Looking back, it is clear that since Xi Jinping came to power in late 2012, the Chinese government has decided to take the post-1997 gloves off and start smacking Hong Kong around as if the city were a bunch of uppity Tibetans. Hong Kong Chief Executive CY Leung – installed in office not long before – has seemed all too eager to go along with Beijing’s new ‘get tough’ approach. But most of the city’s top bureaucrats and other officials find themselves in an almost-impossible position.
Previously, they saw their role as broadly reflecting local needs in reconciling the contradictions in ‘One Country, Two Systems’. They performed ‘patriotic’ rituals for National Day flag-raising and other occasions. But otherwise they promoted and implicitly defended Hong Kong’s non-Mainland/Communist Party characteristics – every speech to an international audience stressing all the ‘rule of law’, ‘free press’, ‘clean government’ stuff to the point of tediousness.
Since around 2013, the city’s sovereign has increasingly required them to publicly downplay or disown these local values. A perfect example of this is how to treat Hong Kong’s supposed ‘independence movement’.
Thanks to Beijing’s cumulative mishandling of Hong Kong, the previously unthinkable and, in purely constitutional terms, laughable concept of separatism has gained traction, especially among younger people. Some may be idealistic and sincere. But in effect this is protest by trolling – the young localists have found one of Beijing’s hyper-sensitive nerves, and they are mercilessly needling it for all it’s worth.
Chinese official spokesmen predictably take the bait and sternly warn that calls for independence are illegal. Hong Kong’s local officials awkwardly respond using ambiguous wording – saying independence is ‘contrary to’ the law, as in ‘disagrees with’ rather than ‘breaches’ it. State media spot this ruse and accuse the Hong Kong government of doing nothing. Justice Secretary Rimsky Yuen whines that he is indeed examining the law to see whether some part of it might apply to independence advocates.
Now, Hong Kong’s former top public prosecutor declares that peaceful expression of an opinion is no crime – as everyone has assumed all along. Pro-Beijing politicians lusting for approval from the central government start talking blatant crap in their attempts to shoe-shine…
Regina Ip suggests that pro-independence groups might be committing sedition by recruiting more members. And the even-more embarrassing Priscilla Leung maintains that expressing an opinion can become illegal when more than a certain number of people do it (the Wang Zhenmin ‘dinner table’ test).
Other top officials, notably the Constitutional Affairs and Security ministers, waffle helplessly as the local press demand an answer to the quandary: do you round up dissidents in line with Communist Party instructions, or do you maintain freedom of speech in line with our status as a civilized international financial centre? (‘Rimsky has answered this already’ they splutter.)
If the Hong Kong government states that no law exists against expression of the idea of independence, it will invite pressure from Beijing to outlaw thoughts. Should the local administration try to comply – it will have no choice – it will invite widespread 2003-style resistance, more trolls calling for independence (or jokily turning themselves in to the cops), and international concerns about rule of law.
If the local government tries to prosecute localists for expressing ideas about separatism, the same thing will happen. If the courts reject the cases, you go back to the ‘pressure from Beijing to outlaw thoughts’ scenario. If the government somehow gets convictions, you still go back to the ‘widespread 2003-style resistance’ scenario, complete with martyrs.
Whatever happens from here, it looks like a mess.
The only way out is for Beijing’s officials to grow up and learn how to handle a pluralistic society – which means putting the gloves back on and letting the local officials run the city as distinct from the motherland again. How likely does that sound?