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Local Hong Kong breeze
buffeted by icy Beijing blast

As Beijing moved swiftly to rule on Hong Kong law and evict two cringingly clumsy 'localist' and independence-leaning Legislative Councillors, the Basic Law seemed almost a limp afterthought.

Hong Kong, November 2016

Sixtus Leung and Yau Wai-ching were evicted from Hong Kong's Legislative Council for demeaning the induction oath

Evicted from Legco: Sixtus 'Baggio' Leung (far right) and Yau Wai-ching (standing next to him) vow to continue their fight for 'Localism'.

HONG KONG, thank goodness, is not in a state of war or even civil war but both the local government and its masters in Beijing are showing an amazing appetite for confrontation and provocation.

As the twentieth anniversary of the establishment of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region approaches it is hard to know how this will pan out but we do know that the SAR government ‘s first plan unveiled to prepare for this event involved an order to purchase special armoured vehicles for policing the anniversary. They clearly are not anticipating unalloyed celebrations on 1 July 2017.

There are indeed good reasons for their caution as the temperature has been rising for some time, getting much hotter after last September’s elections for the legislature appear to have triggered some loudly ringing alarm bells in Beijing. Not only did the anti-government forces secure a comfortable majority of the popular vote but some 20 percent of voters opted for candidates expressing either localist or pro-independence views.

Stephen Vines

Stephen Vines

And towering above this carnage has been erosion of the rule of law, undermined by Beijing ‘interpreting’ the Basic Law to overrule local courts and by the local government actively seeking to use the law as a political weapon

The Chinese government has what might be described as an almost obsessive fear of what it calls ‘splitism’ because Chinese history is littered with examples of parts of the nation breaking away from central control. Today those threats are most apparent in Tibet and the North Western Xinjiang region, originally populated by a Muslim majority population. Now Hong Kong has been added to Beijing’s separatist worry list.

Even before the election began the local government found bureaucratic ways of screening out a number of candidates suspected of harbouring independence-minded views but in their wildest dreams they never imagined that those who slipped through the net would actually get elected.

In large part their success was due to a growing feeling of anger over successive challenges to the high level of autonomy promised to the people of Hong Kong prior to the handover of power in 1997. These promises were enshrined both in the Sino-British treaty that facilitated the handover and in the Basic Law, a carefully crafted document that is in effect a mini-constitution for Hong Kong under Chinese rule.

When it was drafted, during the 1980s and 1990s, Beijing went to great lengths to assure the people of Hong Kong that their way of life and existing institutions would be preserved. The dark shadow of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre was later to hang over this process and the Chinese leadership recognized that it needed to go that extra mile to provide reassurance of its best intentions.

Two decades on and memories of Tiananmen have faded, leadership changes have been affected in Beijing as indeed in Hong Kong, with the installation of Leung Chun-ying, as the Region’s chief executive. He has turned out be the most hardline and the most unpopular of the three men to have held this office to date.

Meanwhile the Central Government’s Liaison Office, situated in Western District, ironically close to the point on Hong Kong Island where the British flag was first raised to claim this place as a possession of Her Imperial Majesty, has become the most important power centre. Government ministers bustle backwards and forwards from meetings there, pro-government politicians vie to gain access to officials who are rarely shy in issuing instructions and, by the day, signs of Hong Kong’s crumbling autonomy are evident.

Universities and schools have become leading battlegrounds for weeding out dissidents and imposing new thinking. The once flourishing independent media is being squeezed to the extent that publishers can no longer get books locally printed if they are critical of the Chinese government. Newspapers and magazines have purged staff seen as being too critical, a purge that has proved to be even more thorough in most of the electronic media. And towering above this carnage has been erosion of the rule of law, undermined by Beijing ‘interpreting’ the Basic Law to overrule local courts and by the local government actively seeking to use the law as a political weapon.

In October 2016 two of the newly elected ‘localist’ legislators blundered into this volatile atmosphere with an act of blinding stupidity that gave the government the excuse it was waiting for to step up its confrontation with the opposition. Sixtus Leung and Yau Wai-ching of a group awkwardly named Youngspiration, stepped forward to take their oaths of office by ignoring the official wording and insisting that ‘Hong Kong is not China’, while using other words that were both insulting and included foul language to make their point.

The atheist leaders in Beijing must have been pinching themselves at what looked like Divine Intervention coming from these numbskulls, one of whom is named after a famous Pope.

Democrats were also appalled by their behaviour but their fury was nothing like the mounting hysteria mounted in the government, supporting press, and among ‘patriotic’ organizations that had been finding it difficult to mobilize support but could now do so with ease.

The timing also looked like a gift from heaven for the deeply unpopular CY Leung, who was mid-way through the process of trying to persuade Beijing to allow him to run for a second term in office. Taking everyone by surprise he personally attached his name to an application for a judicial review of the Legislative’s Council President’s decision to allow the two to retake their oaths. The action was designed to bar them from office.

Then came a thunderbolt from Beijing where the top echelon of its legislature happened to be meeting and declared that it had no patience to wait for the Hong Kong courts but would issue its own interpretation of the Basic Law to ensure that these legislators were barred from office. When the new ruling was handed down it became clear that this interpretation was far more widespread and had the potential to disqualify a wide range of government opponents from even standing for election, not to mention getting rid of others who were already elected.

One official mused that as many as 15 of the Legislative Council’s 70 members could be expelled. As night followed day, court action was rapidly initiated by local ‘patriots’ to give effect to this thought.

Beijing has never before so blatantly overruled the local legal system, and did so without regard to the Basic Law’s own provision that states interpretations of the law should only take place after the local judicial process has been exhausted.

The politicization of the police force, which is becoming more and more blatant, is also set to deepen, delivering yet another blow to one of Hong Kong’s cherished institutions that used to be known for upholding the law without fear or favour

A week after the interpretation, the High Court in Hong Kong produced its own ruling on the original application to bar the legislators. The court ruled in favour of the government and stated that the law as it stood provided the means to deprive these elected legislators of their seats.

As the local legal process had already been brushed aside, it mattered not what the court had to say on the matter. Government supporters hailed this decision as vindication for Beijing’s action but they are having difficulty explaining why there was any need for an interpretation of the law if existing statute was quite up to the job. Only by arguing that swift action from up North put pressure on the court to do its job according to the Chinese government’s wishes does any of this make sense. However that argument is not made because even the most avid flag waving patriots seem to appreciate that once Hong Kong’s judiciary is reduced to being a mere cypher for political dictates, the rule of law will have disappeared.

Maybe the grey men in Beijing don’t care about this anymore – they got what they wanted in this case and are in no mood to rest there. A lethal combination of a very hardline political stand by President Xi Jingpin in Beijing, that has curbed all manifestations of dissent on the Chinese Mainland, combined with a bitter local power struggle where contenders for the Hong Kong chief executive’s job are keen to demonstrate their enthusiasm for hardline action means that the confrontation with the democrats is set to deepen. Next up will be attempts to introduce draconian anti-subversion laws of a kind that were defeated by local protest back in 2003.

And there is more to come because the pro-government forces also want their supporters out on the streets, determined to keep the temperature as high as possible. Inevitably more members of the democratic camp will be hauled into the courts; a more severe clampdown on freedom of expression is also underway. The politicization of the police force, which is becoming more and more blatant, is also set to deepen, delivering yet another blow to one of Hong Kong’s cherished institutions that used to be known for upholding the law without fear or favour.

Even though many more moderate pro-government voices are well aware that the main casualty here is rule of law, they have fallen silent in the face of the onslaught. But as the independence of the judiciary and the scope of its powers is undermined there can be little doubt that Hong Kong’s status as an international business centre will be undermined because without the rule of law, there is no reason for business to be conducted in a jurisdiction that stood out in the region as a bastion of legal integrity.

Meanwhile the proceedings of the legislature itself have more or less ground to a halt. The pro-government camp is busying itself with the power struggle to select a new chief executive, which not only relates to the top job but has implications for the powers of patronage that determine how a host of other posts are filled.

Hong Kong’s beleaguered democrats seem unsure how to react to all this. They can still mobilise people on the streets and they retain a firm base of support. However the ferocity and rapidity of the action by the government camp and its supporters appears to have caught them unprepared. Instead of fostering greater unity among democrats the onslaught looks as though it has succeeded in fostering divisions.

Some of this is manifest in the wave of radical thinking that has emerged mainly but not exclusively among young people, with a strong appetite for confrontation. They despair of the ways of traditional democrats and are keen to act without them.

There is a potentially explosive combination here. If it catches fire Hong Kong will have moved towards a brink that no one was expecting, even a couple of years ago. This is a place where rule of law and peaceful protest has been cherished. Once this has been shattered, what exactly is the point of Hong Kong?

How will China benefit by having a cowed, resentful entity perched on its southern-most point? Moreover who will fill the vacuum vacated by an international business centre that has long served to bring China more fully into the global economy? Will the dictates of politics overrule these considerations?

Somehow or other Hong Kong has always managed to pull itself out of very challenging situations. Its ability to do so again should not be underestimated but neither should the magnitude of its current challenges be misunderstood.

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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William Bedford (22 November, 2016) – USA
I was visiting Hong Kong when the local election results were announced. It seemed a huge surprise all around. I have to say my colleagues and friends have been disappointed at the performance of these young candidates in not understanding the gravity of their role. I agree, this has opened Hong Kong up to all manner of China broadsides.
Peter Lam (22 November, 2016) – Hong Kong
These two candidates should have been thrown out long ago. Clearly they have no idea of the decorum [and dignity] of the Legislative Council – This comment has been edited

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