Hong Kong’s ‘autonomy’ era is all but over, only halfway through
Dennis Kwok was a member of the Hong Kong Legislative Council from 2012 to 2020. He is now a senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, and a partner at Elliott Kwok Levine & Jaroslaw LLP in New York.
Anniversaries are important events in the Chinese Communist Party political calendar, and 2022 marks a big one for Hong Kong: the 25th anniversary of its 1997 handover from Britain to the People’s Republic of China. So on July 1, Chinese President Xi Jinping will come to the island to swear in the new chief executive, John Lee – the former senior police officer and security minister who was the lone candidate for Hong Kong’s top job.
The visit will mark the halfway point of 50 years of “a high degree of autonomy,” which China had promised in the Sino-British Joint Declaration, an international treaty registered with the United Nations. Yet Mr. Xi will be arriving to celebrate the “new” Hong Kong, where the CCP now has complete control over nearly every aspect of life.
From his perspective, this is part of a great achievement in his version of national rejuvenation. For ordinary Hong Kongers, however, things could not have gone worse since 2020, when Beijing directly imposed its draconian national security law.
With thousands of families moving in recent years to Britain, Canada and Australia, Hong Kongers now commonly greet each other on WhatsApp or Signal by asking: “Are you still in HK?” Some say the brain drain has been caused not only by the change in the political environment, but also by the “COVID-zero” policies and hard quarantine measures imposed by the Hong Kong government. But they are, in fact, one and the same.
In the old Hong Kong, with a free media and actual elections, public opinion still mattered. If the Hong Kong government insisted on pursuing unpopular and painful policies, it could be forced to take a different course by a combination of political pressure from the opposition, noise from the international business community, criticisms from the media and even complaints by the pro-Beijing camp, which might be wary of suffering defeat in the next election. That was the delicate equilibrium that kept Hong Kong going all these years, even though we did not have full democracy. That is now gone.
Chinese nationalism is rampant in Hong Kong now. Kids have to sing the national anthem at school every week, and any student who shows any sign of disrespect during that song could be reported to the national security bureau, leading to potential criminal prosecution under the national anthem law that would carry a maximum sentence of three years’ imprisonment. On National Security Education Day, elementary-school students get to learn about police tactics in countering terrorism and how to report their neighbours if they see any suspicious activities. An estimated 4,000 teachers have left the public-school system in this academic year. And Hong Kong authorities also announced that more national security laws targeting foreign espionage activities will be enacted this year, claiming that such activities are rampant in Hong Kong and must be strictly controlled.
China had signalled this years earlier. In 2017, Beijing had already announced its plan to integrate Hong Kong as part of its Greater Bay Area – which includes Macau and nine cities in Guangdong province – and that it exercised “comprehensive jurisdiction” over all Hong Kong affairs. Looking back, that may have been the true turning point for Hong Kong; the government’s efforts to pass a 2019 extradition bill, and the massive protests that followed, simply brought everything to the fore.
What is important to bear in mind is that what has happened in Hong Kong is only a symptom showing where China is heading. Xinjiang, Tibet, Taiwan, South China Sea, wolf-warrior diplomacy, the years-long detention of the two Michaels, “no limit” friendship with Russia and the trade sanctions on Australia are all part of the same authoritarian mindset.
And looking at the recent developments in China, it seems the CCP is preparing for a major “struggle” – a political term loved by Mr. Xi – with the West. China’s leadership saw the 2008 global financial crisis as a sign of fundamental weakness in the Western liberal democratic system. It saw that as an opening for the Chinese authoritarian system to try and outdo the “declining” West, and for Mr. Xi’s brand of nationalism to portray China as replacing it. Now, capital restrictions apparently aimed at money laundering – preventing withdrawals of more than 50,000 yuan (approximately $9,500) from a Chinese bank account without an explanation of how it will be used – will be keeping funds in China; severe COVID-19 lockdowns across China have taken away the freedom of millions of people to leave their homes, let alone their country.
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I now predict that the hard border between Hong Kong and the coastal cities in Guangdong will be gone in a few years’ time, and millions of mainlanders will be encouraged to fill the vacancies left by departed Hong Kongers. What was supposed to last for 50 years ended in less than half that time. That’s a lesson that should not be lost on the rest of the international community.
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