Well, President Xi Jinping’s report to the Communist Party Congress clearly ticks one important box: it has given pleasure to a lot of people.

An attendant serves a drink as China’s President Xi Jinping speaks during the opening session of the 20th Chinese Communist Party’s Congress in Beijing on October 16, 2022. Photo: Noel Celis/AFP.

Some of the responses in Hong Kong bordered on ecstatic: Secretary for Culture, Sports and Tourism Kevin Yeung was “thrilled” that the speech had pointed out the need for the country to “adhere to the development path of socialist culture with Chinese characteristics.” DAB chair Starry Lee saw the Congress as a “historic milestone”. Chief Executive John Lee thought: “We should learn from the spirit of the 20th National Congress. We should unite in our fights and struggles to better integrate into the country’s development and contribute to the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation!”

Reports of the actual speech suggest that there was nothing new. Xi’s reference to Hong Kong was in Partyspeak, a language which wraps reality in illusion. “In the face of turbulent developments in Hong Kong, the central government exercised overall jurisdiction over the special administrative region as prescribed by China’s constitution and the Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, and ensured Hong Kong is administered by patriots,” he said, adding that Hong Kong had gone from “chaos to governance.”

We know what the “turbulent developments” were. The next bit is a long-winded but polite way of saying “You thought you were getting a high degree of autonomy? Welcome to reality, suckers.” Ensuring Hong Kong is administered by patriots means replacing more or less genuine elections with more or less fixed ones.

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Chief Executive John Lee. Photo: Lea Mok/HKFP.

The official narrative, which Mr Lee also trotted out, is that Hong Kong was rescued from perdition by the benevolent intervention of Mother, and the imposition of the national security law took us from, as Mr Xi put it, “chaos to governance.”

This is an abuse of history. “Chaos” was ended partly by frustration and exhaustion, but mainly by the arrival of the Covid virus, which enabled the government to ban, on public health grounds, any public gathering of more than four people.

The vast majority of those arrested during the “chaos” were charged under existing laws with existing offences and dealt with in the regular courts. The contribution of the national security law to the proceedings was to destroy Hong Kong’s flourishing civil society, before the ensuing changes to the election system destroyed its political life.

Mother’s contribution to “governance” was to put Hong Kong affairs into the hands of two seasoned apparatchiks who were experienced and comfortable with the idea of suppressing inconvenient opinions by imprisoning anyone expressing them, preferably without the prior formality of a trial.

Mr Xi hailed the “strong vitality” of the One Country, Two Systems concept – “a great innovation of socialism with Chinese characteristics.” But it is still not entirely clear whether this great innovation means anything more than Deng Xiaoping’s reassuring observation that we could “still have dancing and horseracing.”

Hong Kong harbour skyline Covid-19
The Harbour Promenade in Tsim Sha Tsui, Hong Kong. Photo: GovHK.

It is difficult to reconcile with the way the Hong Kong government is behaving, which seems to involve reducing any differences between the SAR and the mainland as quickly as possible. If that is what they want, it seems to be working – in a way. International comparisons of human rights and press freedom have Hong Kong converging rapidly with China, down at the bottom of the table with paradises like Belarus and Cuba.

Consider, for example, recent changes to the junior secondary school curriculum. Out go such trivia as “the values and attitudes that underpin the local society, including rights and responsibilities, freedom, rule of law, social justice, democracy.” In comes “China’s constitution, the meaning of national security and the importance of the national security law, as well as developing a sense of national identity.”

What is going on here? The highest objective of education used to be to help students to identify and pursue goodness, truth and beauty. This is replaced by the objective of spreading lies about an ugly and brutal system. Many local teachers have already had second thoughts about their career choices. They will not be the last.

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A secondary school in Ho Man Tin. Photo: Hillary Leung/HKFP.

If political integration is a questionable pleasure, what of the economic kind, or, as Mr Lee puts it, better integrating with the country’s development? The potential problem with this is that, as with the new political arrangements, it makes Hong Kong’s future entirely dependent on decisions made in Beijing.

And the decision made in Beijing these days seems to be that the Party knows best about everything and will accordingly run the economy by issuing instructions on whatever takes its fancy. But we have seen this movie before.

If the history of the 20th century teaches us anything it is that unbridled capitalism produces great wealth and great inequality, and unbridled economic dictatorship by party or person produces great equality… and poverty, usually with a side dish of stagnation and corruption.

There is a danger that we shall be dragged into a doomed replication of an experiment which has already been tried elsewhere with catastrophic results. The message of the 20th congress seems to be that “we have done wealth; now we can do socialism.” That is not, I fear, the way these things work.

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Tim Hamlett came to Hong Kong in 1980 to work for the Hong Kong Standard and has contributed to, or worked for, most of Hong Kong's English-language media outlets, notably as the editor of the Standard's award-winning investigative team, as a columnist in the SCMP and as a presenter of RTHK's Mediawatch. In 1988 he became a full-time journalism teacher. Since officially retiring nine years ago, he has concentrated on music, dance, blogging and a very time-consuming dog.