Maybe if they’d told us all these 22 years ago things would not seem so desperately pear-shaped now. 

The 1997 Handover ceremony. File Photo: GovHK.

Yes, with the rain pitching down and Prince Charles and Hong Kong’s last governor Chris Patten looking miserably on, it would have been a seismic shock if—at the stroke of midnight, July 1, 1997—the city’s handover from British to Chinese sovereignty had concluded with Chinese officials stepping forward to proclaim:

1)  the Sino-British Joint Declaration a cruel hoax.

2)  “One Country, Two Systems” a crazy pipe dream. 

3)  the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, a collection of empty promises. 

But more painful perhaps is this long, protracted goodbye to the free and largely autonomous Hong Kong that we were promised vis-à-vis the increasingly authoritarian puppet-led city we find ourselves living in today. 

File photo: GovHK.

Let’s not be mistaken, this profound disappointment and disillusionment over Hong Kong’s post-handover development should have little to do with nostalgia for the Brits and their 156-year reign here.

They used Hong Kong for their profit, just as they used all of their other colonies, and then, as they unceremoniously exited, tossed up hopes and dreams of a democratic society that they themselves had always denied. 

Thank you, governor Patten. You are well remembered here, but you arrived at least 20 years too late. 

Now, as you watch from afar, Hong Kong finds itself in a dire state in which Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, although one of the highest-paid politicians on the planet, has become little more than an HK$5.21 million (US$672,000) mouthpiece for central government authorities who are bound and determined to whip defiant Hongkongers into patriotic shape by silencing dissent and jailing this city’s best and brightest. 

Chief Executive Carrie Lam at a press conference on April 14, 2020. Photo: inmediahk.net.

And, lately, Beijing’s hard-nosed efforts to bring Hong Kong to heel have reached an entirely new level of Orwellian brazenness.  

Just prior to the recent pointed arrests of 15 of Hong Kong’s most prominent pro-democracy figures, we learned some startling news from the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office (HKMAO) and the central government’s liaison office in the city: apparently, no one among us -not those who have served in four successive post-handover Hong Kong governments, not our barristers and legal scholars and certainly not the ordinary man and woman in the street -has properly understood Article 22 of the Basic Law, which states that “no department of the Central People’s government and no province, autonomous region, or municipality may interfere in the affairs which the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region administers on its own in accordance with this Law.”

For more than two decades, everyone mistakenly believed this meant mainland officials should keep their heavy hands out of Hong Kong’s business, granting the city the “high degree of autonomy” it is promised in the Basic Law.

Photo: HKFP.

Even previous occupants of the HKMAO and liaison office appear to have badly misconstrued this article as, for the most part, they have kept their public mouths shut for the past 22 years.

True, they often chose to exercise slyer, more clandestine influence in the city, but their schemes and backchannels only served to underscore their determination to avoid getting caught out in their interference and violation of Article 22. 

But Beijing’s new man in Hong Kong, liaison office chief Luo Huining, has parachuted into the city with the revelation, 22 years in the making, that his office and the HKMAO can meddle in Hong Kong affairs as much and as often as they please because Article 22 does not apply to them as they are not “departments” of the central government. 

Never mind that nothing in Luo’s long and loyal history as a Communist Party apparatchik – most recently he served as party secretary for northern Shanxi province – has provided him with any expertise on Hong Kong and its mini-constitution. Clearly, he’s been sent here as President Xi Jinping’s hatchet man, and thus it’s his job to direct his office to hack away at the Basic Law. 

Luo Huining. Photo: Stand News.

True to form, after some initial confusion of press releases no doubt due to 22 years of the Hong Kong government saying the opposite, Lam gave her full support to this fresh and enlightened interpretation of Article 22, thereby licensing the recently arrived liaison office boss and his henchmen, joined by the forces of the HKMAO, to interfere in Hong Kong affairs whenever, wherever and however they please.

Their target at this particular point is clearly pan-democrats in the Legislative Council (LegCo) whose relentless filibustering has paralysed the House Committee tasked with setting LegCo’s agenda, thus preventing government-proposed legislation, such as the unpopular national anthem bill, from reaching the council floor.   

Dennis Kwok Wing-hang, deputy chairman of the House Committee and a founding member of the Civic Party, stands singled out by both the liaison office and the HKMAO for the leading role he has played in the filibustering effort. Both offices accuse him of violating his LegCo oath, during which he swore allegiance to both the Hong Kong and central governments, and of abuse of power and misconduct in office. 

Dennis Kwok. File Photo: LegCo.

Kwok now must worry that his will be the next name on a lengthening roster of Hong Kong lawmakers who have been disqualified from office for defying Beijing. 

There was a time, not so long ago, when it would have been unthinkable to posit that a councillor could be disqualified for mounting a filibuster that, like it or not, is clearly within the scope of LegCo’s rules and procedures. 

Well, that time is gone. And so, it seems, is the Basic Law.  

The liaison office and the HKMAO, long thought to be proscribed from interfering in Hong Kong affairs, are now the new law in our city. 

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Kent Ewing

Kent Ewing is a teacher and writer who has lived in Hong Kong for more than two decades. He has written for the pre-Alibaba South China Morning Post, The Standard, Asia Times and Asia Sentinel. Allegations to the contrary, he insists he is not a colonial fossil. Follow him on Twitter.