The power of perspective: An insight to the ongoing fractured relationship between Beijing and Hong Kong

Mar 26, 2021

Hong Kong exists in two parallel universes; one to escape from because there is no freedom and justice; and one of peace and opportunity.

Those who want to leave, value “freedom” above all else, believing Hong Kong can’t remain “liberal” under Chinese sovereignty. Their worst fears started to play out when Beijing imposed a tough national security law (NSL) in 2020 as a result of continuous violent protests in 2019, and well-known activists have since been arrested and charged with protest-related crimes, as well as under the new NSL. This group now has an escape route. Britain opened a pathway for those born before 1997 and either have or are entitled to a British-issued travel document – the BNO passport – to live and work in the UK, and after five years to apply for citizenship.

Those who accept the NSL feel Hong Kong remains liberal in the private realm; and in politics, the outlawing of secession, subversion, collusion with foreign forces, and terrorism, were justified in light of the extended violence in 2019. They support criminalizing activities that Beijing rightly would not tolerate again – riots, calls for independence and urging foreign governments to sanction China and Hong Kong.

From Beijing’s perspective, while Hong Kong’s local leadership botched the extradition proposal that first ignited protests (people feared suspects could be extradited to the mainland for political offences), Hong Kong protesters stepped well over the line with terrorist tactics that turned peaceful demands into continuing chaos which threatened national security.

As elsewhere in the world, Hong Kong’s alternate universes are contextual to whose “truth” you believe in. Social media covered every version of “truth” in 2019 – the narratives were often black-and-white – the police were portrayed by some as brutal and by others as measured; protesters were either freedom fighters or brainwashed youngsters; and the violence perpetrated by protesters was either understandable or unforgivable. Conspiracies abound, with allegations of foreign interference also part of the narrative.

Prior to 1997, national security was seen from London and was directed mainly at the People’s Republic. Since then, risk assessment has been determined by Beijing. Hong Kong’s trials and tribulations are taking place at a time of geopolitical conflict between the US and rising China; an important national security factor in Beijing’s calculations. Their tussle is described by the west as a fight between “liberal democracy” and “authoritarian oppression”. It doesn’t help that the US has called for an “alliance of democracies” to fight “communist China”. Beijing sees it as an attempt by the US to demonize China, its ruling party and the country’s leaders to cause destabilization and distrust where possible.

That conflict is a lose-lose for Hong Kong. The special administrative region is a part of the People’s Republic and it is in Hong Kong’s interest to work with Beijing to implement the Basic Law – Hong Kong’s post-1997 constitution – that allows it to enjoy liberties that are the envy of mainland cities.

China sees America, Britain and other western governments as hypocritical in their criticism of the NSL because each has tough security laws; and their police forces have been much more heavy-handed in dealing with their own protesters than the Hong Kong police. It irks Beijing that Hong Kong’s violent rioters are excused by the west because they are seen as righteous “democracy activists”, whereas violent protesters in their own countries are “rioters”, “domestic terrorists” and “insurrectionists”. Beijing has a point – look no further than the 6 January 2021 “insurrection” at Capitol Hill in Washington.

Underlying Beijing’s concern is the loyalty of Hong Kong people to the Chinese state and its unity. It’s tolerance of a large number of Hong Kong people with foreign passports, including not only activists but also civil servants and judges, is beginning to wear thin. These arrangements were tolerated because an important aspect of the 1997 transition was to encourage people to remain. With a foreign passport as an insurance policy, people who were unsure about China’s future could leave if they wished to – that was the guarantee for them to stay. As of 31 January 2021, Beijing no longer recognises the BNO passport.

In March 2021, Beijing put forward new electoral arrangements to ensure only “patriots” could stand for election, and that an election committee would make loyalty assessments before candidates could qualify to stand as chief executive – the political head of Hong Kong – and as local councillors. This is a great change for Hong Kong. While this confirms the end of Hong Kong’s liberal way of life to some, others are prepared to see how politics could be rebuilt where there would no longer be fruitless filibusters by the opposition that prevents deliberation about day-to-day problems.

China has not adopted the western path of market capitalism and multiparty elections for its development. It is sticking to the one-party state in order to keep to long-term development policies. While it doesn’t claim electoral legitimacy, it has strong performance legitimacy for its people. Western governments in particular argue that this is not good enough – China should open up its markets to foreign businesses and democratize.

Hong Kong could be the place in China to experiment with universal suffrage, which the Basic Law provides for under certain conditions. Beijing’s fear is that unrestricted elections could return local leaders who might be insufficiently “patriotic”. The chief executive and politicians must be committed to national unity and not endanger China’s national interests. Under the NSL, this includes not subverting the national and Hong Kong political structure.

In 2015, Beijing was willing to take a step forward. Hong Kong people could elect its chief executive by universal suffrage where there would be a nomination process to first select two to three candidates to stand for election. Beijing needed to feel comfortable with the candidates’ loyalty to the state even though they could have very different domestic policies. Pro-democracy politicians and activists made a grave mistake by rejecting Beijing’s proposal as not good enough, failing to appreciate the offer represented a major concession by Chinese leaders.

Since then, Hong Kong-Beijing relations have deteriorated. US-China relations have become toxic. Covid-19 burst forth in 2020, which caused the delay of the legislative election that was to take place in September last year. Beijing now insists that councillors must be patriotic, hence the new electoral arrangements. The distrust was compounded by activists in 2020 to get opposition candidates to pledge to vote down government funding and budgetary proposals if elected as a strategy to bring down the chief executive. Under the NSL, this could fall within the definition of subversion. Moreover, opposition politicians and activists who had lobbied foreign governments to sanction Hong Kong and the Chinese authorities prior to the NSL coming into effect are unlikely to pass the patriotism test and would therefore not qualify to stand for election in the future, and they could be caught by the NSL for any lobbying after it went into effect.

Hong Kong people remain stuck in their alternate universes. Some activists have already decamped and regrouped outside Hong Kong to continue their fight in exile. More will leave under schemes offered by Britain and perhaps other countries. The vast majority of Hong Kong people will stay put and see how things develop, and many believe political stability offers opportunities as China continues to evolve its economy and governance even if it is not “liberal” in a western sense.

Beijing’s new electoral arrangements represent a challenge even for the traditional, patriotic pro-establishment camp. Steadfast loyalty is not good enough if patriots cannot help solve longstanding problems in Hong Kong, especially social inequality and land use and housing-related issues, which Beijing believes lie at the root of the people’s dissatisfaction. With a change in the electoral landscape, Beijing is looking also for new politicians who are both loyal and capable – like those on the mainland.

The next few years will be challenging for Hong Kong as the political dust settles. On the one hand, mainland China continues to plough ahead on its own path to expand socio-economic space for citizens and foreign businesses, with Hong Kong envisioned to continue as a capital-raising hub for China and Asia abroad, as well as being better integrated into southern China, referred to as the Greater Bay Area.

On the other hand, China has to deal with geopolitical conflicts that considers a Hong Kong dimension. For those who leave Hong Kong, they may have no regrets, valuing “freedom” above all. For those who stay, however, and particularly those who wish to participate in public affairs, they could work towards refashioning a governance system that can truly solve problems – which would be a significant contribution.

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