China is not only denying the residents of Hong Kong the ability to elect their leader through universal suffrage. Several promises made before handover from the UK have already been broken, highlighting the risks of making political deals with the Chinese government.
Hong Kong was never a democracy under British rule. Nevertheless, when it was handed over to China in 1997, the city boasted some of Asia’s best universities, an effective administration with minimal corruption, a judicial independence almost unheard of in the region, and freedom of assembly as well as speech and the press. Those features made Hong Kong “Asia’s world city” and were also further guaranteed by the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini constitution since 1997. The law also states that the Chief Executive should, eventually, be elected by universal suffrage.
But recent developments show that democracy and free and fair elections are no longer to be expected in the former British colony. In the election for a new Chief Executive later this year, for example, all the candidates will first need to be approved by Beijing. And since 1997, the democratic nature of Hong Kong has, by and large, been on the retreat.
When thousands of people took to the streets in the fall of 2014, Hong Kong’s current Chief Executive, Leung Chun-ying, told protesters from the Occupy movement to return home and instead try to make a political difference by democratic means in the upcoming legislative elections. But just before the elections in the fall of 2015, several candidates were banned from participating.
The deteriorating state of academic freedom could also been seen during the elections, as Leung warned the city’s university staff that they might lose their jobs if they allowed their students to discuss the issue of independence from China, even if they did so outside the classroom.
That same fall, my alma mater, the University of Hong Kong (HKU), was about to elect a new pro-vice-chancellor in charge of staffing and resources. Law professor Johannes Chan was recommended by the selection committee in charge of appointing nominees, and also had wide support from the students.
Unfortunately for Chan, he was out of favor with the political elite in Hong Kong and Beijing, due to his vast research on human rights and his support for students participating in the Occupy movement.
And since a majority of the members of HKU’s Council hold a pro-Beijing view on many issues, the Council consequently voted against Chan’s appointment as pro-vice-chancellor. In his role as Chief Executive, Leung is also head of Hong Kong’s eight public universities, and personally appoints six of the 21 members of the HKU Council. (In fact, only a third of its members are university staff or students.)
Just after this happened I visited HKU, where an associate professor at the Journalism and Media Studies Centre told me that the head of the government was also always the head of the city’s universities — a position that, before 1997, was held by the British governor.
But the associate professor also told me that in the past, this was a mere ceremonial role. Leung is the first head of government to use his position to exercise his rule over the Councils, primarily by appointing political allies to key positions at several universities, and effectively blocking appointments of democracy advocates like Johannes Chan.
And it was not only Leung influencing the outcome in the Chan case. The Chinese Liaison Office also pressured members of the Council to vote against Chan, and Vice Chancellor Peter Mathieson also revealed that his e-mail account had been hacked and the contents published by pro-Beijing media in Hong Kong.
Ip Kin-yuen, director of the HKU Alumni Concern Group, branded the affair as the most regrettable in the 100-plus-year history of HKU, as well as the end of academic freedom in Hong Kong. Arguably even more regrettable, the same tendency can be seen in Hong Kong’s elementary schools.
When Leung assumed the position of Chief Executive in the summer of 2012, his government revealed plans to introduce compulsory “Moral and National Education” classes in school. The teaching material would convey the Chinese Communist Party’s views on history and underline the positive aspects of one-party rule.
The plan was shelved only after tens of thousands of protesters showed up in front of the government buildings for several weeks, some even starting a hunger strike. The protest was initially headed by teachers and parents expressing their worries over “brainwashing.”
After the Occupy movement was forced off the streets, new cries were being heard from Beijing. Influential former diplomat Chen Zuo’er in January 2015 warned that “poisonous grass” was seeping through the education system in its current form. A Chinese law professor also encouraged not only mandatory patriotic education in Hong Kong’s elementary schools, but also classes in “de-colonization.”
When I was studying journalism at HKU in 2009, the Times Higher Education ranked the university 21st in the world. But this year, HKU is 43rd in the same ranking, partly a consequence of increasing Chinese influence.
In the fall of 2015, the Times Higher Education also published an article with the headline “Unsafe harbour? Academic freedom in Hong Kong,” warning that increasing attacks on liberal minded university staff in local pro-Beijing media might make professors more reluctant to work in the city.
In the fall of 2015 I was also talking to a professor at HKU’s Faculty of Law, where Johannes Chan is teaching. The professor said his faculty often was in the “eye of the storm,” as the students were taught how to interpret the Basic Law rather than focusing on Chinese law, as is already the case in Hong Kong’s other public universities.
Widespread worries over diminishing judicial independence were manifested in the summer of 2014, when 1,800 lawyers, legal scholars and law students wearing black marched in silence through the central parts of Hong Kong. The protest came after Chinese authorities issued a white paper demanding everyone in the Hong Kong administration — including judges — to be “patriotic,” and asserting Beijing’s “comprehensive jurisdiction” over the city.
The protest was the third public display by legal professionals in support of the judiciary since 1997. A fourth one was held in November last year, when about 1,000 lawyers, again silent and wearing black, took to the streets after China effectively banned two elected pro-independence lawmakers from taking their seat in the city’s legislature.
The decision was made after the National People’s Congress Standing Committee in China issued its “own interpretation” of the Basic Law that dictated the ruling against the lawmakers in the Hong Kong court. “Beijing’s intervention in this case may cause long-term damage to Hong Kong’s judicial independence,” commented Sophie Richardson, China director for Human Rights Watch.
During the Occupy movement, I was in Hong Kong reporting and interviewed a local hedge fund manager behind a group called “Finance and Banking Professionals in Support of Occupy Central.” He told me a growing share of the people in the city’s financial sector were also CCP, using personal contacts to establish companies or acquire capital.
He was talking about “red capital” — money from mainland China essentially being laundered in Hong Kong, mainly on the property market where prices have more than tripled in the past decade. The steady inflow of Chinese capital, said the hedge fund manager, was the biggest factor for increasing real estate prices and widening income gaps, and is also likely to scare off other foreign investors from the city.
Furthermore, he said that the Chinese presence had also resulted in increasing corruption and decreasing transparency in the financial sector. Hong Kong’s four big families in particular, which control a large share of the local economy, have grown richer following the price hike for land and property. Suspicions of an unholy alliance between the CCP and Hong Kong’s business elite was fuelled by the fact that President Xi Jinping, in the midst of the Occupy protests, invited 70 of the city’s most powerful tycoons for a closed-door meeting in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.
Suspicions of an unholy alliance between the CCP and Hong Kong’s business elite was fuelled by the fact that President Xi Jinping, in the midst of the Occupy protests, invited 70 of the city’s most powerful tycoons for a closed-door meeting in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.
In an opinion piece in October last year, the South China Morning Post warned about turbulence in the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), established during British rule, but whose commissioner since 1997 has been appointed directly by China’s State Council. One of its top investigators, known for being ruthless in her investigations, was removed from her post amid speculation that she was pressured in an ongoing investigation against Chief Executive Leung’s past business dealings.
“With an increasing integration between Hong Kong and mainland China, can the ICAC continue going after anyone at any time without stepping on the wrong toes?” the newspaper asked, giving more examples that this “once-hallowed pillar of Hong Kong” was starting to buckle under political pressure.
“Today Hong Kong, tomorrow Taiwan” was a commonly used phrase in Taiwan as the Occupy protests in Hong Kong were being suppressed. The recent debacle with mob violence against Hong Kong politicians at Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport last month shows that Chinese influence and methods have also been spreading to Taiwan.
For anyone in Taiwan still believing in political compromises with China in order to spur the local economy, the development in Hong Kong should serve as an example that this is not possible without giving up a considerable amount of freedom. Give the CCP an inch, and it will take a mile.
This couldn’t be more obvious than as stated in a white paper issued by China’s State Council in the summer of 2014 that reneged on its pledge of “one country, two systems,” a concept that has also been offered to Taiwan. Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy, said the paper, is not a decentralized power, but “the power to run affairs as authorized by the central leadership.”