Simon Lau: Say Hello to China's New Model for Controlling Hong Kong
Writer Simon Lau Sai Leung says the extradition bill is the nail in the coffin for Hong Kong’s autonomy under "One Country, Two Systems."
Hong Kong was shocked by scenes of police shooting at demonstrators on June 12. Five years ago, during the Umbrella Revolution, the police only used pepper spray and tear gas but in just a short span of time, the police upgraded to beating protesters with batons, firing rubber bullets and bean bag bullets at close range, and in a spot of truly authoritarian-like behaviour, directly attacked reporters at the scene.
I worry there will be members of the general public who sacrifice their lives at this year's anti-extradition bill protests (editor's note: this piece was published three days prior to the events of June 15, when a man plunged to his death after hanging a protest banner at Pacific Place.)
When mass protests threaten the survival of the regime, dictators cracks down. The outside world, however, couldn't understand why the Hong Kong government would push this extradition bill (also known as the Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation) at such immense political cost.
To understand what's happening, we need to look at the events that led to Carrie Lam taking power (林鄭月娥), and how the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is changing its model of governance in Hong Kong.
WHAT’S THE RUSH BEIJING?
There was a sense that the CCP selected Carrie Lam as the next Chief Executive because she would hold a moderate political line compared to her predecessor CY Leung (梁振英). It seemed like a rehash of 2003, when Donald Tsang (曾蔭權) took over for the unpopular Tung Chee-hwa (董建華).
Lam claimed she would focus on livelihood issues, reduce political and societal disputes, and so on. But after Lam gained power, the government put forward even more extreme policies.
The first was the widening number of Legislative Council members disqualified for adding political remarks during their oath of office speeches in October 2016, from an initial number of two legislators disqualified to six in 2017. Now, the government has introduced a political ideology review system at all levels of office to screen out candidates who support self-determination or independence.
What’s more, using a century-old law from colonial Britain, the government banned the pro-independence “Hong Kong National Party” from fielding candidates, further shrinking Hong Kong’s space for freedom of speech in the process. Adding salt to the wounds, they then expelled foreign journalist Victor Mallet from Hong Kong, simply for inviting Andy Chan of the Hong Kong National Party to speak at a Foreign Correspondents Club event. Mallet is unable to return to Hong Kong, even as a tourist.
There's also a law on dock that makes insulting the Chinese national anthem a criminal offence.
Mrs. Lam has also been busy promoting her trillion dollar ($128 billion USD) artificial island building project off the eastern coast of Lantau Island— a plan that lines up with Beijing’s vision for an integrated Pearl River Delta region.
Some say Mrs. Lam's closed-door style of governance is a result of her strong personality, but in fact, by looking at how the extradition bill was drafted, we can see a top-down style of governance bereft of local input. This isn't about the Chief Executive's personality, this is Beijing's new model of direct control. Over the past two years, Beijing has formulated the agenda and policies for the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, and handed them over to Mrs. Lam to implement.
For over a century, Hong Kong has taken a consultative approach to policy adoption. For example, discussion on legal matters go through the Law Reform Commission and the Hong Kong Bar Association. But this new extradition bill— which was hoisted on the Legislative Council under the pretence of granting extradition rights to Taiwan in order to bring Chan Tong-kai (陳同佳) to justice for the murder of Hong Kong citizen Poon Hiu-wing (潘曉穎) — bypasses all established consultation mechanisms, and the government has tried to ram the bill through the Legislative Council. Nearly every group in Hong Kong, including the business community, the media and civic groups, opposes the bill. The only party benefiting is the CCP.
Since the policy is top-down, both opposition and moderation were both rejected, and Mrs. Lam, with Beijing's support, defied all criticism, calling any proposed amendment "rubbish."
This isn't a solitary incident. The costly East Lantau artificial island plan, in fact, comes straight from Tung Chee-hwa's think tank, the Our Hong Kong Foundation. Tung concurrently serves as vice-chairman of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) — the highest advisory body in China. When Lam’s government announced the project, nobody knew anything about the finances, or the overall outline of plan.
BEIJING’S BLACK HANDS ARE EVERYWHERE
The decision-making process no longer originates in Hong Kong, but in Beijing. This is quite different from the former colonial British model of indirect governance. Before the handover, Hong Kong's governor was appointed by the British Monarch on the advice of the foreign secretary, and his administration was highly autonomous. Over time, these governors adopted a consultative participation process that incorporated the opinions of local elites, and provided a basis for legitimacy for the colonial power.
Since the people of Hong Kong didn't see the “black hand”of the British government, there was little worry about foreign interference in local affairs. As a result, Hong Kong’s golden age of political stability started in 1971, under Sir Murray MacLehose (British Hong Kong’s longest-serving governor).
In the first decade of the handover, the CCP still respected Hong Kong's autonomy. Beijing made its first attempt at top-down rule when it tried to impose an unpopular national security bill in 2003 — a law that sought to codify subversion into law, but critics said would lead to political repression. On July 1, an estimated 500,000 people took to the streets to voice their discontent with the bill, leading Executive Council member James Tien Pei-chun (田北俊) of the Liberal Party to resign, forcing then-Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa to retract the bill. Two years later, Tung resigned in disgrace.
In the decade and a half since, Beijing has continuously reviewed the reasons for its failure to pass the national security bill (also known as National Security (Legislative Provisions) Bill 2003), and strengthened its penetration of the party-state machinery in Hong Kong. It bought up local media, trained its own people to take part in local elections, and dismantled the political power of the localist business community.
To solidify its grip, Beijing's Liaison Office in Sai Ying Pun introduced new departments to “assist” the government in carrying out political work.
When the extradition bill was introduced, local business leaders and Beijing’s political agents in Hong Kong wavered in their support. So Wang Zhimin (王志民), director of the Liaison Office, put his foot down. He called all the pro-Beijing organizations into his office, and loudly proclaimed that the proposed law was the policy of the Beijing central government.
At this stage, the CCP has direct control over Hong Kong. Carrie Lam is an obedient policy executor, and the legislative process is firmly in the hands of the Liaison Office. The recent police brutality against protesters is straight out of the CCP playbook.
No one should be playing dumb at this point. The CCP has abandoned the “One Country, Two Systems” framework stipulated by Hong Kong’s Basic Law, and the party-state machine hums efficiently behind the scenes. There's no room to negotiate the extradition bill because Carrie Lam is merely a CCP spokesperson, and Chief Executive in name only.
Compared with British colonial rule, the CCP’s nefarious black hands are everywhere. The pro-Beijing camp doesn’t have any regard for Hong Kong citizens, and their methods of governance are brutish and violent. In short, if there's enough votes to pass this extradition bill, it will be passed through institutional violence. Young people will be forced to fight for themselves, and for the future of Hong Kong.
Hong Kong's autonomy has come to an end, and aside from Kaohsiung mayor Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜), everyone in Taiwan is closely watching the decline of Hong Kong under Beijing’s rule. Make no mistake, the CCP will go to similar extremes to control Taiwan.
Simon Lau Sai Leung is a political commentator based in Hong Kong. He’s a former advisor to the Democratic Party and co-founder of House News (主場新聞).