Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi
Earlier this month, the top authorities in Bejing got to focus on the Hong Kong issue. On November 4, Xi Jinping met Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam in Shanghai where he had gone to inaugurate the Second China International Import Expo (CIIE). Lam gave him a report of the situation in Hong Kong.
According to Xinhua, Xi told her that under her leadership, the Hong Kong SAR government had made great efforts to stabilise and control the situation and improve the social atmosphere. He said that the central government had high trust in her and fully recognised the work of Lam and her management team.
That, of course, was for public consumption. The actual tough message was relayed to her at a previously unscheduled meeting two days later by Vice-Premier Hang Zheng, the State Council (Cabinet) member in charge of Hong Kong’s affairs, and whose clout comes from the fact that he is also a member of the CPC Politburo’s Standing Committee. Here, Lam was critiqued on the ways she had handled the violence and told in no uncertain terms that she needed to enact the national security law for the territory as per Article 23 of Hong Kong’s Basic Law. This is not as easy as it sounds. The passage of such a law, which would prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition and subversion, has been attempted before and failed, and an attempt to do it again is bound to trigger an even greater intensification of the protests.
The Xi and Hang meetings with Lam took place days after the Fourth Plenum of the Central Committee closed on October 31. This was followed by a communique that had reiterated the importance of the ‘one country, two systems’ approach towards the ‘peaceful reunification’ of the country. Additionally, it had said that there was a need to “strictly govern the Hong Kong special administrative region and the Macau special administrative region in strict accordance of the constitution and the Basic Law and safeguard the long-term prosperity and stability of Hong Kong and Macau.” In line with this, the statement went on to say that there was a need to “establish a sound legal system and enforcement mechanism for safeguarding security in the special administrative regions.”
Briefing the media after the close of the Fourth Plenum, Shen Chunyao, a senior official of the National People’s Congress said that Beijing was planning to revamp the way in which the city’s chief executive and top leaders were appointed and removed, along with taking steps to enhance national security in the region. Beijing would also support a strengthening of the capabilities of the police and begin the process of educating the young with a stronger sense of national identity and patriotism.
But these are the very issues that have proved to be tough to implement in Hong Kong ever since Beijing re-established its sovereignty over the island in 1997. In 2003, the Hong Kong government tried and failed to introduce anti-subversion legislation in the island after mass protests. At the same time, they set aside proposals to bring ‘moral and national education’ into its schools at the instance of Beijing which wanted to strengthen the student's sense of national identity.
In 2014, protests again erupted after Beijing wanted to have Hong Kong citizens elect their leader from a panel of candidates screened by the central government. This led to a 79-day standoff, demanding voting rights for all. Beijing’s proposal was shot down in Hong Kong's legislature, but the selection of the Chief Executive remains limited to an electoral college of 1,200 legislators, most of them pro-Beijing.
The central authorities in China are simply not willing to acknowledge that Hong Kong may want to have something less than full integration with the People's Republic of China. Their inclination is to insist on a greater control of the system. So, it is not surprising that Beijing’s longer term plan for a troubled Hong Kong is to promote its integration into what is called the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macau Greater Bay Area.
The Greater Bay Area Plan, at whose heart is the new bridge linking Hong Kong, Guangzhou and Macau, was unveiled in February 2019. Its aim is to transform Hong Kong and 10 cities around the Pearl River Delta into a global powerhouse to rival the San Fransisco Bay Area.
Guangdong is, of course, within the PRC's system and Macau has had its own national security law for the past 10 years, but proposals for similar legislation in Hong Kong have been resisted. Beijing is, however, clearly signalling that it will press on in consolidating its authority over Hong Kong, disregarding the views of the protesters.
When the plan was unveiled, the Chinese authorities saw Hong Kong’s ‘one country, two systems’ approach bringing in unique strengths to the plan as a gateway to international finance and investment. Combined with Macau, a tourism destination, and manufacturing centres like Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Zuhai, Dongguan and other cities of the region, the plan was to shape a Greater Bay Area as a centre for advanced manufacturing, innovation, international shipping, finance and trade.
Now, with over 25 weeks of protest, Hong Kong may well be committing suicide by losing its key attractions as a city of business, one of the great world centres of finance, an aviation and tourism hub with an abundance of managerial and professional talent. In fact, not just Hong Kong, the entire Bay Area dream may also be in a jeopardy if Beijing is unable to finesse the situation.
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