It is hard to keep up with all the real, apparent, suspected or potential threats to Hong Kong people’s rights and freedoms from north of the border (leaving aside the latest quality-of-life horrors).
Some look farcical, like the extreme ‘anti-terrorism’ precautions during the visit of the hitherto barely-known Beijing official Zhang Dejiang in May. Some are petty, vindictive and creepy, like the government’s airbrushing of the movie Ten Years out of existence (or private-sector kowtowing like Lancome’s withdrawal of sponsorship from Denise Ho). Others are unambiguous attacks on the independence of institutions, such as the appointment of government-friendly figures on universities’ governing bodies. One – the booksellers’ abductions and forced confessions – is so egregious as to leave local officials humiliated and exposed as powerless.
The last few days have brought us two more.
First is the presence of the local PLA commander at a recent Hong Kong Police passing-out parade…
This is not unprecedented and would belong at the farcical end of the scale except for garrison commander Tan Benhong’s comments at the ceremony. He referred to ‘rule of law’, which is not a PLA competency at the best of times, and is especially rich following the presumed kidnapping of Lee Bo off Hong Kong’s streets. He also commended the police for ‘supporting the government’ – a classic Communist Party view of the force’s role. In modern Hong Kong, most people would say it is the government’s role to support the police as a service that protects and serves the public.
Second, and probably far more serious, is the removal of Rebecca Li as top investigator at the Independent Commission Against Corruption…
In the absence of a sound reason, this looks squarely in the ‘attack on institutional independence’ part of the spectrum. One theory is that Li was vetoed by Beijing for having been trained/tainted by the FBI. Another is that her removal is linked to the allegations of graft against Chief Executive CY Leung (the less-than-watertight non-compete payment from UGL).
The pretext for Li’s departure isn’t the point. The real question is what it means if the ICAC is to be a tool of the Beijing-guided Hong Kong government, rather than a constraint on abuse of power. If the ICAC becomes the local subsidiary of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection – persecuting or ignoring tigers and flies at the Leninist regime’s whim – Beijing’s favoured companies and officials will be immune from anti-graft laws in Hong Kong, as they are in the rest of the one-party state.
The whole point of the city’s post-1997 deal was to make sure that this didn’t happen. The trend suggests that China’s overseers are becoming less ‘gradual and orderly’ and more bold and arrogant in extending and tightening the party-state’s grip over Hong Kong’s institutions. Still, no-one in the ultra-highly paid and mollycoddled power structure speaks out, and fear just makes the business community shoe-shine ever-harder. When will it be the judiciary’s turn?