Beijing is threatening the future of its golden goose
By Jonathan Fenby
If troops go to deal with Hong Kong protests it could get out of control, says Jonathan Fenby
At the end
of the last century, as Indonesia held its democratic presidential
election following the fall of the Suharto dictatorship, a colleague at
Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post asked me plaintively: “Why can
those Indonesians choose their ruler and we cannot?” It is a question
that takes on a special resonance as the former colony bridles at the
price of its history.
The transfer to Chinese
sovereignty 17 years ago last week was calm as Beijing treated its new
golden goose with caution and pursued the policy of “one country, two
systems”. But there was always a central misunderstanding. Hong Kong people (and the outgoing British) stressed the second part of the formula advanced by the late paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping,
as a guarantee that their way of life would continue for the 50 years
laid down in the handover agreement. But, for Beijing, the first two
words counted for more.Hong Kong was now Chinese and, in Beijing’s eyes,
it had signed up in the Joint Declaration of 1984 to take over Hong
Kong as it was when Britain had ruled it as a colony, with no thought of
extending democratic rights to its residents.
But many of those 7m people thought that, as inhabitants of an advanced,
law-abiding city, they were entitled to exercise democratic rights. They
grew resentful at the way central authorities sought to exercise
control of the Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) of Hong Kong
through three ineffective chief executives selected by a small circle of
electors approved by Beijing. That resentment deepened by the
prospect of the next choice of chief executive in 2017, with a wider
franchise, still being controlled from the centre by the stipulation
that only candidates who “love China” be allowed to stand.
The publication of a White Paper
in Beijing last month raised the temperature significantly by stating
that China’s central government had “comprehensive jurisdiction” over
local administrations and that “the high degree of autonomy of the HKSAR
is not full autonomy nor decentralised power” but only “the power to
run local affairs as authorised by the central leadership”. There was particular concern at the assertion in the 14,500-word document that judges should be “patriotic”.
The strength of feeling was
shown when nearly 800,000 people voted in an unofficial online poll for a
democratic system for selection of the next chief executive. More than 100,000 joined a rally
to call for democracy. Further protests are planned. Beijing criticised
“outside forces” for interfering in Hong Kong’s affairs after the
British and US consuls-general spoke about democracy. Business is
worried at the effect of the protests on its links with the mainland.
The big four global accounting firms ran a joint advertisement in local newspapers opposing the democracy movement.
Ming Pao, a Chinese-language HKSAR newspaper,worried that the “one
country, two systems” concept had become an “empty shell”with Hong Kong
likely to turn into an “ordinary Chinese city”.
That is the underlying concern.
Hong Kong regards itself as different. Polls show most residents think
of themselves as“Hong Kong Chinese” rather than simply “Chinese”. They
believe that the handover arrangements give them the right to make their
opinions known. The fact that Beijing reacts in such a hostile fashion
is bound to increase their frustration. This also
constitutes a tricky issue for the UK government given its
responsibilities for preserving the Hong Kong system at a time when it
is trying to nurture commercial relations with Beijing.
Why the Chinese leadership under
Xi Jinping decided to set out its stall so emphatically in the White
Paper is, as with so much in the People’s Republic, not clear. It may be
simply the result of Mr Xi’s muscular governing style. The danger is that Beijing may now go too far in asserting the primacy of “one country”. If,
for instance, its People’s Liberation Army troops stationed in Hong
Kong were sent out to deal with swelling protests in Central, as has
been suggested, the stakes could spiral out of control.
years, China and the HKSAR (and London) have maintained the status quo,
but the tide of events poses a risk of over-action and reaction that
would imperil the golden goose and the values it embodies.
The writer edited the South China Morning Post from 1995 to 1999