Zehner: The Prodigal Son

Hong Kong is coming home, whether it likes it or not.

by Callum Zehner | 9/25/18 2:00am

Bickering between China and Hong Kong has surfaced, once again, in international news coverage. But this time, something as seemingly-innocuous as a new train link has triggered outcry from concerned Hong Kongers. However, they are justifiably angry; the train link is merely the latest attempt by China to erode the civil liberties guaranteed to Hong Kong after the British departure in 1997, and to ensure that the Special Administrative Region is chained to the mainland. It is becoming increasingly apparent that China has an overarching plan to erode the features of the “one country, two systems” model, and to unite the region with the rest of China.

Typically, the completion of a high-speed rail link would be classed as a positive outcome — and certainly the central Chinese government views it this way — but for Hong Kong it marks yet another breach of its sovereignty. The new bullet train, connecting the SAR to the city of Guangzhou, comes with an imposition of Chinese law attached, albeit limited. This means that mainland Chinese officials will operate inside of the train station in Hong Kong and on the trains themselves. This is an important setback, as it marks the first time Chinese criminal law has been imposed on Hong Kong territory, in defiance of the Basic Law, the SAR’s constitution-of-sorts. Although officials on both sides claim that the incident is an isolated one, it is clear that this rollback of Hong Kong’s judicial independence has been ongoing.

China has a history of meddling in Hong Kong’s democratic process. Although the PRC guaranteed that Hong Kong would eventually enjoy “universal suffrage” in territorial elections, this has not yet come to pass — and few have bated breath. On the contrary, China has been removing many of the democratic cornerstones that distinguished the SAR from the mainland. As an example, the Hong Kong Nationalist Party, formed in 2016, is in the process of being banned outright. The party, which explicitly calls for the full independence of Hong Kong, is being banned on the grounds of the Social Ordinances, colonial-era laws that allow the government to ban any society which threatens national security or public safety. A dangerous precedent will be set if a party that has done nothing except advance pro-democracy causes is banned for threatening national security. In addition, China has overseen the barring of candidates for the Hong Kong Legislative Council solely based on their pro-autonomy positions and expelled members from the council who swore their oaths to China incorrectly.  

But the mainland has also intervened on a more fundamental level, heavily influencing the elections of the Chief Executive, the highest authority in the SAR. In 2017, during the last election, two pro-China candidates for the position were instructed by Chinese officials to drop out of the race so as to not dilute the pro-establishment vote. 

Beijing has also blatantly disregarded Hong Kong’s institutions and civil liberties. Upon decolonization, the SAR was allowed to field its own immigration officers and police, among other things, but the Chinese central government has circumvented the region’s authorities in the past to carry out its own will. This was made evident in the abduction of five booksellers from the city in 2015, likely for the sale of books detailing the unsavory aspects of the mainland government. The widely-publicized event not only elucidated the fact that Hong Kong is not allowed to police its own territory, it has also contributed to an atmosphere where political books are quickly disappearing from bookstores. Increased surveillance at customs has pushed mainland Chinese tourists, the largest consumers of political books in Hong Kong, to stop buying. Fear is also driving printers to axe political books and bookshops to stop stocking controversial material. China’s intrusions are making it clear to Hong Kongers that the PRC’s jurisdiction extends over their city, that dissenting against the central government will elicit the same consequences as for mainland citizens. By kidnapping booksellers, Beijing is eliminating the freedom of speech enshrined in the Basic Law and ensuring that Hong Kongers lack the confidence to exercise their freedoms. 

As a final, grand step, China is physically binding Hong Kong to the greater Pearl River Delta urban area. A 55 kilometer-long bridge is being built to connect Macau and Hong Kong, the two former European colonies, to the coastal city of Zhuhai, and is merely an expensive attempt to project national unity. Also included in the wider plan is the intention to weld Hong Kong to the “Greater Bay Area,” so as to bind Shenzhen’s industry to the capital markets of the SAR. Both for show and function, the “Greater Bay Area” creates a mutual dependence among the cities of the Delta that makes it particularly difficult for Hong Kong to go its own way.

It is clear that China has grand plans. The current Chinese administration, under President Xi Jinping, is fixated on the ideal of national unity and determined to eliminate any traces of separatist sentiment. Although 2047 is the year that, under the terms of the Sino-British Joint Declaration, Chinese rule will resume over the SAR, mainland China is determined to secure the obedience of Hong Kong beforehand. The Umbrella Movement of 2014, in support of democracy, has only heightened Beijing’s desire to rein in Hong Kong’s autonomy. Assaults on the democratic process, judicial independence and freedom of speech have been used to this end. But China may ultimately be shooting itself in the foot. If it continues to shape Hong Kong to fit the Chinese mold, it may find that the citizens of the SAR quickly start to see themselves as less Chinese and more Hong Konger. This may turn out to be dangerous.