Beijing and Hong Kong, a tie falling apart

Political control intensifies, Psychological alienation grows—a commentary on the relationship between Beijing and Hong Kong
By He Qinglian on April 5, 2012
[Read original article in Chinese]

If the relationship between the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and Beijing were to be presented in a graph, an image bearing little resemblance to Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang would emerge. While Taiwan's relations with Beijing changes from being a pair of parallel lines without intersection to two strings that have become entwined, an “intimacy” that the island feels happy about for now; Tibet and Xinjiang are originally “integral parts” of China where the dwindling authority of the central government has to be maintained with forcible measures; as for Hong Kong, the city has become politically and economically inseparable from mainland China, the people's grievances can be heard everywhere, and the sense of alienation is strengthening by the day.

One, The suspicions over Leung Chun-ying's identity and the sense of helplessness of the Hong Kong people
Leung Chun-ying was elected as the new Chief Executive with “three-lows”: low votes, low popularity, and low cohesiveness. Superficially, the Hong Kong people were forced to make a difficult choice between “election failure” and to pick one between two rotten potatoes, their questions concentrated on the personality of the elected. Media in mainland China also expressed their dissatisfaction with this election; however, they sidestepped the underlying issue that the Hong Kong people felt doubtful about: Leung Chun-ying's identity as a covert CPC member.

Is Leung Chun-ying an underground member of the CPC or not? Leung made repeated denials when he was still running for chief executive. However, the People's Daily website sowed further seeds of doubt by referring to Leung as a “comrade” in its “personnel” section. After comparison, netizens pointed out that other prominent political figures in Hong Kong and Macao, including former Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, who is currently in office, and Fernando Chui Sai On, Macao Chief Executive today, have never been addressed as “comrades”. The People's Daily website removed the word  after it attracted attention from netizens.

Upon a closer look, one would find that while the Hong Kong people do not like Leung Chun-ying's identity as a CPC underground member, they have no desire to look deep into it either. This self-contradictory attitude reflects in a way the mixed feelings the Hong Kong people have for Beijing: they do not like Beijing to interfere too much into Hong Kong's internal affairs through organs stationed in the city, and yet they are fully aware that without Beijing's blessing, no one could obtain the city's top post. This attitude took shape ever since Hong Kong was handed over to China in 1997. The several subsequent Chief Executive elections were held within this framework. The only thing that set this election apart from the past several ones was the repeated exposure of scandals, the goal of selecting a Chief Executive who has Beijing's blessings remained more or less the same.

And so why was this election the only one to become filled with hostility and scandals? Although Leung enjoyed a fairly good reputation before the election, the Chief Executive-elect has brought an unprecedented sense of pessimism upon the Hong Kong people, who think that his rise to power signifies that “political and economic turmoils in Hong Kong have only just begun”.

To make sense of this, the discussion has to start with the larger context. What the Hong Kong people feel dissatisfied with Beijing are the following:
1) the Hong Kong people find the space for survival to be inadequate. With more and more mainland Chinese moved to Hong Kong, and the number of pregnant mainland women giving birth in the city has also been on the increase, they feel that their survival resources have been encroached upon.
2) Beijing is tightening its control over Hong Kong, and the city's freedom of speech is disappearing;
3) Beijing is stepping up its interference in Hong Kong's politics and economy, incidents that would not have taken place under the British rule—such as citizens being arrested for taking part in demonstrations—occurred. In 2008, over seventy people were detained for their participation in protests; in 2011, nineteen councilors and citizens who took part in July-first demonstration were apprehended by the police force on the charge of illegal assembly.

Two, Beijing's control over Hong Kong centered on Economy
Following the eruption of Asian financial crisis in 1998, a delicate change between the economic relations of Hong Kong and mainland China occurred. In the past, foreign investment in mainland China were mostly Hong Kong-based, and the country's trade and export largely depended on the free port of Hong Kong. After China's admission to the World Trade Organization in December 2001, the situation completely changed, Hong Kong and Macao became more and more economically dependent on mainland China. One would only have to take a look at the Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement (CEPA) that the Ministry of Commerce signed respectively with Hong Kong and Macao in 2003 and the three Supplements in 2004-2006 to see just how profound that dependence is. The Agreement covers virtually all business activities in Hong Kong, from cargo trade, service industry, to facilitation of investment. In 2010, Hong Kong's export to mainland China made up 42.6% of the city's total export, the city's import from mainland China accounted for 43.5% of its total import. All tycoons in Hong Kong have investment in mainland China, and they get lucrative returns from real property investment in particular.

In terms of economy, Hong Kong and mainland China has long been in an interdependent relationship. Beijing has above all controlled Hong Kong's tycoons and enterprise owners by means of investment and transfer of benefits.

Three, Government and business cooperation, a realization of the Red culture
The free media system that Hong Kong has is a valuable legacy left behind by the British Colonial government, it is also a vital channel with which the city monitors its government and the business sector. However, Hong Kong is, above all else, a business-oriented society which tycoons can transform the city's media environment and play an important role in its politics by launching their own newspapers and Television broadcasters. Beijing spent a lot of thoughts on reining in the city's free media, and some of the city's tycoons took the hint of Beijing's intentions. Many of the city's business owners who originally had no interests in the media industry made huge investment in it since the beginning of the twenty-first century. Beijing rewarded them heftily. Apart from economic benefits, Beijing had also granted Hong Kong business owners various honorary political titles. For example, Charles Ho Tsu-kwok, chairman of Sing Tao News Corporation Limited, the company that owns Singtao Daily, Headline Daily and an English-language newspaper, the Standard, was appointed as a member of the CPPCC Standing Committee in 2003; likewise, Ricky Ma Ching-fat, chairman of Oriental Press Group Limited, which publishes two newspapers, Oriental Daily News and the Sun, was appointed as a member of the CPPCC National Committee; and Lee Cho-jat, chairman of Sino United Publishing (Holdings) Limited, the parent company of Hong Kong Commercial Daily, classified alongside Wen Wei Po and Ta Kung Pao as the city's “top three patriotic newspapers”, is a member of CPPCC National Committee.
There are other Hong Kong tycoons who have no public service or honorary titles but are running businesses in mainland China and enjoy economic benefits. These people include Robert Kuok Hock-nien, and Shih Wing-ching. 

Kuok, former chairman of Kerry Properties Limited, the company that owns the South China Morning Post, made heavy investment in real property and hotel business in mainland China after the Tiananmen crackdown, and is referred to as one of the most important investors in China during the 1980s; Shih, founder of the am 730, a free-of-charge newspaper, runs real property business and has over 10,000 employees in mainland China.

In an RTHK special that tracked the changes of Hong Kong media a decade since the handover, the program producer talked about the findings of her survey of the city's media, and concluded that, by reason of great benefits they have in mainland China, Hong Kong's media would doubtlessly change their proposition so as to be in line with their bosses' attitude. Regarding local tycoons' investment in the media industry, Lee Chin-chuan, a professor at the University of Hong Kong put it quite clear, “they are cleaning up some unruly fortresses of speech for Beijing”.

It could be said that, ever since the handover in 1997, Hong Kong's press freedom has gradually been undermined. According to the 2009 and 2010 editions of Freedom of the Press, published by Freedom House, Hong Kong's press freedom ratings has been downgraded from “free” to “partly free”, as a result of Beijing's intensifying influence on media in Hong Kong.

Four, Hong Kong people's growing discontent with the city's “mainlandization”
Prior to Hong Kong handover, Beijing had pledged that under the “one country, two systems” principle, the city's political system would stay unchanged for fifty years. To maintain the city's relationship with Beijing, the Hong Kong people had stopped using offensive terms to refer to the mainland Chinese. But, as the city's “mainlandization” process intensifies, its freedom of speech disappearing, its freedom of assembly subjected to heavy interference from the police force, the local government becomes ever more submissive to Beijing, and the Chief Executive acts more like a Beijing's representative in Hong Kong than the symbol of the city's “high degree autonomy”, the Hong Kong people grow increasingly frustrated. Accumulated over time, this discontent eventually erupted last year over the issue of how the Hong Kong people identify themselves. 

On December 28, 2011, the “Public Opinion Programme” of the University of Hong Kong released findings of a survey that indicated the ratio of the Hong Kong people identifying themselves as Chinese dropped to a 12-year low. 

As soon as the survey findings were made public, Hao Tiechuan, Minister of Propaganda, Culture and Sports of the Liaison Office voiced his criticism, and Wen Wei Po published on December 30 a commentary that accused the survey of serving “political rather than academic” purposes. Not long afterward, the Hong Kong people vented out all their discontent by calling mainland Chinese locusts, saying that they had enough after travelers from mainland China ignored the rules and ate in the city's subway and responded in a hostile manner when they were reminded of those rules. 

Looking back in history, both Taiwan and Hong Kong are places developed to ease the population pressure of mainland China. Since modern times, the two places have been able to see rapid development thanks to their political separation from mainland China. At a time when the political system in mainland China remains totalitarian, the closer Taiwan and Hong Kong get with mainland China, the stronger the adverse impacts there would be on the room for survival and development in the two places. While Taiwan is self-contained politically and manages to have some room to maneuver as a result, Hong Kong has very little of that. In view of this, Beijing should not have taken such an up-close advance on Hong Kong's politics, be it out of the consideration for the city itself or for maintaining a political vent for mainland China at large. If Beijing continues to step up its control over Hong Kong, the eventual result would only be a no-win situation for Hong Kong and mainland China.