Why did the Chinese government invite Hong Kong lawmakers to a much-vaunted special meeting on political reform in Shenzhen yesterday? The Beijing officials’ main message was that the ‘8-31’ decree (that the ballot in the 2017 Chief Executive ‘election’ would be rigged) was permanent and binding on all subsequent polls. This was tantamount to saying that militant pro-dems are right, and the Hong Kong government’s pleas to ‘pocket’ these reforms now in the hope of later improvements are a con. Although local officials and supporters have recently been acting increasingly desperate in their attempts to win over public opinion, it seems someone up in the imperial court is laid back about a pro-dem rejection of the proposal.
Beijing’s emissaries warn that the pro-dems will suffer in future legislative and other elections for voting the package down later this month. Since they hate the pro-dems, you have to wonder why the Communist officials are so concerned for their welfare. Beijing is presumably preparing for the pan-dems to be ‘blamed’ for the package’s failure (just as they would be ‘blamed’ if went through). One of Beijing’s longstanding tactics has been to divide the pro-dems, and it’s almost as if this goal is superseding that of implementing a long-promised quasi-democratic system for Hong Kong.
The Chinese government’s avowed aim is to keep Communist Party rule secure. Over and again, Beijing officials declare that Hong Kong’s election system must ensure that a ‘tiny number’ of pro-independence/anti-CCP enemies do not seize power. This sounds like a paranoid fantasy: Hong Kong is not some distant, impenetrable place but a wide-open city on China’s doorstep, on full display to the loyal Mainlanders in the Liaison Office paid to monitor it. (The obvious and necessary response to a genuine plot would be to break off diplomatic relations with the US.) But when they talk about ‘external forces’ opposing the central government, they are not really talking about the CIA or any other identifiable agency or country. The ‘foreign forces’ are ideas and values. Chairman Xi Jinping thinks he can seal China’s Mainland off from these threats by censoring the Internet and textbooks, but Hong Kong is fully exposed, yet at the same time supposedly integrating with the motherland.
Beijing may succeed in finally and permanently splitting the opposition camp, but hardly in a way that makes it feel safer. After killing off the proposed reform package, the older-generation pan-dems may bicker or fade away – their patriotic dreams of spearheading Chinese democratization in shatters. In their place, we’re getting a younger generation who have no desire to rescue China from the Communists because they don’t even see themselves as Chinese. The June 4 vigil folk are coming to be the moderates, in the face of localists decrying anything Mainland as alien and irrelevant. Beijing’s original (80s-90s) timetable for political reform in Hong Kong suggested an expectation that younger people would be more at ease with the ‘We are all PRC’ thing. Wrong.
All this reflects a fundamental flaw in the one-party state. The government has only two possible relationships with its own people: either pats-on-the-head for the obedient and the shoe-shiners, or unremitting hostility and threats for skeptics and free-thinkers. There is no middle ‘hearts and minds’ setting. We see this same fault in handling Tibet, where having a photo of the Dalai Lama means jail, or Xinjiang, where officials are trying to ‘weaken Islam’ by forcing shopkeepers to sell booze (honest). (It applies to international relations too. Interestingly, one of the Beijing officials in Shenzhen mentioned that Hong Kong’s pro-democrats were often OK in ‘bilateral’ dealings, but were troublesome when they formed a ‘bloc’; he could have been talking about ASEAN and the South China Sea.)
The onus is on the sovereign power to run its territory properly; blaming the inhabitants (or just some of them) when things go wrong won’t wash. But that’s not how the Communist Party works. The failure of this political reform exercise suggests that after decades of misjudging Hong Kong, Beijing is getting into a clear pattern of repeatedly mishandling the place.
Where we go from here is anyone’s guess. Anyone wanting to seize the initiative always has the issue of everyday governance, which continues to deteriorate. For example, in the last few days alone we have had not one but two examples of how the Hong Kong government couldn’t care less about maltreatment of the elderly poor, and is telling even middle-class parents to go hang, while pouring resources into schools for the ultra-wealthy. Opportunities for Beijing, or for the pro-dems, should they want them.