It could be the latest in some trashy Hollywood franchise – Transformer: Conduit of Power. It could be a weapon rather like the lightsaber in Star Wars. It could (and in my humble opinion, should) be the brand name for a company that makes lightning conductors. Or it could be the job description of a healer who channels God’s grace to cure the sick with a single touch. Or the inspirational theme of a one-eyed TV preacher’s show. (Wow… Is this cosmic or what??? It is the inspirational theme of a one-eyed TV preacher’s show!)
Instead, ‘Conduit of Power’ is the phrase that Hong Kong Chief Executive CY Leung has modestly decided best describes that part of his constitutional role that thick-skulled Hongkongers just can’t seem to comprehend. It is intended to help us understand that throughout the People’s Republic of China there is no parallel, alternative, separate, ‘residual’, shared or checking-and-balancing source of power to the Communist Party.
Put simply: the Party has an absolute monopoly of power. Not just over executive, legislative and judicial functions, but over schools, universities, media, the Internet, unions, lawyers, charities, churches, local authorities, families, and, through various means, private-sector businesses. Indeed – bus stops, cupcakes, bunny rabbits. All are ultimately subject to party control. By definition. Because there is no other source of power. If you choose your own career, decide to have a second kid, move to another city, read a book, write a book, attend worship, choose a college course or go on vacation overseas, it is because the Party has allowed you to. There are no inherent rights or liberties, and no independent guarantee of the ones you get.
This is China’s real constitution. And it is way too embarrassing and maybe even shameful to spell out in public, to the whole world, for the benefit of Hongkongers. So Beijing’s officials and apologists must resort to metaphysical mumblings about how CY ‘transcends’ all else in Hong Kong. And when that fails, try something that might connect with the Japanese-comics generation. Behold – the ‘Conduit of Power’.
A rough and ready Hongkonger-friendly explanation probably needs to be a bit politically incorrect, and might go something like this… The CE is not only head of government in Hong Kong, but a sort of sub-head of state. A bit like how in the old days the governor also represented the Queen. He runs the administration, answers to the legislature and is as subject to the law as everyone else. But he also symbolizes a higher (albeit far away, mountains-are-high) idea or concept that ultimately… ‘transcends’ all else. There – that doesn’t sound so bad does it?
In the Mainland, the ‘established-religion’ Party exercises its absolute authority through a power structure that mirrors the ‘secular’ state one. Companies, colleges, army units and local governments all have their own bosses, department heads and so on. But all have a Party Secretary shadowing the hands-on management to ensure that ultimately no person or body can break free of the one source of power.
This includes provincial governors and mayors, but there is no official equivalent in Hong Kong. This is why Beijing is paranoid about the city.
Looking back, as several commentators have said before, post-1997 Hong Kong would have been better off with a Beijing-appointed Party Secretary occupying a ‘transcendent’ office. He would be loyal and trusted – like CY, or indeed a Mainlander. He would do the ceremonial stuff with flags, the mutual shoe-shining with Mainland delegations, the ‘One Belt, One Road’ blather and the other patriotic ritual. He would also monitor and check everything the CE/mayor did, and be able to override/remove him if he threatened the Party’s monopoly of power (by starting up his own CIA-backed faction, say). Meanwhile, the CE/mayor would be elected by the local people to sort out housing, schools, pollution, traffic and all the rest. And the Communist Party paranoiacs would be able to relax a bit. But in pre-handover days, that would have sounded creepy. So instead we now get… ‘Conduit of Power’.