China’s promise of autonomy for Hong Kong is ringing hollow – from the Economist
The lugubrious Leung Chun-ying, Hong Kong’s chief executive, was never the man to cheer you up. This was a handicap as he made his fourth annual policy address to the Legislative Council (Legco) this week. The mood in the chamber and the territory as a whole was sour. Business frets about the slowdown in China. Political life remains scarred by the failure of the pro-democracy “umbrella” movement of 2014. To protests, Mr Leung plodded through a speech on economic issues, with a special emphasis on China’s regional plans. He did not even try to allay rekindled fears that Hong Kong’s freedoms are in jeopardy.
Looked at in a certain light, such fears can seem overblown. Hong Kong still debates politics with no holds barred. Groups banned elsewhere in China freely proselytise. And any perceived encroachment on the territory’s freedoms provokes loud protests. Yet the alleged abduction since October of five Hong Kong residents by the Chinese authorities has cast a dark shadow. Three vanished in mainland China and one in Thailand. The disappearance on December 30th of the fifth man, Lee Bo, has caused particular alarm. He appears to have been snatched from Hong Kong itself and spirited across the border to the mainland, without his travel documents or any record of his leaving. His fate remains unknown. Like the other four, he was associated with a publisher and bookshop specialising in one of Hong Kong’s more esoteric niche businesses: scurrilous tales of intrigue, infighting, corruption and sex among China’s Communist leaders. A forthcoming title purports to uncover the love life of President Xi Jinping. Many have assumed that the Communist Party’s displeasure with the firm’s output explains the mysterious disappearances. China has not denied it.
The implications would be grim. Under the Joint Declaration of 1984 with Britain over Hong Kong’s future, China promised that “one country, two systems” would apply after China resumed sovereignty over the territory: ie, that Hong Kong would enjoy autonomy in all but its defence and foreign relations. Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law, guarantees among other things freedom of speech and judicial independence. The suggestion that Hong Kong’s people, should they displease the sovereign master, might simply be kidnapped makes a nonsense of this.
A torrent of outrage has gushed from China’s usual critics in Hong Kong: Martin Lee, a veteran barrister, legislator and pro-democracy campaigner, called the apparent kidnapping “the most worrying thing” to have happened in Hong Kong since British rule ended in 1997. Even the Communist Party’s loyalists in Hong Kong are at a loss. The local government usually sees its role as justifying the central authorities’ ways to Hong Kong, rather than the other way round. Yet this week the justice secretary, Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung, called the fears the incident had evoked “totally understandable”. Legco’s president, Jasper Tsang Yok-sing, founding chairman of the biggest pro-Communist party, insisted that China should reassure Hong Kong about its autonomy. And many businessmen, even those who usually advocate placating the central government in the interests of political stability, think that extrajudicial rendition would cross a red line.
China also faces international scrutiny. Britain, hoping to position itself as China’s best friend in Europe, did little to show support for the pro-democracy protesters in 2014. But the missing Mr Lee holds a British passport, and Philip Hammond, Britain’s foreign secretary, has said that his abduction to the mainland would be an “egregious breach” of the Joint Declaration. Gui Minhai, who vanished in Thailand, is a Swedish citizen; the European Union has called the events “extremely worrying”. They were also widely watched in Taiwan. China hopes that island will also eventually accept Chinese sovereignty under the promise of “one country, two systems”, but Taiwan is likely on January 16th to elect an independence-leaning president.
Since the disappearances look disastrous for China’s image, many in Hong Kong believe that they cannot have been a deliberate policy by the central leadership. They speculate that lower-level officials overstepped the mark, or even that Communist Party factions hostile to Mr Xi are trying to embarrass him. China is left with a headache. It will have to cook up some plausible-sounding explanation for the mystery and coax, cajole or coerce the missing men into playing along. That, the theory goes, explains the prolonged silence.
For pessimists, however, the snatching of Mr Lee is just the most outrageous instance of the mainland’s increasing interference in Hong Kong. They see other examples, including the purchase of the South China Morning Post, Hong Kong’s main English-language newspaper, by Alibaba, China’s e-commerce goliath; and the decision by Mr Leung to appoint a pro-government ally to chair Hong Kong University’s governing council, rather than the university’s own nominee.
Pessimists also point out that China has wielded enormous influence in Hong Kong since long before 1997. Bizarrely, though, the Communist Party is even now an underground organisation there. The secrecy may encourage subterfuge, rumour-mongering and even lawlessness. Some officials may well sanction illegal snatch-squads, to show that Hong Kong’s autonomy does not extend to anti-party activity. That this also proves the emptiness of the “one country, two systems” promise would be a small price to pay. Presumably having nothing useful to say on the issue, Mr Leung ignored it in his speech. A legislator from the pro-democracy camp, Lee Cheuk-yan, was expelled from the chamber for interrupting him to demand information about the Lee Bo case. Later he accused the chief executive of trying “to turn Hong Kong into the mainland”. Nearly two decades after its reversion to China, few in Hong Kong want that.