The Hong Kong people are constantly being told by China’s Central People’s Government and the United Front overseas propaganda arm that we do not properly understand the concept of “one country, two systems” or the city’s constitution, the Basic Law. In fact, we understand all too well how the promised “high degree of autonomy” is being steadily unpicked by a combination of Beijing’s increasingly blatant interference and the failure of our Special Administrative Region government to stand up for our rights and freedoms.
In the forefront of intervention has been China’s de facto embassy in Hong Kong, the Liaison Office. This has grown exponentially in size and influence since its establishment in 2000. It now has hundreds of staff and an extensive portfolio of residential and commercial property, including investments in strategic enterprises such as publishing houses and bookstores.
The office was never supposed to play a role in Hong Kong’s policymaking and day-to-day administration, let alone become a centre of power. Article 22 of the Basic Law proscribes interference by central government departments in affairs over which the SAR has autonomy. The office’s mandate was to assist mainland enterprises in the city and foster co-operation between the two.
Last year’s attempt by the SAR government to force through controversial amendments to extradition laws cost pro-Beijing political parties dearly. China fears a trouncing in September’s elections to the legislature, as in November’s district polls. The recent arrests of 15 champions of the pro-democracy movement were clearly instigated by Beijing in an attempt to intimidate the population and stifle dissent. Those accused of “organising and participating in unlawful assemblies” include the founder of the Democratic party, Martin Lee, fellow barrister and former elected legal representative in the legislature Margaret Ng, and fearless publisher and Communist party critic Jimmy Lai.
Meanwhile, each day brings a bombardment of criticism against the pro-democracy camp by the combined forces of the Liaison Office and the local branch of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office — a division of China’s State Council — including threats to disqualify opposition legislator Dennis Kwok. To accusations that this is a direct breach of the Basic Law, Beijing has declared that Article 22 does not apply to the central government’s designated bodies in Hong Kong.
Initially caught off-guard, our local administration under chief executive Carrie Lam has fallen into line, confirming that the role of the Liaison Office has been “clarified”. It is now authorised by Beijing to handle issues of Hong Kong’s governance and exercise “supervisory power”. Ms Lam has been reduced to parroting China’s pronouncements.
Having failed to win the hearts and minds of the majority of Hongkongers, there is an air of desperation about Beijing’s increasingly repressive tactics. They are counter-productive, destined only to foment the resumption of protests as the threat from Covid-19 eases. They will also almost certainly prompt a wave of emigration and drive international business and media groups into safer jurisdictions, including Taiwan.
In the wake of coronavirus, China already faces an uphill challenge to win back the trust of the international community. It cannot afford the further disgrace of “one country, two systems” collapsing in full view of the world. It would be the death knell for Hong Kong’s role as Asia’s premier financial services centre, with implications for banking, insurance, legal and other trade-related services that underpin not just the Chinese but wider regional and global economies. Hong Kong is tiny in geographical terms, but its unique status as the only open economy and free society in China makes it too important to fail.
The writer is a former chief secretary for administration at the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region