SERIES: Brookings East Asia Commentary | Number 62 of 86 « Previous | Next »

Hong Kong-Mainland Tension on the Brink of Explosion

October 1, 2012 was no ordinary day in Hong Kong. It was supposed to be a day of routine celebration activities in honor of China’s National Day, but it turned out to be a nightmare. The festive spirit was brutally muted by a tragic collision of two boats in Hong Kong waters and the consequent sinking of one of these vessels packed with children and other passengers. The local community was stunned. People waited anxiously over the long night for updates on the rescue operation, but their prayers were not answered. The accident resulted in 38 deaths and a dozen serious injuries. The outpouring of grief and bereavement was significant.

The emotion was dwarfed, however, by parallel waves of criticism targeted at mainland officials’ expressions of sympathy and support during the trying hours. Li Gang, deputy director of Central People’s Government Liaison Office in Hong Kong, paid a visit to the victims of the tragedy and offered help for the rescue operation, only to be accused of undermining the authority of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Government. This sentiment was further fueled by “directives” from Beijing requesting the local government to make its best efforts in handling the crisis. The resentment against any form of involvement of mainland officials appears to have prevailed over the sentiment for unity, an instinct that is usually unleashed in time of crisis and desperation. For many, Beijing’s actions in this case are blatant intrusions into the autonomy enjoyed by the Hong Kong government and a testament to the emerging trend of “Beijing people ruling Hong Kong” (in contrast to the notion of “Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong” that is enshrined in the Basic Law).

Overseas observers may find it difficult to reconcile the anti-Beijing sentiment depicted here with the visible role that Hong Kong has played in the recent campaign over the sovereignty of the Diaoyu Islands. Together with Taiwanese campaigners, Hong Kong protesters undertook a dangerous voyage and managed to land on the main island in late August 2012. This symbolic victory helped trigger demonstrations and rallies against the Japanese government in various major cities in China. Such a heroic act is no doubt an expression of concern for the dignity of the Chinese nation. And despite its century-long status as a British colony before 1997, Hong Kong in fact has a long tradition of being compassionate for the well-being of mainland Chinese. Generous donations for victims of natural disasters and concern for the dissidents across the border are illustrative of the bonding between the two Chinese societies. Yet beneath the facade of patriotism, in recent years there has been a rapidly growing counter-current of resentment against mainland encroachment on Hong Kong’s autonomy.

The irreversible process of integration with the mainland economy has certainly contributed to the growth of the local economy, yet many locals find the pressures of growing exchanges too great to bear. Economic integration between Hong Kong and the mainland took off during the early years of post-Mao reforms in the 1980s. Three of China’s four Special Economic Zones—test points for luring foreign investment—were located in Guangdong and Hong Kong investors were the primary targets. Local manufacturers responded enthusiastically to the supply of cheap labor and land and market opportunities, and this sparked waves of relocation of factories from Hong Kong to the north. Beijing’s resumption of the exercise of sovereignty over Hong Kong in 1997 increased the momentum of the process.

However, the outbreak of the SARS epidemic in 2003 heralded the beginning of a new level of integration. With Hong Kong’s economy severely hurt by the crisis, Beijing lifted various restrictions on the movement of capital, services and population between the mainland and Hong Kong. The Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement (CEPA), the main mechanism for these accelerated exchanges, was greeted with enthusiasm and gratitude by local businesses and professionals, who saw it as a timely boost for the local economy. As a result, tens of millions of mainlanders are now allowed to visit Hong Kong (with a population of just over 7 million) every year, and local professionals are granted greater opportunities to ply their trades in the mainland. On the other hand, local financial institutions are becoming more and more dependent on revenues generated from services for public listing of mainland enterprises in Hong Kong or renminbi-related business.

While the unabated influx of purchasing power and capital is a strong impetus for local growth, the challenge of accommodating the consequent increased demand on local infrastructure and services appears to be a daunting task. Locals are getting more and more irritated by the crowded streets and short supply of daily necessities due to the flood of tourists. While lower income groups may attribute general price inflation to the insatiable demands of mainland consumers, the aspiring middle class sees the arrival of mainland competitors as the major obstacle in their pursuit of career advancement, academic success, affordable property and better life chances. Differences in lifestyle, habits and social etiquette further reinforce the tension and uneasiness between these two Chinese groups.

The general mood of frustration and anxiety against the mainland encroachment goes beyond concerns for material well-being. The June 4 event in 1989 has always been an integral part of the local psyche and the people’s perception of the mainland authorities. The rampant corruption of the Chinese bureaucracy, the long list of its infringements on human rights and press freedom, and the authoritarian nature of the Communist regime hardly help endear the Chinese government to locals. More and more Hong Kong people are beginning to think that the growing intimacy with the mainland may come at the price of an undermining of the cherished tradition of liberty.

This fear is also premised on the power asymmetry between the local and central governments. Constitutionally speaking, the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Government is a subordinate unit under the Central People’s Government. The Basic Law grants the Hong Kong Government autonomy on most issues, especially domestic affairs. But the undemocratic nature of the selection method of the Chief Executive of the Hong Kong government, and the strong influence of Beijing on the process, prompt many people to the believe that the holder of this office would never have the courage or authority to defend local interests in face of pressure from Beijing. This concern is also reinforced by the composition of the legislature—only half of its members are directly elected on the basis of universal suffrage.

The suspicion and fear finally erupted in the summer of 2012 over the controversy of “national education,” a compulsory course for all school children that was scheduled to be introduced in the 2012-2013 academic year, with explicit instructions from top leaders like Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping on the imperative of strengthening a national identity in Hong Kong. While most parents found it reasonable for their children to know more about their motherland, they were shocked when they learned more about the program design, specifically with what many saw as the glorification of the Chinese Communist Party in the curriculum. A collective fear of “brain-washing” and indoctrination in Hong Kong eventually exploded into a week-long siege of the government headquarters and a marathon hunger strike. The storm eventually subsided with the government making major concessions in the program and allowing individual schools to decide whether to implement the curriculum.

More broadly, the rising resentment against mainland encroachment is helping to remake the political landscape of Hong Kong. Only one issue really mattered for the Legislative Council election in the summer of 2012: resistance against mainland influence. Mobilization based on fear of China―rather than issues related to society, democratization, economy or any specific policy program―was the most effective campaign strategy. Even though the share of votes commanded by the democratic camp and the pro-establishment camp remained more or less unchanged, the Democratic Party, the political party that used to be the flagship party in the democratic camp, was the major loser. Its decision to cut a deal on constitutional reform with Beijing in 2010 was depicted by its rivals as an act of betrayal of Hong Kong, and a setback in the quest for universal suffrage for Hong Kong people. In this atmosphere, the Democratic Party suffered a severe blow in the 2012 election, while parties that advocated a non-compromising position vis-à-vis Beijing emerged as the major winners. In 2010, radical groups like People’s Power and the League of Social Democrats in effect manipulated the legislative electoral system by engineering a Hong Kong-wide by-election. The organizers cast the by-election, which was to fill five seats from which legislators had resigned, as a referendum on democracy in Hong Kong. Despite some criticism for this manipulation of the system, these parties have seen their votes increase by more than 50% over the last four years. The constituency for the depiction of the past 15 years as a period of mainland colonization appears to be expanding fast in Hong Kong.

The unease over the prevailing situation in Hong Kong is shared equally by Beijing. Chinese leaders certainly find the resentment of the Hong Kong people incomprehensible, given the mainland’s generous economic support since 1997 and political concessions in the approval of constitutional reform in 2010. Unfortunately, Beijing seems to rely on one expedient explanation for the protest movements and resistance: the involvement of overseas “black hands.” According to this theory of international conspiracy, dissident movements and opposition in China are primarily results of manipulation and intervention by outside forces, rather than spontaneous protests by victims against the wrong doings committed by the Communist regime. It is an official explanation for the outbreak of the June 4 incident in 1989, and the awarding of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize to the dissident Liu Xiaobo is also taken as vivid proof of a well-orchestrated plot of the West against China. In this mindset, Hong Kong is just another extension of the global conspiracy, and the Americans and British are the usual suspects. This thinking was especially evident in late 2011 when Lü Xinhua, the Commissioner of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the PRC in Hong Kong, made a pointed attack on Stephen Young, the American Consul General in Hong Kong, accusing him of unwarranted intervention in Hong Kong politics.

With the growing agitation of Hong Kong people against the mainland, the concern that Hong Kong could be used as a base for subversive activities against China by outside forces could certainly gain some traction among the decision makers in Beijing. There is one obvious way that Beijing could act on such an impulse: the option of initiating deliberation on Article 23 of Hong Kong’s Basic Law—which spells out the obligations of the Hong Kong government to introduce laws prohibiting acts of secession, subversion and sedition and treason against the Central Government―must be very tempting for radicals in Beijing. Though Article 23 might be the most obvious potential bombshell, it is very likely that another controversy may jump the queue in creating mayhem in Hong Kong.

The issue of constitutional reform, represented chiefly by the concept of universal suffrage, must be solved before 2017; China’s National People’s Congress has designated that year as the earliest possible time when the Chief Executive of Hong Kong can be elected on a one-man-one-vote basis. However, even the most optimistic soul would not expect a fully democratic proposal from Beijing given its jaundiced view of the notion of universal suffrage. The radicals in the local political scene, however, are emboldened and are likely to stick to their position of occupying the moral high ground. They are also likely to heed the message delivered by the defeat of the Democratic Party in 2012, and not accept anything less than a perfect package. With the moderates heavily defeated in the latest election, the democratic camp just cannot afford another act of political suicide of being seen a traitor. With a larger segment of Hong Kong society viewing direct confrontation with Beijing as the most effective way of advancing Hong Kong’s interests, more provocative and even violent forms of protest are on the horizon. A total stand-off between some segments of the civil society and the Hong Kong Government is a genuine possibility. That will be the ultimate test of patience and tolerance for Beijing.

As a keen observer of post-1997 politics, Taiwan must find the latest developments in Hong Kong disconcerting. The Nationalists in particular, who have been embracing further encounters with Beijing since the first term of the Ma Ying-jeou presidency, are probably wary of the dislocations and consequences of unchecked integration with the mainland as witnessed in Hong Kong. While inflows of capital or trading opportunities are certainly welcome stimuli for Taiwan’s ailing economy, as they were in Hong Kong, a perception of over-reliance on the mainland economy would undermine the authority of the government in the eyes of the Taiwan public. And as the Ma government is fully aware of the presence of a well-developed opposition political machinery―the so-called pan-Green camp, which is even more prepared to mobilize the fear and resentment against mainlanders than the radicals in Hong Kong―until Taiwan can work out a proper formula for fairly allocating the fruits and costs of economic integration among different classes and interests in Taiwanese society, moderation and restraint on the pace and scope of exchanges with the mainland appears to be the safest approach in the short term. Yet, despite the contrasting calculations by the pan-Blue and pan-Green, some kind of consensus is discernible. That is, as informed by the experience of Hong Kong, the model of One Country Two Systems is simply a non-starter for any prospective dialogue on reunification.

SERIES: Brookings East Asia Commentary | Number 62