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July 22, 2014, by Editor

Redefining Hong Kong SAR

Written by Daniel Garrett.

While undeniably the most extensive authoritarian and arguably violent crackdown by the SAR government since  the Handover, the local regime’s actions on July 2nd are best understood at this early point as a case of “killing a few chickens” to dissuade participation in OCLP and to dispel demands for civil nomination of CE candidates.  As such, more oppressive political policing and united front measures by the Chinese and HKSAR governments are anticipated as they have failed to sufficiently intimidate or subdue Hongkongers. Broader arrests of key activists on the basis of new or past direct action infractions can be expected in an attempt to break the back of OCLP and the youth and radical democracy movements. Judicial imposition of harsher sentences on exemplar activists or the threat of stiff penalties under the umbrella of good behavior is a likely escalatory response by the regime as is the prosecutorial use of more serious criminal charges for minor offenses.

Allusions in official and mass media statements by various mainland and Hong Kong agents of social control to heavier punishments and more invasive SAR and Chinese interventions (such as the deployment of the PLA Hong Kong Garrison) will become more overt and less equivocal as the likelihood of OCLP action draws near. It cannot be excluded that the SAR government will take preemptive action against activists prior to the announcement of the government’s political reform proposals or any NPCSC decision or interpretation regarding civil nomination. Subsequent to the massive turnouts for the OCLP referendum and the July 1st march and the marginal police performance in clearing protesters from Charter Road, deployment of the PLA Hong Kong Garrison has become a more conceivable (albeit inadvisable) response by the central authorities who likely have little or no confidence in the SAR government forces’ ability to adequately respond to a full-scale OCLP action (10,000 participants) – or one that diverges from SAR security forces’ expectations. The consequences of such a deployment, however, are likely insufficiently appreciated insofar as the future governability, prosperity and stability of the HKSAR goes.

Likewise, given the current international drift towards a potential new Cold War between Washington and Beijing and the state of deteriorating US-Sino relations, substantial potential economic and geopolitical downsides exist for China. This is all the more plausible as demands in some sectors of the U.S. economy and national security sector to exclude China from the U.S. and global economy are already present in the context of alleged Chinese cyber espionage and trade practices. A heavy hand by Beijing in Hong Kong would give wider public legitimacy and political weight in the U.S. to those demands and political pressures, especially in the Congress.  Unlike 1989, today China is in the midst of a transformational change in its economy and its ability to weather widespread coordinated embargos and sanctions is likely more fragile than the early-1990s.  On a related, note, regardless of what occurs with OCLP, Hong Kong, as a site of strategic contest between the United States and China, is very likely to reassume its Cold War-era status as the Casablanca or Berlin of the East.

The massive turnout of support for both the OCLP referendum and the July 1st march and the notion of civil nomination for the selection of the CE in 2017 has given vivid evidence to the patriotic forces’ long proffered lie that Hongkongers are apathetic or unwilling to stand-up to Beijing to have ‘real universal suffrage.’ If one thing is clear from the last few weeks, it is that Hongkongers will not accept Beijing telling them that what is falling on their heads is rain.  They expect for Beijing to abide by the promise made to them three decades ago to be able to elect their own – not Beijing’s man or woman in Hong Kong – but their own Hongkonger to administer the SAR.  By their own Hongkonger they mean someone who shares their values and identity – not someone who is a communist or dismissive of the Hongkonger identity and culture. (Garrett, 2014b) And indeed, the Chinese authorities have a moral obligation to allow Hongkongers that right as they have acquiesced for decades to Beijing’s demands of gradual and orderly progress in Hong Kong’s political development.

It is clear that the Central Authorities perceive the actual situation in Hong Kong to be strongly anticommunist if not hostile to the ruling regime in Beijing – which it is, though this is not the same thing as desiring to overthrow the CCP. Even Deng Xiaoping said Hongkongers didn’t have to love the Party to be a patriot, they just couldn’t take action to overthrow the socialist system. Yet, allowing Hong Kong civil nomination is no threat to China’s national security as Beijing still holds the ultimate veto – per the HKSAR Basic Law – the power to refuse to sit a hostile CE that has been popularly elected. They can then appoint whoever they want even without holding another election – also per the Basic Law. This option may be politically unpalatable to execute, but they have it and should not be afraid to execute it. Likewise, Beijing can always remove a sitting CE if there be cause.

More importantly, however, is that Beijing’s current preference for political pre-screening, the so-called ‘patriot principle’ is ultimately problematic from both a Hong Kong/Western rule of law and OCTS perspective. And while the central authorities might be able to rectify the first with a National People’s Congress Standing Committee action, they cannot do so for the second issue. Arguably, this (two distinct but symbiotic systems) is the best and only yardstick by which to measure the implementation of universal suffrage rather than so-called international standards for suffrage or democracy which are insufficient to prevent authoritarian regimes’ manipulation (or, increasingly, even manipulation of democratic regimes.)

First, per the Basic Law all Hongkongers are created equal (Article 25) and can stand for election (Article 26) insofar as they meet stipulated, i.e., codified, demographic and residency requirement.  The Basic Law does not state candidates have to be patriotic and does not codify what a patriot is or how to make that assessment.  Moreover, as described elsewhere, the type of patriotism expected of Hongkongers under OCTS is distinct from that on the mainland (Garrett, 2012; Leng, 2009; Qiushi Editorial, 1990). At time of writing, the central authorities had yet to codify the “patriots ruling Hong Kong principle” identified by Deng Xiaoping in the early 1980s.  Nor have they codified what type of actions might disqualify a candidate from being considered ‘patriotic.’  This is despite reemphasizing the patriot principle formally to Hong Kong in 2004 during the SAR government’s Constitutional Development Task Force exercise between Beijing and the SAR government.

Second, and most importantly, any effort to politically pre-screen CE candidates from an election essentially means the central government is introducing China’s inner-party or grassroots democracy model utilized on the mainland. In other words, a system where CCP approved candidates are selected to run for ‘office’ and Beijing will accept any of them albeit they may have preferences for one or the other. In other words, China would be introducing the socialist system in Hong Kong for the selection of the CE in direct contravention of the OCTS concept. It would be “One Country, One System” – more along the lines of Special Economic Zone, not a Special Administrative Region.

Rather, to avoid this quandary Beijing has to be willing to save its powder and execute its ‘option’ to refuse to appoint a chief executive elect at the end of the electoral process if need be, not the beginning.  Beijing would then get what it wants anyway though at some political cost and Hongkongers, while not liking it, would be more likely to accept such an arrangement because it is in fact enshrined in the Basic Law. It would not be totally ‘fair’ as Hong Kong’s political system is a competitive authoritarian model, but it would be infinitesimally fairer than the one-party Hong Kong-style grassroots democratic model that is being shopped around now by pro-Beijing forces.

However, a successful solution in Hong Kong requires patience on the central authorities and SAR government’s part. If they escalate or carry through with a more extensive policing crackdown they will only succeed in turning Hong Kong into a democratic insurgency. Then, the basic desire of the central authorities – for Hong Kong not to be a problem for them – would be lost.

Daniel Garrett is a PhD. Candidate in the Department of Applied Social Studies at the City University of Hong Kong and CPI blog’s emerging scholar. He tweets @DanGarrett97. Part 1 of this essay was published on July 22nd. 

Posted in Emerging ScholarsHong KongLaw and JusticePolitics