recent Chinese-language article published in the association’s journal, he targeted the “deep-rooted” contradictions Director Luo referenced. Lau said what Hong Kong needed to achieve Beijing’s goals for the city is a government run by patriots instead of the vacillators now in charge who allowed themselves to be influenced by public opinion at home and abroad.

Lau said Hong Kong’s political unrest derived from a lack of national identity among Hong Kong’s youth. The government had not taken a firm stand in the face of popular resistance to the proposed national political studies curriculum, or to Article 23 national security legislation, or the need for stronger law enforcement.

Anti-national education curriculum protest. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Lau’s formal 30th anniversary essay was more circumspect, in line with official discourse. He elaborated on the theme that “some people” had misunderstood what “One Country, Two Systems” was supposed to mean. Consequently, many young people are being influenced by foreign forces and by the distorted views of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy opposition. He then reviewed the main points of contention in Beijing’s argument with Hong Kong:

“One country” is primary. Its strategic objective is national unification. So, the concept absolutely does not mean balancing opposing internal and external, Chinese and Western, influences as is commonly said. The Basic Law’s (Article 5) promise of safeguarding Hong Kong’s capitalist system and way of life for 50 years does not mean that between 1997 and 2047 absolutely nothing will change. The “high degree of autonomy” pledge does not mean the central government does not retain the power to make necessary changes. Patriotic pro-Beijing forces must be in charge so as to protect national security and so on.

Former chief executive Leung Chun-ying could not resist entering this debate to reinforce the official narrative in all respects. A long-time pro-Beijing loyalist, Leung was named Secretary General of the Basic Law Consultative Committee set up to solicit opinions from the public while the Basic Law was being drafted in the late 1980s.

Later, his abrasive personality and hard-line brand of patriotism combined to help make him a one-term Chief Executive. Hong Kong’s universal suffrage political reform campaign from 2014 to 2015 occurred under his watch, along with the Umbrella Movement that blockaded major city streets for 79 days in late 2014.

Photo: May James/HKFP.

Undeterred and unapologetic, he maintains that the Basic Law is a perfect fit for Hong Kong. Leung was among the guest speakers at an online university forum in Beijing on April 4. He used the occasion to criticise Western politicians who thought the Basic Law’s promises of a high degree of autonomy for Hong Kong should mean complete autonomy.

Then there were Hong Kong opposition politicians who thought the promise of electing the chief executive should entail the popular nomination of candidates instead of nomination by an officially organised pro-establishment Election Committee, as Beijing demanded.

These critics seemed to think that genuine universal suffrage should mean absorbing the powers granted by the Basic Law to the central government. This must all be refuted with correct arguments so that Hong Kong society and the international community can understand the true meaning of the Basic Law and of “One Country, Two Systems.”

Leung’s conclusion: the Basic Law is complete and correct. But the same cannot be said about explaining it to a sceptical public both here and elsewhere.

An opposing voice

Representatives of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy “opposition” were not invited to the Beijing seminar. Nor were they invited to contribute to the special 30th anniversary feature columns in the pro-Beijing press. Yet they account for a majority of Hong Kong voters in contests that allow direct one-person, one-vote election.

Leung Chun-ying. File photo: GovHK.

But soon after 1997, authorities began referring to all such partisans as the “opposition,” and the practice has continued ever since. It was supposed to be a mark of official tolerance under the “Two Systems” formula that such people and their views are allowed to carry on.

The Basic Law was drafted by a 59-member committee working under Beijing’s direction. Of the committee’s 23 Hong Kong members, only two could speak for its then-nascent democracy movement. The two were Martin Lee Chu-ming and the late Szeto Wah. Both resigned from the committee in protest after the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown that brought an end to China’s own 1980s democracy movement. The two men founded Hong Kong’s Democratic Party a few years later.

Lee still has much to say, although he can no longer presume to speak for all of Hong Kong’s pan-democrats. They have since splintered into many diverse pieces and Lee is arguably the most moderate of all. But he has continued to invoke the memory of Beijing’s then-paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, who oversaw all the pre-1997 handover preparations before his death that same year.

Lee regularly laments the course Deng’s successors have chosen to follow and likes to recall the Chinese leader’s “liberal and pragmatic” approach toward Hong Kong. Whether accurate or not, Lee continues to argue that Deng would have proceeded differently.

Martin Lee. File Photo: inmediahk.net.

Now, 30 years later, Lee still holds out the hope that Beijing might honour Deng’s promise of a Hong Kong government, executive and legislature, elected by universal suffrage.

Nevertheless, Lee has also grown increasingly pessimistic. He says the Basic Law was meant to protect Hong Kong. But in 2014, during the controversy created by democrats’ attempt to fulfil the Basic Law’s promise of universal suffrage elections for Hong Kong’s chief executive, Beijing began proclaiming its right to “comprehensive jurisdiction” over Hong Kong.

Beijing then decreed a mainland-style election for Hong Kong’s chief executives with the central government vetting and approving the candidates who would be endorsed by the same pro-establishment committee that now oversees the chief executive selection process.

Since those decisions in 2014 and 2015, Lee said, the Basic Law began losing its significance. As he sees it, the framework can only be regarded to have succeeded in its original purpose if universal suffrage elections are introduced and Beijing stops meddling in Hong Kong.

Photo: HKFP/Ellie Ng.

The two sides in this debate are now as far apart as they have ever been. Leung probably explained it best in his own sarcastic way. Autonomy means one thing in Beijing’s eyes but something free of its interference in the eyes of Hong Kong’s democracy movement partisans and voters.

The pro-democracy camp fears the mainland Chinese justice system and spent six months last year bringing the city to a near standstill in order to let their fears be known. They also fear being obliged to vote for Beijing-approved candidates like Leung, who will enforce the central government’s political ways without question or restraint. That fear produced the 79-day street blockades in 2014.

But perhaps most ironic of all is the timing of this year’s handover anniversary. Regrets were expressed that celebratory events had to be postponed due to the coronavirus, which has spread from the Chinese city of Wuhan to points all around the globe.

File photo: Paul Stableman, via Flickr.

Yet the spread of that new virus might have been prevented had it not been for the Chinese government’s antiquated rules on political security. Enforced in Hubei province, they silenced local doctors who tried to raise the alarm. The silence was enforced on charges of spreading unsubstantiated rumours and undermining social order.

Here in Hong Kong, a noted medical professional was pressured into retracting an article he and a colleague published in Ming Pao Daily on March 18. In it, they argued that Covid-19 did indeed originate in Wuhan due to the old Chinese custom of eating wild animals.

While this global tragedy was unfolding, Beijing’s newly appointed representative delivered a lecture in Hong Kong on its obligation to accept the central government’s concepts of sovereignty, security, and stability, as the mark of loyalty to the “One Country, Two Systems” governing formula.

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Suzanne Pepper

Suzanne Pepper is a Hong Kong-based American writer and Hong Kong resident with a long-standing interest in Chinese politics. In her book, 'Keeping Democracy at Bay: Hong Kong and the Challenge of Chinese Political Reform', Pepper addresses debates surrounding democracy and dictatorship. Her blog follows the developing story of Hong Kong’s democracy movement as it struggles to maintain its coherence amid the growing pressures of integration within the Chinese political system.