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Hong Kong, a house divided

Beijing’s hard line, a chilling bookseller mystery, and an unpopular chief executive make for an incendiary mix of ‘localism’ and confusion.

By STEPHEN VINES
Hong Kong, April 2016

Protestors decry Mainland involvement in the abduction of Hong Kong booksellers who were missing for months

Protestors decry Mainland involvement in the abduction of Hong Kong booksellers, some of whom later returned - mysteriously filled with patriotic fervour - to ask police to drop their 'missing persons' investigations. Mighty Current Media printed and distributed books banned in China, some with salacious details about the alleged love lives of top officials.

BECAUSE things have gone so wrong very few people now talk about the overriding objective of Deng Xiaoping’s ‘’one country two systems” project. It was originally conceived as a way to lure Taiwan back into the embrace of the Chinese motherland by demonstrating that in Hong Kong and Macau two systems could flourish within the one party state.

Nowadays not only do opponents of reunification frequently cite the dire examples of Hong Kong and Macau as reasons to keep Taiwan apart but even within Taiwan’s supposedly pro-Beijing Kuomintang the fate of the two other Special Administrative Regions has led to caution in advocating closer ties with the Mainland.

The reality is that tiny Macau has been swamped by Mainlanders, which has demoted local Macau residents to a minority. Moreover Macau seems incapable of escaping its seedy reputation for gambling, money laundering, prostitution and drug dealing. While it was always the plan to allow Macau to engage in many of these dubious activities so as to keep them out of the Mainland, what’s happened is that Macau became a magnet for the worst elements in Chinese society and can hardly be used as a model for Taiwan. Moreover its level of autonomy is so fast shrinking as to be something of a joke.

Stephen Vines

Stephen Vines


Seizing booksellers publishing books banned on the Mainland and whisking them across the border has sent a chill across Hong Kong among those who believed they were safe from China’s notorious midnight knocks

The situation in Hong Kong is more complex because of the existence of a far stronger civil society combined with a growing sense of local identity that makes the Hong Kong SAR stand apart from the rest of China.

It is becoming increasingly clear that the Chinese leadership has no real idea how to drum Hong Kong back into line. At times the hardline, that emanates from a very hard hardline on the Mainland, sees wild statements being pumped out by Chinese leaders and the state controlled media. Seizing booksellers publishing books banned on the Mainland and whisking them across the border has sent a chill across Hong Kong among those who believed they were safe from China’s notorious midnight knocks on the door. Parallel to this is the steady purge of political opponents in the universities, the dwindling of a free media, and, most worrying, frontal challenges to the rule of law.

Then, just when it was imagined that the hardline was the only line coming from Beijing, we occasionally saw the Beijing leadership demonstrating a more conciliatory attitude and talking as though they really believed in the two systems part of the one country formula. This is problematic for the position seekers and flag wavers in Hong Kong because although they are anxious to be seen echoing the line from Beijing, it sometimes takes them a while to realize that the line has changed.

These changes of stance usually occur in the wake of a massive act of defiance by Hong Kong people, as was seen when plans for new and draconian anti-subversion laws were abandoned and a scheme for more ‘patriotic’ education in schools was howled down. More recently Beijing stepped back after voters in a by-election delivered a comfortable majority to democrats even though both Beijing and the SAR government went to great lengths to paint the winners as rioters etc. It didn’t work and like all bullies this set of bullies retreated when faced with a challenge.

These fluctuations in the way that Beijing exercises control over Hong Kong have produced a high degree of confusion, anger, polarization and stalemate as Hong Kong society becomes more and more divided. 

The most compelling aspect of Hong Kong’s evolving political landscape is the unprecedented mobilization of young people that occurred last year with the Umbrella Movement demanding greater democracy. There is nothing new about young people getting involved in politics and indeed embracing more radical forms of protest but what happened in Hong Kong is new.

On the one hand the movement mobilized working class youth who ended up at the forefront of the more violent protests and in many ways are similar in class background to the young people who took part in the Communist-led demonstrations of the late 1960s. On the other hand is a large layer of educated middle class youth, who have more choices open to them but have chosen to get heavily engaged in politics.

A major part of the new politics in Hong Kong relates to the rise of the so-called localist movement, which, at its extreme end, contains advocates of Hong Kong independence. The popularity of this movement is explained by the backlash against increasing Mainland intervention in the SAR’s affairs. It is reinforced by a rather less edifying distaste for the growing influx of Mainland visitors who are accused of swamping certain areas and bringing an alien culture to the city.

Younger activists are spearheading this localist movement, which, notably, is also very concerned over cultural aspects of Hong Kong’s identity.

The emphasis on localism by the new arrivals on the scene has contributed to their distance from existing pro-democracy parties. The traditional democrats are not really sure how to respond to these young people and are searching for ways to work with them. This is not proving to be easy and all that is visible is an increasingly fragmenting democracy camp.

Their dilemma is that membership of the pro-government camp comes with numerous career opportunities and its members are torn between distancing themselves from Mr Leung, despite the backing he gets from Beijing, while trying to create a space for their own personal ambitions

However, and perhaps unexpectedly, the same thing is happening on the other side of the fence where parties and individuals considered to be stalwarts of the pro-government camp are busy distancing themselves from the highly unpopular Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying.

Their dilemma is that membership of the pro-government camp comes with numerous career opportunities and its members are torn between distancing themselves from Mr Leung, despite the backing he gets from Beijing, while trying to create a space for their own personal ambitions.

It would however be unfair to suggest that this is purely about jockeying for power as the splits on the pro-government side of the fence have other roots. For example, there are differences between old style rural area representatives who are desperate to protect their special privileges in the face of widespread unpopularity. Then there are the so-called moderates in the pro-government camp who really believe that there is a better way of integrating with the Mainland and detest Mr Leung for his inflexibility and refusal to enter into dialogue. There is also a strong personal element here because no one would accuse Hong Kong’s Chief Executive of being lovable.

Meanwhile life goes on, foreign observers who have experience of far more violent and disruptive struggles for democracy, often note how peaceful things are in Hong Kong. Even though the wealth gap is widening and the rich run most things that matter, there is some trickle down that keeps the 20 percent of the population living below the poverty level from starving.

Yet the temperature is definitely rising, protest rallies are becoming more violent; abuse on both sides of the divide is mounting. Even in the legislature there is continual disruption and fighting. The government has more or less abandoned dialogue with its opponents and increasingly suggests that there is no validity for any type of opposition.

Hong Kong is truly headed into uncharted waters because there is no other example of what happens to a relatively free society nestling in the midst of a one party state. Equally there is no blueprint for what happens when a former colony, with a high degree of liberty, is handed over to a one party state without the people of the colony having an opportunity to determine their fate.

Looming over all this are conditions in China itself with an increasingly authoritarian regime in which its leader Xi Jinping seems to be harking back to the dark days of Mao Zedong in terms of ruthless political control, while insisting that the development of capitalism in the economy must continue. This layers another level of contradiction on the many levels of contradiction that affect Hong Kong.

What looks increasingly likely is what most people fear, namely that confrontation will mount in Hong Kong, leaving few winners but many bloody noses.

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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Jill Lavergne (6 April, 2016) – UK
It is a real shame that Hong Kong is being cowed by China and freedoms are being steadily rolled back. The strength of the place has always been it's can-do attitude and almost piratical bent. I can't see that remaining for long.
Chan (6 April, 2016) – Singapore
Hongkong is part of China and it seems foolish to start talking of independence at this late stage. I am sure most people do not see this as a viable option. But what safeguards can HK have?
Robert Altman (6 April, 2016) – USA
The bookseller disappearances are frightening and it is hardly reassuring to see them return with a change of heart. As I understand it, one of them wanted to give up his UK passport! This all smacks of China's heavy handedness and Hong Kong citizens are right to be worried.

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