China’s Ruling on the Legislative Council in Hong Kong: Implications for Hong Kong’s democracy

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Hong Kong protesters demonstrating against Chinese intervention Photo Credit http://www.rfa.org

The political fallout from the raucous oath-taking ceremony at the Hong Kong Legislative Council last October 12 is causing concern among pro-democracy advocates in Hong Kong. For many, Beijing’s reaction to the event have set a worrisome precedent.

At the now infamous oath-taking ceremony, during the inaugural meeting of the Hong Kong legislature on 12 October, Sixtus “Baggio” Leung and Yau Wai-ching, two newly-elected pro-localist representatives to the Council were to be sworn into their new legislative roles. At their oath-taking, they both displayed a banner with the phrase “Hong Kong is not China” and they chose to read out the oath in a way that was to later incense mainland China’s leadership. They pronounced China as ‘Sheenah’, considered by many Chinese as racial slur dating back to the Sino-Japanese War of 1937 – 1945.

Furthermore, Yau mispronounced “The People’s Republic of China” as “the people’s re-fucking of Chee-na.”

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Sixtus “Baggio” Leung taking the Legislative Council oath, wearing a banner which reads “Hong Kong is not China” Photo Credit: http://www.malaymailonline.com

The National People’s Congress (NPC) of China – regarded by many as a rubber stamp for China’s single-party leadership – weighed in on the oath-taking controversy and effectively blocked Leung and Yau from taking their elected seats. Essentially, the NPC found that because both legislators swore allegiance to the “Hong Kong nation” rather than the People’s Republic of China during the oath and, because they did not “take the oath sincerely and solemnly as well as accurately and completely read out its wording”, the Congress deemed that such individuals should be disqualified from assuming elected office.

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Yau Wai-ching holding the controversial banner at her oath-taking during the inaugural Legislative Council meeting Photo Credit: http://www.straitstimes.com

In the days and hours leading up to the NPC ruling, Hong Kong resident took to the streets to demonstrate their anger in anticipation of Beijing’s November 7 interpretation, arguing that the matter should be instead settled by Hong Kong’s independent judiciary.

Beijing’s unilateral declaration via the NPC on a domestic matter in Hong Kong was viewed as an attempt to mute pro-democracy forces.

 

 

China has the final word

According to the Basic Law – Hong Kong’s “mini-constitution” – the power of its interpretation is vested in the NPC and any interpretations they make transcends Hong Kong court ruling. Before this controversial NPC interpretation on November 7, Beijing had never weighed in on any clause in the Basic Law without first being asked to do so by the Hong Kong Court. Thus November 7 constituted the first time that Beijing had pre-empted the Hong Kong judiciary. As a result, it tied the hands of Hong Kong’s judicial mechanisms: the only option available to the Hong Kong Courts is to follow the interpretation.

 

 

 

A troublesome precedent

This unilateral interpretation now raises speculation about China’s effective veto power. This event highlighted the extent to which China is willing to involve itself in Hong Kong’s internal judicial and legislative affairs and the extent to which China will exercise its ability interpret and re-interpret Hong Kong’s Basic Law in ways that benefit China, cement its control of Hong Kong and quell rogue factions that threaten the country’s stability. The pro-localist Leung and Yau had effectively handed the Chinese government a carte blanche to assert greater control over Hong Kong’s internal affairs. China has shown its willingness to involve itself in matters that many argue should fall squarely under the remit Hong Kong’s judiciary.

The door has now been opened to Beijing. In the future, they could reinterpret Basic Law to strengthen legislative powers against treason or other perceived threats to social harmony. In fact, only days after the NPC Basic Law interpretation, Beijing articulated that it is considering the revival of a highly unpopular national security law. This proposed law would outlaw treason, sedition and other national threats. When the legislation was initially proposed back in 2003, an estimated 500,000 Hong Kong residents protested against it on the streets and as a result it was shelved.

Since the burgeoning of a local independence movement in 2014, however, and the electoral surge of pro-democracy representatives in the September 4, 2016 legislative elections, Chief Executive of Hong Kong, Leung Chun-ying argued that this security law is now seen as a necessary step to curb threats to China’s security. This constitutes one of many trends of encroachment that worry Hong Kong residents who saw promise in the 2014 Umbrella Movement.

 

Hong Kong: an existential threat to the People’s Republic of China (PRC)?

For all its projections as a country with mighty economic clout on the international stage and a formidable military force under the strong leadership of Xi Jinping, the reality is that for China, Hong Kong represents an existential threat to its grasp on power.

A grave fear for the Community Party of China (CCP) was that the 2014 Umbrella Movement would blow up into a colour revolution in the same vein as the Georgian Rose Revolution or the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, both of which precipitated regime change. Or worse: the Arab Spring movement for democracy in 2011 initially began as peaceful street protests, but descended in internecine civil wars, economic catastrophe and humanitarian crises in countries such as Libya, Yemen and Syria.

Of course, China does not have the same level of ethnic or religious tensions that characterise the Middle East: the Han ethnicity constitutes over 90% (around 1.2 billion) of China’s population. Nevertheless, areas in the north and northwest particularly have populations that the CCP fear could find inspiration following any Hong Kong push for independence. Secessionist movements by Tibetans and Uyghurs of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region are seen as threatening the cohesion of China’s sovereign territory.

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Map of China with Xinjiang province

Unlike Tibet, whose fight for independence is more prominently broadcast via international media, the Uighurs’ situation has not garnered the same degree of global attention.Uighur Muslims constitute one of the most distinct minorities in China. They write in Arabic script, speak a Turkic language and practice Sunni Islam. The Uighurs – with a population estimated at 23 million  – have recently been moving against Chinese control and there is a fear that Uigher Muslim independence would pose a threat to China’s control in the country’s Western regions.

One of the reasons that China is so averse to ceding control of its autonomous regions – Xinjiang, Tibet or even Hong Kong – is affected by the latent suspicions by the Chinese government that secessionist movements may be supported – or even catalysed – by Western influences. There is a belief that Western powers wishing to diminish China’s territorial control would exert their influence by fanning the flames of independence, upsetting Han-dominated Chinese social structures and ultimately weakening China’s stance through its territorial dissolution.

 

 

China’s”Century of Humiliation” casting a long shadow on the present

The unique nature of Hong Kong and its special “one state, two systems” status in the PRC is itself a legacy of Western influence. Hong Kong was annexed by Britain in the 1840s following its victory against the Qing Dynasty of the Opium Trade War. This loss of territories transpired to be the beginning of China’s “Century of Humiliation”, in which China suffered at the hands of Western adventurism throughout Asia during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, losing territory and suffering indignities. The century only ended, as this narrative goes, Mao Tse-tung founded the People’s Republic of China and restored dignity to the Chinese people (technically 109 years after Britain’s annexation of Hong Kong).

In 1984, following the expiration of its New Territories lease, Britain ceded its Hong Kong colony back to China, with one strong condition: Hong Kong would be required kept its unique structures, institutions and British-inspired legalistic and democratic character under the aegis of the CCP, with concerns to placate the large business community in the territory. As a result, China was forced to govern a city which was almost the diametric antithesis to its Communist ruling philosophy on the mainland. For many Chinese, the persistence of the territory’s unique status remains as an artifact of Western imperialism and a visceral reminder of China’s historical weakness in the face of Western influence.

 

A democratic time-bomb

The Umbrella Movement of 2014 was the result of this collision course between autocrats in Beijing and pro-democracy campaigners in Hong Kong. These pro-democracy forces see the realisation of independence from Chinese rule and full democratic autonomy as the natural trajectory for Hong Kong to take following its unique history of British rule.

In 2014, the CCP attempted to minimise the impact of Hong Kong’s democratic reforms by requiring a pro-Beijing committee to select the candidates for Hong Kong’s first direct elections, planned to be held in 2017. Protesters flocked to the streets of Hong Kong with the aim to compel China to change this rule, arguing that the ability of the territory to vote is pointless if the candidates are picked by Beijing. These protests sparked the Umbrella Movements and the election of the two now banned pro-localist legislators are one direct result of this democratic surge.

It appears that a “democratic time bomb” is ticking in Hong Kong and sooner or later, there will be a day of reckoning.

How will Hong Kong precede?
The fate of the two pro-localist legislators appears to be sealed with the decision sent down from the NPC. The next question facing the territory will be to figure out how they can inoculate themselves against further attempts by China to suppress Hong Kong’s (ostensibly independent) judicial system or stymie the nascant pro-localist, pro-democracy or pro-independence movements growing in the country.
According to a survey conducted by Chinese University of Hong Kong in the summer of 2016, 17% of respondents surveyed supported the idea of Hong Kong becoming an independent entity after 2047, while under 4% believed that such independence would be “possible”. Many see it as unlikely that China will ever concede on this contentious and highly emotive issue of Hong Kong independence. The fears of “independence contagion” travelling to ethnic groups in Western China as well as fear of “Western infiltration”, via their support of any secession movement, both pose serious threats to the integrity of China’s sovereign power. China will continue to treat Hong Kong as a sui generis territory under their control. In the past, China could rely softer power mechanisms and sway the large and very powerful business communities in Hong Kong to acquiesce to the CCP’s continued control in exchange for favourable terms for economic transactions and high volume of trade with the Mainland. However, with the economic slowdown in China, the carrot option may soon disappear and China may have to resort to sticks to keep Hong Kong in line.
The international dimension to China’s strategy
Britain, the former coloniser of Hong Kong, may keep a muted response to this apparent encroachment of the “one country, two systems” status quo they left upon their departure in 1997. The reason for this is that the UK is currently on the charm offensive abroad, hoping to forge trade deals that would compensate (or even surpass) any trade volumes they would lose after exiting the EU. Theresa May, Prime Minister of Britain, has already visited India in recent days to lay the groundwork for a post-Brexit trade deal. May’s cabinet has its eyes set on China’s large economy. It will not wish to do anything to upset China before beginning trade negotiations. The British government already suffered the ill will after it paused the Hinkely Point nuclear reactor, citing suspicion of China’s level of investment as a security to the UK’s national security.
The US position may soon be an unknown entity. Donald J. Trump, the President-elect of the US has indicated in the past that he is willing to start a trade war with China. However, one oft-repeated trait that Mr. Trump boasted during the Presidential Campaign was that he is a dealer. The best dealer. He is great at making deals. Big League. It could be speculated that Mr. Trump would prepared to forge a deal with Beijing in which he will be allowed to apply a tariff on Chinese imports to the US (and therefore please his electorate by wrangling concessions from China) and in exchange, Trump will turn a blind eye to China’s involvement in Hong Kong’s internal affairs or its suppression of democratic voices.
In conclusion, the ruling by China’s NPC on the oath-taking incident highlights Beijing’s ability to exert unprecedented influence in the internal affairs of Hong Kong, and ultimately, the potential to denigrate the “one country, two systems” status that Hong Kong has enjoyed since 1997.
With the NPC interpretation of its Basic Law, Hong Kong residents witnessed a watershed movement and a stark demonstration of Beijing’s willingness to disregard the will of the local population (by blocking officials that they elected), undermine the independence of the judiciary and censor pro-democracy voices that China views as threatening to its control. China is walking a tightrope. As 2014 highlighted, Hong Kong is capable of staging effective protests that garner international attention. The balancing act of the Chinese Communist Party could be precarious and their attempts at heavy-handed suppression could be the very thing that precipitates a full blown Hong Kong revolt and concerted push for independence.

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