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Hong Kong yields to
“Western” influence

The governance of Hong Kong has slipped into a “two systems one master” format with Beijing increasingly calling the shots.

By STEPHEN VINES
Hong Kong, January 2013

Sunset over Hong Kong? Who runs the government? Beijing or the HK government?

Sunset over Hong Kong. Is the party over? Or is the Party just arriving? How Beijing calls the shots in Hong Kong. Photo: Vijay Verghese

IT WAS Oscar Wilde who famously wrote that, “to lose one parent… may be regarded as misfortunate; to lose both looks like carelessness”. Well, the same kind of thing can be said about the parade of hapless Hong Kong government leaders since the creation of the Special Administrative Region in 1997. The first had to be removed; the second was overwhelmed by scandal and disappointment; and the third has failed to even secure a honeymoon as the administration has vacillated between more scandal, ineptitude and staggeringly poor political judgment.

Unlike the subject of Oscar Wilde’s famous quote, who was orphaned in the play The Importance of Being Earnest, Hong Kong has passed from misfortune to carelessness to a state where, well, it remains unclear to what state exactly, but certainly one that has propelled hundreds of thousands of people onto the streets in protest as a dark cloud of uncertainty hangs over the territory.

How on earth did this happen in the remarkably short space of time since Leung Chung-ying was made Chief Executive on 1 July, 2012? He, after all, looked like a viable contender for the job, unlike his hapless election rival Henry Tang, whose main virtue seemed to be that he would not upset anybody.

Stephen Vines

Stephen Vines


Connoisseurs of the endless debate over whether history is formed by cock up or conspiracy will probably find that most of what’s happening is a cock up. Nevertheless, accusations of conspiracy abound. The dwindling band of Leung supporters mutter darkly about hidden hands

However, tolerance for Tang’s lack of ability was severely tested as one scandal after another rolled out, starting with marital infidelity, moving on to revelations of widespread flouting of the building laws in his palatial home and ending when he decided to make his wife take the blame for the illegal building works.

Leung, on the other hand, had not built his career like Tang – on the shoulders of a rich and well-connected father – but had made his own way in the world and had embraced the Chinese Communist Party from a young age. So it was hard to make charges of opportunism against him. There were also indications that having come up the hard way he had a better appreciation of what was going on below.

However he, too, became embroiled in a building scandal concerning his luxury home and his newly appointed ministers have been falling like nine pins in the midst of their own scandals, compounded by astoundingly inept ways of dealing with them and amidst an overwhelming sense of lack of direction and lack of common sense.

Connoisseurs of the endless debate over whether history is formed by cock up or conspiracy will probably find that most of what’s happening is a cock up. Nevertheless, accusations of conspiracy abound. The dwindling band of Leung supporters mutter darkly about hidden hands driving their man into the ditch and they inevitably manage to find a sinister foreign guiding hand here.

Meanwhile, and rather more plausibly, Leung’s opponents keep harping on about orders “from Western” – a reference to the Chinese government’s liaison office in Hong Kong’s Western District, which is believed to be directing everything from the selection of candidates for election to the appointment of officials. On one notorious occasion, the big boss over at Western took it upon himself to be the first official to comment on a fatal boating accident that occurred during celebrations for China’s National Day.

What some people call meddling, others describe as a supportive and cooperative relationship between Hong Kong’s regional government and the central authorities in Beijing. The problem is that, according to the mini-constitution drawn up for Hong Kong following its reversion to Chinese rule in 1997, the former British colony is supposed to enjoy a “high degree of autonomy”; clear parameters were laid down over where the local government was supposed to exercise its authority and where it was to be exercised by the centre.

Despite this, it took no time at all before the central authorities started to impose their will on all manner of internal matters. In the recent election for legislators, it was evident that the hand of Western was directing not only the selection of candidates but the funnelling of resources to support those who were chosen.

It is not clear whether the level of intervention by the central authorities emanates from the controlling tendencies, which typify the way that one party states operate, or whether it was prompted by Hong Kong’s first Chief Executive Tung Chee-wah, who seemed to feel that no decision was too small to be referred to his masters in Beijing. It is however being more widely suggested that the intervention is more a result of the inadequacies in the way that the Hong Kong government is handling things, forcing Beijing to impose controls that it might otherwise have preferred not to exercise.

Whatever the truth of the matter – and the most likely explanation is that there is a mixture of all three factors – the net result has been that Hong Kong is facing control on its internal affairs by officials in Beijing with limited local knowledge and only the dimmest of ideas as to how to make a free wheeling place like Hong Kong work.

Thus, certain cornerstones of Hong Kong’s strength are put into question, starting with undermining the independence of the judiciary; moving on to a new mood of intolerance towards dissident voices in the legislature, where pro-democracy legislators are largely ignored; and, of course, the media, where access to government is narrowing by the day. The police, who previously made strenuous attempts to stay outside the political arena, have now been politicised as frontline troops are ordered to crack down more severely on demonstrators, while the bosses issue a flow of statements aimed at convincing the public of the small size of these protests. And there is a growing official tendency to demand that Hong Kong be more like the Chinese mainland, which cuts severely into the advantages that arose from retaining the distinctiveness of these two entities.

Many of the organizers and participants were articulate school students, joined by parents who were
new to political activism. As they poured onto the streets it became
clear that they had support from an overwhelming majority of the population

Matters came to a head with a plan to introduce the so-called national education programme into schools. This curriculum was drawn up by pro-Communist educators who appear to believe that Hong Kong children need indoctrination to become more patriotic and supportive of the one-party system that prevails across the border.

Although it took a while for the implications of this new compulsory curriculum to sink in, when it did, mass protests erupted. Both the government and opposition forces were taken by surprise when they saw the size of these protests, and their organization by people outside the main political parties.

Many of the organizers and participants were articulate school students, joined by parents who were new to political activism. As they poured onto the streets it became clear that they had support from an overwhelming majority of the population and the government was forced to withdraw the plan, albeit with a face-saving promise to merely put it on hold for further consultation.

The defeat of this proposal mirrors an equally successful mass mobilization a decade before, when the Tung administration tried to impose a rather draconian version of anti-subversion legislation on Hong Kong. This plan was thwarted on the streets as hundreds of thousands of protestors were mobilized, and left in their wake the formation of at least one new political party – the Civic Party - alongside a host of newly politicised citizens.

Since then, there have been effective protests over environmental issues, housing and social welfare issues and, so it seems, more or less everything else. The government is alarmed and is unlikely to appreciate that the coalescing of public support for these campaigns marks the emergence of a much stronger and more influential network of civil society organizations.

As matters stand many of them have little more than an ad hoc structure. Some of these organizations burst into life and then fizzle away but they are quickly emerging as a potent force. One indication of this is that even stalwart government supporters have felt the need to mirror the example set by the protestors and establish front organizations resembling those of the civil society activists. Take, for example, a new anti-Falun Gong campaign aimed at a hyperactive messianic religious group that is deeply disliked in Beijing. More comically a local TV station, struggling to retain the current terrestrial broadcasting duopoly, staged a fake “public” demonstration, which it presumably thought would look like those staged by real protestors. The bottom line here is that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

Old political hands are scratching their heads trying to work out how all this has happened and, no doubt, trying to figure out how to muscle in. Whether these organizations will be taken over remains to be seen, but as the government gets more unpopular and is seen as increasingly incompetent, these organizations are growing while the traditional opposition is sidelined.

The journalist and historian Anne Applebaum noted in a recent book that the countries of the former Soviet-dominated Eastern Bloc that have been most successful in the post-Soviet period, are those where civil society organizations were most developed. This observation has important implications for Hong Kong, which is not about to split apart from the rest of China, but is building a structure that will serve it well as one-party domination of the nation is increasingly undermined.

This optimistic interpretation of events in Hong Kong is not much discussed nor indeed is enough thought being given to the wider implications of what is happening in a society where respect for government declines in almost equal proportion to the growing strength of these civil society groupings.

It is not possible to be precise about where all this is heading, but those who despair over what appears to be a growing lack of direction need to remember that the bad news comes with the good. There is an important proviso here, because it cannot be assumed that all civil society organizations are a force for good; single-issue groups can and do focus on narrow self-interested causes while, as we have seen elsewhere, some morph in dangerous ways, as has been seen in Europe with the growth of fascist groups as the economic crisis worsens.

Hong Kong is more in transition now than at any time since the reversion to Chinese rule. The jury is out on how all this will pan out, but it has given rise to a host of possibilities in a society that used to be famous for its lack of politicisation.


Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong based journalist, writer and businessman. He is the presenter of a weekly current affairs television programme – The Pulse – broadcast in HK and is a commentator with newspapers and a number of international radio and TV stations. Vines was the Deputy Business Editor of The Observer and has worked for the The Guardian, The Independent, The Daily Telegraph and the New York-based Daily Deal. He is the author of a number of books including Hong Kong: China’s New Colony and a study of the Asian financial crisis called The Years of Living Dangerously. His latest book, Market Panic was republished in 2008. Stephen Vines was the founding Chief Editor of Eastern Express, a mould-breaking daily newspaper published in Hong Kong. He was also a founder and publisher of the satirical Spike magazine.

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Bowen C. Chow (3 June, 2013) – Hong Kong
I prefer not to predict what will happen in Hong Kong because the future has not been written. (This is paraphrased from one of the Terminator movies, but is none the worse for that.) In any case, the push for genuine democracy in Hong Kong is inevitable because first, the people of Hong Kong need to preserve their freedoms and secondly, many of them think it is their duty (some would even say it is their historic destiny, if one looks back upon Hong Kong's relationship with China in the last hundred and thirty years) to prompt, prod and assist in the modernization of China. Morally as well as simply out of practical necessity, there might be no alternative.
Ranjan Pal (15 April, 2013) – India
I left Hong Kong to return to India in 1997 coincidentally around the same time as the Great Handover. It is sad to see the aspirations of its people trampled upon, blatantly sullied or just plain ignored. But then again we all knew that it was playing with a lousy hand of cards..........a game that China would never let it win. Sad also to see that people of the stature of Martin Lee and Christine Loh have faded away leaving few who can fill their shoes in terms of their charisma or their commitment to democratic ideals
CY LAM (9 February, 2013) – HK
The HK government has no plans to hold free and fair elections for the chief executive. This is plain to see. This is what Beijing wants.
peter lok (5 February, 2013) – singapore
democratic voice is the right of all people in any country. hongkong is not different. it will succeed only if people are allowed to vote and join in the process of administration and government.
Greg Stoner (30 January, 2013) – USA
It is extremely laudable to push for greater freedoms in Hong Kong but the simple truth is the place has reverted to China and the Chinese will call the shots. Whether it is possible to minimize the damage, is the question. I have visited Hong Kong on numerous occasions and enjoy the energy and pace of this city. I hope it continues at a gallop.

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