Let me be clear: I believed five years ago and believe today that both Britain and Europe would be better off with Britain in Europe. I thought the tactics used by the Leave campaign were repugnant and those by the Remain campaign complacent; I was devastated by the vote.
Yet, now, I support Brexit. This is because for most of my adult life, British politicians have been using Europe as an excuse for shortcomings that are home-grown. With Britain out of the EU, they have no one to blame but themselves.
The deep-seated constitutional problems Britain had and still has, are now Britain’s and nobody else’s; British politicians now own them.
I was even more devastated by last week’s proclamation that Beijing will implement national security laws by exploiting Annex 3 of the Basic Law. The early reports of the substance of this edict that filtered out – mostly in the Chinese-language press – over the next 24 hours gave substance to my fears: a parallel system of criminal justice shall be set up for crimes of sedition, subversion and treason, along with “agents” of enforcement from the PRC active in Hong Kong.
Rendition to China is not ruled out. There was as yet unsubstantiated talk that the 8,000 protestors currently awaiting trial will be handed over to this new system.
I will not here dwell on the perfidy of unilaterally abrogating the Sino-British Joint Declaration and of effectively annulling a large swathe of the Basic Law; nor shall I elaborate on the inadequacy of an independent (if increasingly biased) judiciary as protection against the very perils the Basic Law was promulgated to safeguard, when that judiciary has now been relieved of the job. I shall, rather, focus on ownership.
Like many others, I extended a cautious welcome to Luo Huining and Xia Baolong when they were appointed in late February. I had hoped that two new pairs of eyes, trusted by Xi Jinping, would see through the patchwork of half-truths and lies that have been fed to Beijing for 23 years.
My mental model was a father’s friend who was a labour-relations trouble-shooter in Britain in the 1970’s: his job was sit down with both sides, find what they could agree on, where they differed, and forge a compromise. With Luo being presented as a “trouble-shooter,” I had in mind a similar approach.
Boy, did I ever get that wrong. The “trouble,” it now transpires, is not that a large swathe of Hong Kong’s population disrespected China’s flag and national anthem because they were unhappy with China’s part in Hong Kong’s dysfunctional politics, but rather that China was unhappy because Hong Kong people disrespected those symbols – and the hell with why. Enforce respect; job done.
At a stroke, however, Hong Kong’s dysfunctional politics have been rendered irrelevant. For the past 23 years, Hong Kong people have been an unwilling audience to a constant, four-cornered game of blame allocation.
The pan-democratic camp, which for better or worse represents the single largest bloc of voters, has been disenfranchised and has thus hobbled the legislative progress even for useful and good legislation – most recently, a law bringing Hong Kong’s maternity leave in line with the late 20th century (not much, but still a major advance). There is no principled reason for this; their reaction is an institutionalised petulance.
The pro-Beijing camp have blamed the pan-dems for such antics, but they themselves are widely perceived not so much as doing Beijing’s behest, but rather as being too busy using their favourable political connections to get lucrative business deals on the mainland.
The pan-dems may be ineffectual, but – as Legco attendance records show – at least they show up.
Pan-dems and pro-Beijingers can at least agree, however, in the lamentable incompetence at the policy-making echelons (and, sadly, increasingly the administrative ranks) of government.
At the same time that Hong Kong has the highest poverty rate of any country of comparable wealth, a chronic housing problem, and under-funded public health, we are given a bridge that benefits almost no one, a train that extended PRC jurisdiction into Hong Kong on very dubious legal grounds, and a cruise terminal so toxic that even Hong Kong’s property developers turned it down.
And then, of course, there’s Beijing itself.
At a stroke, three of the four parties above have been rendered non-participants. The few pan-dems who don’t get incarcerated for sedition, subversion or treason, will have no sway. The pro-Beijing camp will find out that, just as eternal vigilance is the price of freedom, eternal humiliation is the cost of sycophancy.
The policy-making echelon of government – as demonstrated by Friday’s collective kow-tow – will cease what little pretence at independent-mindedness it ever had.
There is now no question where ownership lies. I am not going to predict what Beijing will do with the mess it now owns, but I do think it faces a choice. That choice is not stark but graded.
At one extreme, after the coming pogrom, Asia’s World City will become China’s Least Insular City: the Chinese-language press, with the exception of the soon-to-be-destroyed Apple Daily, is already so self-censored that it barely deserves the moniker “press,” but a small rump of the English-language press – perhaps, though I doubt it, this newspaper – will be permitted to limp on as a fig-leaf.
The definition of political crime will remain narrow and the judiciary will remain independent, albeit in the narrow sense that its judgements are not overtly handed to it. Legco will be permitted to tinker at the edges with legislation.
At the other extreme, the press will degenerate into mere propaganda; as the Annex 3 apparatus expands, the remit of the judiciary will shrink to petty crimes and trivial civil suits. Legco will cease to debate or improve legislation, becoming even more of a rubber stamp than it already is.
The only external pressure for Beijing to trim to the first course is international pressure. By abrogating the Joint Declaration, they have already demonstrated their contempt for international law; by unilaterally bypassing the Basic Law, they have played the last non-violent card in their hand.
This nuclear option comes at a price – that price is Taiwan. Only by being magnanimous can they hope to win over Taiwan peacefully.
When amputating a leg, however, one doesn’t stop sawing when one is only half-way through the bone. A hobbled political opposition is nevertheless an opposition, a narrow definition of political crimes leaves scope for widespread dissent, and the record of legislative intent that debate brings to the picture is a challenge for future generations – and Xi has made it clear he doesn’t intend to leave any such challenges.
Whichever course Beijing plots, I do predict one outcome – and it is deeply ironic. The CCP has never faced an organised opposition, based outside China, to its rule within China. Hong Kong people left en masse after the Joint Declaration, the Tiananmen Massacre, and in the run-up to the Handover, but never organised themselves politically. Annex 3 will lead to a further exodus, but this exodus will be the most politically charged ever: fertile ground for that which the CCP most fears.