Late last month, Beijing blasted Washington for interference in Hong Kong’s affairs. The Hong Kong edition of the China Daily, the English-language outlet of the Chinese Communist party, warned darkly that “Uncle Sam is . . . fomenting antigovernment sentiment and social conflict,” and a mainland official stationed in Hong Kong insinuated that U.S. consul general Stephen Young was up to no good. The evidence, according to Beijing, was contained in diplomatic cables from the U.S. consulate released in August by WikiLeaks.
Chinese officials may have hoped the anti-American broadside would distract attention from what some of the cables showed about Beijing’s own activities in Hong Kong. One relayed a politician’s detailed claims of CCP infiltration of the leading pro-democracy party. Another described a Beijing official’s effort to discourage American and British support for last year’s democracy “referendum.”
That vote occurred after five pro-democracy legislators resigned their seats and ran again in the resulting by-elections on a platform of quick progress toward full democracy, including an elected chief executive and the abolition of “functional constituencies” representing mainly business and professional groups. The democrats won their seats against independent candidates, but pro-Beijing legislators boycotted the vote, and low turnout diminished the impact. In any case, Beijing has set 2017 and 2020 as the earliest possible dates for the chief executive and legislature, respectively, to be democratically elected.
Despite the concept of “one country, two systems,” which purportedly allows Hong Kong autonomy, Beijing is intervening more openly than ever before. Last year, a Beijing representative in Hong Kong negotiated directly with the leading pro-democracy party on a democratic reform bill. The deal changed little about how the system operates, but the decision to compromise deeply divided the democratic camp, already pitted against each other by the electoral system, proportional representation. In upcoming elections to district councils, and for the territory’s Legislative Council next September, Beijing, says China analyst Willy Lam, is playing an “obvious and big role” in supporting its favored candidates.
Also in late September, the process by which Beijing will appoint a new chief executive for the territory next March got under way. Two pro-Beijing figures—Henry Tang, the second ranking official in the Hong Kong government, and C. Y. Leung, a member of the advisory executive council—resigned to contest the top job. Tang is considered the frontrunner, with close ties to the “Shanghai faction” that surrounds former general secretary Jiang Zemin. Leung is less trusted by Hong Kong’s tycoons; he’s considered left-wing and independent. Stephen Vines, however, a Hong Kong columnist writing in the South China Morning Post, suggested “the party would prefer one of their own,” an allusion to the belief among many that Leung is a CCP member.
Hong Kong’s first chief executive under Chinese rule, C.H. Tung, who took office on July 1, 1997, had been publicly anointed by Beijing 18 months earlier when General Secretary Jiang Zemin ostentatiously greeted him in public, prompting the Hong Kong press to dub Tung “The Handshake.” Since then, the process has taken on more of the trappings of a democratic election, including multiple “candidates” and televised debates. Albert Ho, the Democratic party chairman, may have the required number of nominations in the election committee to participate (as did Alan Leong of the Civic party in 2007), but he has no chance of winning. Beijing’s preferred candidate will be rubber-stamped by a committee of 1,200 stacked with loyalists.
The appearance of a contest, and of a public vetting of the candidates, may suit Beijing. After tossing his hat in the ring, Tang came clean, sort of, about his extramarital affair(s); his PR firm declined to clarify whether there was more than one. The episode reinforced Tang’s reputation for gaffes. Another, more consequential, misstep was his dismissing as “rubbish” complaints about strong-arm police tactics during the August visit to Hong Kong of Li Keqiang, presumed to be China’s next premier. Still, it is unclear whether Beijing prefers a weak chief executive or a competent one. Either way, no Hong Kong official has the legitimacy to tackle difficult problems, let alone move ahead toward full democracy.
Unable to hold their leaders account-able at the ballot box, Hong Kong’s people rely on public demonstrations to blunt efforts to roll back their political and civil rights. In 2003, the march on the July 1 anniversary of Hong Kong’s reversion to Chinese rule forced the abandonment of a plan to impose new antisubversion legislation and forced the resignation of the secretary for security who’d championed the bill. This past July, the marchers focused on the Hong Kong government’s attempt to do away with by-elections for legislative vacancies. Aiming to avoid a repeat of the 2010 “referendum” on democracy, the government proposed a change in the election law so that, in the event a seat became vacant, the second-place candidate—in other words, the loser—would take the seat. After the march, which was estimated to be the largest in recent years, the government postponed consideration of the bill.
In some matters, the people of Hong Kong have little power to wield as their own government increasingly takes on the character of the sovereign government in Beijing. In mid-September, Hong Kong’s secretary for security, Ambrose Lee, went to Tibet to “exchange views on matters of mutual interest” with public-security officials.
Another cable released by Wiki-Leaks reported that in 1999, the entire bench of Hong Kong’s highest court nearly resigned when Beijing overruled it using a provision of the Basic Law. This year for the first time, the court itself, as opposed to the Hong Kong government, voted narrowly to ask Beijing to determine which approach to sovereign immunity—Hong Kong’s or Beijing’s—the court should apply in a case involving a commercial suit against the government of Congo. Beijing directed the court to use the CCP’s broader definition, in which states are immune in commercial matters, rather than the “restricted” approach previously applied by Hong Kong, which allows states to be sued in commercial matters.
The ruling is expected to under-mine Hong Kong’s standing as an international business center. For Hong Kong’s people, the damage may be even greater, now that Beijing has cloaked its right to do virtually anything it wishes in a legal principle of its own creation.
Ellen Bork is director for democracy and human rights at the Foreign Policy Initiative.