Beijing has so far not handed down any more ultimatums on Hong Kong’s political way forward. Official lines have been drawn with the Aug 31, 2014, decision on political reform and the Nov 7, 2016, interpretation of Hong Kong’s Basic Law Article 104 on oath-taking.

But well-placed “sources” have not been shy about presenting authoritative opinions that presumably reflect the current state of official Beijing deliberations about how to manage the Hong Kong stalemate. In polite formal pro-Beijing discourse, this situation is caused by the stubborn dissenting “opposition.” It is also sometimes referred to as the “so-called” democratic camp, or “pan-democrats” in parentheses. “Separatists” and other less flattering terms are used in other contexts.

The end of Hong Kong’s long-drawn-out 2015-17 election cycle signaled an upsurge of such commentaries. With Beijing’s pick, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-Ngor(林鄭月娥), now safely installed as Hong Kong’s next Chief Executive for the coming 2017-22 term, pro-Beijing commentators have been busy suggesting ideas guide the way forward. She will be Hong Kong’s fourth Chief Executive since the return to Chinese rule in 1997.

The suggestions all aim to break the deadlock on Beijing’s terms, albeit without actually presenting them as official Beijing thinking. Presumably, they are meant to prepare public opinion and test the waters for what seems likely to follow.


The first order of business is already underway. This entails dealing with those who have done the most to precipitate the current stalemate, which has actually been in the works for many years. From Beijing’s perspective, it began with the massive protest generated in 2003 by the Hong Kong government’s attempt to pass national security legislation, as mandated by Article 23 of Hong Kong’s Basic Law. The legislation remains shelved.

Beijing’s next most significant political defeat was the popular upsurge of dissent in 2012 against the Hong Kong government’s attempt to introduce compulsory political study courses for all elementary and secondary school students. The curriculum was withdrawn.

Finally came the refusal to accept Beijing’s solution for its Basic Law promise to allow universal suffrage elections. This produced a lengthy pushback: from the 79-day Occupy street blockades in 2014; to the formal veto of Beijing electoral reform design in 2015; and finally, the failure of pro-Beijing candidates to register any significant gains during the 2015-17 election cycle that has just ended. Hong Kong’s pro-democracy voters succeeded in maintaining a coherent opposition voice throughout an indication of just how strong the resistance has become.

Hong Kong’s first three Beijing-approved Chief Executives have also been discredited and delegitimized, unable to withstand the ongoing climate of resistance.

That climate ended all hope of maximizing loyalist pro-Beijing gains via local elections. Hence the first order of business, the day after Carrie Lam’s March 26 selection for Chief Executive had been formalized, was the announcement of pending trials for nine leaders and activists from the 2014 Occupy protest movement. Included are the three original Occupy Central founders who began organizing in 2013, and two current Legislative Councilors.

Additionally, fallout from the Occupy movement is now threatening to cost another eight newly-elected Occupy-generation Legislative Councilors their seats adding up to a total of 10 in all. The eight are being prosecuted separately for various radical actions associated with the swearing-in ceremony last October (April 19, 2017, post).

Arrests are also ongoing for other transgressions. Besides possible disqualification as Legislative Councilors, once judicial proceedings are concluded in the oath-taking saga, five of the 10 legislators are also being charged with disruptive offenses that carry possible prison terms.

On April 27, another nine activists were arrested as ringleaders of an unauthorized protest outside Beijing’s Liaison Office here. It took place on November 6 in anticipation of Beijing’s interpretation of Basic Law Article 104 on oath-taking that was to be announced the next day. The government is seeking to disqualify the legislators on the basis of that November 7 interpretation (April 28, 2017: Wen Wei Po, SCMP).

By the book

Still, it must be said that through it all Beijing has continued to play by the book … or rather the Basic Law. Except for the push-back from hundreds-of-thousands of Hong Kongers themselves including voters and marchers, most everything else has gone according to Beijing’s plan, slow, steady, and methodical, all proceeding via the intricacies of the Basic Law.

So now it’s possible to see what those upbeat pre-1997 slogans and Basic Law promises meant. And also what they do not mean. The slogans: “Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong,” “high degree of autonomy,” “50 years without change,” “one-country, two systems, “ rule of law, and so on.

Beijing’s power of appointment, Chief Executive, and all leading officials is substantive and democracy partisans need not apply. The Legislative Council’s bifurcated design is such that Hong Kong conservatives and pro-Beijing loyalists can easily retain their hold over more than half the seats. Majorities on all 18 District Councils are dominated by pro-Beijing partisans and their conservative allies all local Hong Kongers.

The police force is loyal to the government and the judiciary now accepts that when Beijing issues a decision, Hong Kong courts are bound to obey (Feb. 16, 2017, post). Institutions and power bases are all secured. So too are appointments to all official advisory bodies. The Chief Executive appoints leading members of all university governing councils. All newspapers, save one, are owned by conservatives and pro-Beijing tycoons.

The 20 years since 1997 when the British left have been well spent, the groundwork carefully laid. Hong Kong is now poised to begin making the final transition from one-country, two-systems, to one-country-one-system.

If only it wasn’t for those hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers who keep voting and marching and speaking a political language Beijing either does not understand or at least cannot accept.

Hence, along with the tough post-Occupy prosecutions and punishments, pro-Beijing surrogates and champions have begun, finally, using Beijing’s definitions to explain directly to the people of Hong Kong what the promises mean.

The aim is to explain the gap between what Hong Kongers thought Beijing’s pre-1997 promises were going to mean, and the reality of life on the ground 20 years after the promises was supposed to go into effect. Had Beijing done so before, of course, the resistance would probably have escalated much earlier.

A new take on the old promises

Zhou Bajun(周八駿)is often featured on the op-ed pages of pro-Beijing Hong Kong publications. He is a member of the Hong Kong government’s Commission on Strategic Development and an associate of Shanghai’s Academy of Social Sciences. So he is well placed to translate the political languages of both sides. He elaborated recently on what Hong Kongers have come to realize during the past 20 years of trial and error, without any confirmation from Beijing.

Zhou wrote that three misunderstandings have developed around Beijing’s one-country, two-systems for post-colonial Hong Kong. First, Hong Kongers themselves and observers elsewhere have confused the one-country, two systems design with the way it actually works in practice. For sure.

It was originally designed by Beijing to smooth the transition from British to Chinese rule by maintaining essentially the same political system before and after 1997. And it would have been a great success in that respect, claimed Zhou, except that at the last minute, during the final years of British rule, they tried to change the system. This they did by trying to introduce more democratic elements.

At the time, the last British governor, Christopher Patten, said they were only doing what they had been remiss in doing long before, which by any standard was true. Hong Kong was the only British colony never to have been allowed any form of popularly elected representation in government.

The British didn’t begin to introduce one-person, one-vote direct elections in Hong Kong until the 1980s after they learned they would be leaving come 1997. The 1990s speed-up was an afterthought following the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, at a time when no one could anticipate what might happen in China.

Zhou claims the disruptive nature of Hong Kong’s “opposition camp” can be traced to the expectations created by those last-minute 1990s reforms. They sought to introduce “representative democracy” into the “existing political system” the British colonial consultative system that Beijing had done its best to transpose for post-1997 use. This was done through Hong Kong’s new Basic Law constitution written by Beijing in the 1980s and promulgated in 1990.

Zhou also blames the Americans for “expanding infiltration in Hong Kong” but offers no details on that point.

The second misunderstanding was to misconstrue the meaning of Hong Kong’s Basic Law Article 5. It promises that for 50 years from 1997, “the socialist system and policies shall not be practiced” in Hong Kong and the “previous capitalist system and way of life shall remain unchanged.”

How could anything remain unchanged for 50 years, asks Zhou. Article 5 should not be interpreted to deny “the need to move with the times.” Nor should it be used to deny the need for economic integration, which gained momentum under Beijing’s direction after the post-1997 Asian financial crisis exposed Hong Kong’s vulnerabilities.

What all that means now, explains Zhou is Beijing’s one system for economic integration. But Hong Kong’s political system should not be allowed to obstruct the one system development.

This is, of course, just what has helped spur Hong Kong resistance: all the many cross-border projects now underway that are serving to erase the boundary line under the pretext of economic benefits for all.

A third misunderstanding concerns the matter of core values and the assumption that the 50-year guarantee was meant to include Hong Kong’s “core values introduced from the West.” Many Hong Kongers felt that holding on to those core values was a crucial part of the one-country, two systems promise “without realizing it is a misunderstanding or even a lie.”

Anyway, one essential value is missing from that assumption, namely, that “Hong Kong is an inseparable part of China.”

Zhou thinks these three misunderstandings must be corrected if Hong Kong is to move forward along the correct path (China Daily, April 20, 2017; also, Ta Kung Pao, April. 20, 27).

More reflections of Beijing’s thinking were provided by Lau Nai-keung (劉迺強). Lau is well-known among local politicians. He, too, is a member of the Hong Kong government’s Commission on Strategic Development. He also serves on the Beijing-appointed Basic Law Consultative Committee that issues authoritative opinions on legal matters as required.

Back in the day, in the late 1980s, Lau was one of the founding members of Meeting Point, an activist group that developed into the Democratic Party a few years later. But by then he had broken with his friends, specifically over the issue of Governor Patten’s late-stage electoral reforms. Lau withdrew from Meeting Point in January 1993 and went on to become one of the democracy camp’s most acerbic loyalist critics.

He startled reporters covering a Beijing seminar on Hong Kong last month with another of his trademark comments (SCMP, Ta Kung Pao, April. 23). Lau then elaborated for the benefit of readers back home (China Daily, April 25, 2017).

Much had been made about Beijing officials lobbying on Carrie Lam’s behalf during the run-up to her final March 26 selection. It was a sensitive subject but too obvious to deny despite her awkward attempts. Beijing’s Liaison Office personnel here had reportedly been busy at work, not to mention top official Zhang Dejiang flying south from Beijing to lobby Election Committee members who met him in Shenzhen (Feb. 27, 2017, post).

Critics pointed to the Basic Law’s Article 22 that forbids such intervention, or at least everyone used to think so it did. Article 22 states specifically that “no department of the Central People’s Government may interfere in the affairs which the Hong Kong Special Administration Region administers on its own in accordance with this Law.”

Lau Nai-keung repeated what he had said in Beijing. Of course, officials had lobbied on her behalf, he wrote. Otherwise, she wouldn’t have secured such a high number of votes, 777, from among the 2,000-member Election Committee.

Lau then moved from the specific to the general. Article 22 of the Basic Law does say that mainland officials are not supposed to interfere in Hong Kong affairs. But Lau defined interference as something negative “unwanted and counter-productive.” Beijing officials working in the Hong Kong Liaison Office were just doing their jobs. They were not violating Article 22 because their work was not unwanted or counter-productive.

Lau, like Zhou, was translating and updating the Basic Law’s promises to reflect how Beijing is now implementing them in practice. The Liaison Office and its Beijing officials are actually participating in Hong Kong affairs, Lau wrote, but they are not meddling. If Article 22 had meant to forbid participation, it would have used that word. Interfering means something else.

Furthermore, Article 22 only refers to departments and local governments under the central government … not the central government itself, which the Liaison Office represents. Its participation is essential for transmitting the central government’s intentions. Lau blamed Hong Kong’s anti-mainland media for this misunderstanding of one country, two systems (China Daily, April. 25, 2017).

Liaison Office legal affairs chief Wang Zhenmin(王振民) subsequently provided some official back-up for Lau’s argument. The occasion was a seminar celebrating the 27th anniversary of the Basic Law’s promulgation in April 1990.

In his speech, Wang said Hong Kong’s young people are a great disappointment with all their new separatist political ideas. These are, in effect, challenging Beijing’s sovereignty as well as the nation’s security and its developmental progress. Beijing is not interfering in Hong Kong but only exercising Beijing’s sovereign rights … just like the brain’s relationship to the body. One could not function without the other. (SCMP, Wen Wei Po, April 30, 2017).

Bejing's Hong Kong To Do List

The new elaborations by Zhou, Lau, and others are actually a welcome change. At least Beijing is no longer hiding behind the original deceptive dual-use language of the Basic Law. Its words are finally being transposed to reflect their real-life meaning. This should spur pan-democrats to tailor their demands and strategies more effectively to the challenges they face.

But now that Beijing is beginning to reveal its real intentions, how does it plan to bring Hong Kong’s voters and marchers into line? The main themes are clear.

First, clamp down hard on “separatists” of all kinds. For now, Beijing is not distinguishing among those advocating independence, self-determination, or genuine autonomy. This will no doubt come later. The old divide and rule principle. But since all of Hong Kong’s main political groups have come out at least for self-determination, Beijing is not distinguishing between and among them.

Everyone who can be flagged for rejecting Beijing’s authority, as reflected in its plans and decisions, is being tarred with the same “separatist” brush. And a specific aim is to remove as many as possible from the positions they have gained within “the establishment” meaning most immediately, the Legislative Council (April 19, 2017, post).

Second, pro-Beijing politicians are gearing up for the special elections to follow the anticipated disqualification of Legislative Councilors for their oath-taking violations and other offenses. That will give loyalists a second chance to make up for the post-Occupy gains that eluded them in last year’s Legislative Council election (Sept. 8, 2016 post).

The third is how best to use any such gains, but officials seem still to be debating among themselves. Chief Executive-designate Carrie Lam says she wants to focus on livelihood issues and set aside contentious challenges like political reform until tranquillity can be restored. The much-touted aim is to “heal” the rifts in Hong Kong society, bridge gaps, overcome divisions.

Wang Zhenmin agrees. He’s out and about everywhere these days. During a recent speech in Beijing, he said that Hong Kong’s universal suffrage electoral reform project should be shelved for another 5-10 years. He said more time and energy should not be wasted on so disruptive an enterprise. Best focus on economic development and livelihood issues (Ming Pao, SCMP, April 23, 2017; HKFreePress, Apr. 24).

But with or without reviving political reform, and despite all the talk about healing and peace-making, loyalists are not trending toward conciliation. Instead, their thoughts are headed in the opposite direction … converging around the need to revive Article 23 national security legislation.

This is the most feared of all future prospects given: (1) Hong Kong’s evolving relationship with the mainland; (2) Beijing’s conflation of national and political security; and (3) Beijing’s habit of issuing interpretations that Hong Kong courts now accept they are bound to obey.

One academic in Hong Kong’s cross-border sister city of Shenzhen has even promoted Article 23 legislation as a means of healing the rifts. He said the legislation would give Hong Kong authorities the legal means they do not now have to enforce compliance, a mainland perspective on overcoming political divisions (SCMP, April 22, 2017).

The dean of Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing loyalist politicians, Jasper Tsang Yok-sing(曹鈺成), puts it somewhat more diplomatically. Recently retired, he has just set up his own think tank and one of its first recommendations focuses on the revival of Article 23 legislation.

There is a sense of urgency in all these reminders and there are many of them. Hong Kong should pass this legislation sooner rather than later, says Tsang, before Beijing loses patience and imposes something worse (April. 3, 2017: Wen Wei Po, Ming Pao, SCMP).

The News Lens has been authorized to republish this article. The piece was first published by Suzanne Pepper here.

Editor: Edward White