Pro-democracy lawmakers protest as Li Fei (on screen), deputy general secretary of the National People's Congress standing committee, speaks during a briefing session in Hong Kong Sept. 1, 2014


(Foreign Affairs)

September 9, 2014

Big Trouble in Little China

Pro-democracy lawmakers protest as Li Fei, deputy general secretary of the National People's Congress standing committee, speaks during a briefing session in Hong Kong Sept. 1, 2014

Photo by Bobby Yip/Reuters

by Scott Warren Harold

When China announced last week that it would not permit open nominations for the post of Hong Kong chief executive in 2017, it marked a turning point in one of the most serious crises to affect the city since it was handed over by the United Kingdom in 1997 with a promise that it could retain its own way of life for 50 years. According to the Sino-British Joint Declaration on Hong Kong, by which the city was returned to China, Beijing promised to allow Hong Kong to retain its basic capitalist economic system and social institutions until 2047. That promise was not only enshrined in an international treaty between China and the United Kingdom, but also written into the Hong Kong constitution, known as the Basic Law, and reflected in China's public commitment to the policy of “one country, two systems.” But many Hong Kongers have long suspected that China aspires to accelerate the existing timeline. Thus, while the immediate question roiling Hong Kong today is how the city will be governed after 2017, on another level, Hong Kong is wrestling with much more fundamental questions concerning what convergence and eventual integration into the mainland will mean, when it should begin, how it should proceed, and what rights Hong Kongers have in shaping how (or even if) that process unfolds.

Politically, Hong Kongers have already had plenty of opportunity to experience the sorts of chief executives that take office when Beijing selects the city's leaders, and it has not been a happy experience. Hong Kong's current chief executive, C. Y. Leung, was chosen by a pro-Beijing selection committee in 2012, as were his predecessors Donald Tsang (2005–12) and C. H. Tung (1997–2005). Both Tsang and Tung left their posts deeply unpopular and having lost the trust of the city's residents; since taking office, Leung has repeatedly given the impression that he prioritizes Beijing's concerns over those of Hong Kong. Two incidents in particular have contributed to this impression.

First, upon taking office, Leung immediately visited the Central Government Liaison Office in Hong Kong's Western District, leading many to speculate that he was offering thanks to those who had engineered his selection. Then, just a few months into his term, on National Day 2012, a horrific ferry accident killed at least 39 people and injured 92 others. In the wake of that incident, Leung rushed to a local hospital where the wounded were receiving treatment and held a press conference, but he spoke only after allowing Liaison Office Deputy Director Li Gang to speak first. In Li's remarks, he offered to arrange disaster recovery assistance through Guangdong Province, a suggestion to which many Hong Kongers took offense. Not only was their city's chief executive upstaged by Beijing's deputy representative, but the implication seemed to be that Li thought Hong Kong couldn't handle a simple maritime accident on its own and needed help from Guangdong.

Additionally, many Hong Kongers worry that the city's policing, immigration, and legal functions have been under growing pressure from China. A key early incident shaping local views in this regard was the 2003 effort to push through a harsh national security law that would have criminalized criticism of the central government in Beijing and restricted Hong Kongers' ability to be in contact with foreign political groups such as nongovernmental organizations and diplomatic officials. Since that time, mainland officials have sought repeatedly, using public pronouncements and condemnations, to dissuade U.S. and British diplomats from meeting with local politicians and activists in Hong Kong, claiming that doing so constitutes “interference” in Chinese domestic affairs. And democracy activists from overseas, Chinese dissidents living abroad, and Falun Gong practitioners have at times found themselves banned from visiting the city over their political views.

Such negative developments in the political domain have been mirrored in the educational realm as well. A 2010 proposal to introduce a “national education” curriculum that would have encouraged students to identify with mainland China in general — and to be supportive of the Chinese Communist Party in particular — led to widespread outrage and popular protest. Shortly thereafter, in late 2011, when then Vice Premier Li Keqiang visited Hong Kong University, police were ordered to lock down the entire campus to protect the visiting dignitary and in the process of establishing a security cordon detained several students for the duration of the visit, leading to charges of police abuse and censorship of free speech.

Tensions in the educational realm rose further in 2012 when Central Government Liaison Office spokesman Hao Tiechuan publicly criticized Hong Kong University Professor Robert Chung for presenting research suggesting that fewer and fewer Hong Kongers identify as “Chinese” and instead express a deepening sense of local identity. Echoing claims made in Communist Party–controlled Hong Kong newspapers Wen Wei Po and Ta Kung Pao, Hao claimed that Chung's research was “unscientific” and hinted that it might constitute “incitement” on behalf of the United Kingdom, Hong Kong's former colonial ruler. Many locals interpreted these comments as barely veiled threats to intellectual freedom and objective academic inquiry. Even more recently, the firings of Professors Eric Sautede and Bill Chou in neighboring Macau, itself a former Portuguese colony that was returned to China in 1999, have unsettled many Hong Kong academics.

In addition to these political and economic developments, Hong Kongers have been disturbed by a spate of efforts in recent years to pressure, infiltrate, intimidate, and shut down the city's independent critical media outlets. Historically, the city had always had one of the most open media environments in Asia, but of late there has been a sharp turn away from such freedom, with China widely suspected of having used business interests and organized criminal gangs to intimidate those in the Hong Kong media who represent independent, critical voices.

For example, in 2012 Wang Xiangwei, a member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, an advisory organ of the Chinese central government, was appointed to the post of editor in chief of the city's flagship English-language daily, the South China Morning Post, by the paper's pro-Beijing owner, Malaysian tycoon Robert Kuok. Critical reporting on China and editorial coverage of issues sensitive to Beijing were immediately relegated to a lower priority, and highly decorated veteran journalist Paul Mooney, whose reporting on a wide variety of scandals and human rights violations in China displeased Beijing authorities, was fired. Similarly, in January 2014, Kevin Lau, then editor in chief of the liberal Ming Pao Daily, was replaced by an editor widely regarded as more friendly to Beijing. A month later, Lau was attacked by a man who struck him from behind with a meat cleaver and escaped on a waiting motorcycle; the attack appears to have been intended to maim and to send a signal to other liberal media figures not to tread on the interests of Beijing or its local allies.

In 2013, the home of Jimmy Lai, the owner of the city's largest paper, Apple Daily, was attacked by an assailant who crashed a car into Lai's front gate and left an ax as his calling card before fleeing the scene. Subsequently, in July 2014, someone hacked into the computers of Lai, who is a major critic of the Chinese Communist government, and stole e-mails detailing his financial support to pro-democracy figures in Hong Kong. These purloined communications were then released to pro-Beijing papers, and just weeks later the Independent Commission Against Corruption, claiming to be investigating bribery of Legislative Council officials based on information in the illegally obtained e-mails, raided Lai's home and three other premises.

Other independent media figures have suffered violence and intimidation in recent years as well. In June 2013, Chen Ping, the publisher of the muckraking weekly iSunAffairs, which routinely criticizes mainland Chinese government policies, was brutally beaten with steel pipes by a pair men suspected of triad connections. And the chilling message being sent by such attacks appears to have worked: in July 2014, Tony Tsoi, the editor of the Chinese-language website House News, which regularly criticized Chinese government policies, closed the company down, citing a “white terror” campaign of intimidation by forces he refused to name but were widely believed to be mainland security and intelligence agents operating through local criminal networks.

Even Hong Kongers who aren't interested in politics, educational issues, or media freedom have complained about the economic and social pressures that interactions with China are putting on the city. Mainland property investors are widely seen as responsible for driving up the prices of real estate in Hong Kong, which is making home ownership impossible for all but the elite. Additionally, until a ban was put in place in late 2012, Hong Kongers routinely bemoaned the difficulty of finding space in public hospitals to give birth to their children, thanks to the crush of mainland mothers wanting to use the city's medical facilities. And once they did have their babies, many Hong Kongers feared that they wouldn't be able to procure sufficient baby formula to feed them with, since mainlanders, who understandably don't trust their own country's milk powder industry after a series of high-profile product safety scandals, were raiding the city's supermarkets to stock up on baby formula, leading to a ban on the export of milk powder from the city in 2013.

Finally, for many ordinary Hong Kongers, interactions with mainlanders who visit the city are feeding a bitter sense of cultural conflict, with increasing numbers of Hong Kongers expressing frustration at mainlanders' sense of entitlement and lack of refinement. Most Hong Kongers feel that mainlanders are something akin to foreigners and believe that as guests in the city, mainlanders should be deferential to local customs. By contrast, mainlanders tend to feel that because Hong Kong is now a part of China, locals shouldn't act as if they are somehow separate from China's national culture or superior to it. These divergent perspectives have increasingly resulted in heated exchanges.

In 2012, after an incident in which Hong Kongers sternly criticized a mainland woman for failing to abide by posted signs prohibiting eating on the subway, Beijing University Professor Kong Qingdong took to the Internet to berate residents of the city as “bastards” and “running dogs of the British,” comments that further inflamed tensions between the two sides. A number of Hong Kongers have taken to referring to Chinese visitors as “locusts” who prey on the city's resources, and in February 2014, a group of Hong Kongers took to the streets, carrying placards demanding that mainlanders “go back to China.” More recently, in April 2014, a video was published online showing a confrontation between a mainlander family who had allowed their young child to go to the bathroom on a Hong Kong street and outraged locals who found this a further example of presumptuousness and a lack of proper public hygiene among mainlander visitors to the city. The video provided plenty of fodder for each side to reinforce its negative stereotypes of the other.

As a consequence of this broad array of tensions, some Hong Kongers have even gone so far as to hoist the colonial flag of British Hong Kong in protest and proclaim their desire for independence from the mainland. This is a shocking turn of events from just seventeen years ago, when the common wisdom at the time of the hand-over from British to Chinese control was that Hong Kongers did not care about politics and wanted only to pursue personal wealth. Today, many locals believe that the social contract has broken down, that relations with China are no longer working to Hong Kong's benefit, and that if they want a brighter future for themselves and their children, they will have to stand up and fight for it. As indicated by recent electoral democracy protest marches — as well as earlier anti-national education protests and annual Tiananmen Square massacre commemoration events — more and more Hong Kongers are willing to come into the streets to make their voices heard in demanding a say in what values their children are exposed to, how their history is remembered, and how their city is governed. Thus, as China's central government and residents of Hong Kong consider their next steps in the wake of last week's decision on the 2017 chief executive election, they will do so against a background of deteriorating trust, declining social acceptance of integration, and, at the broadest levels, a worsening of relations between Hong Kong and mainland Chinese society.

Indeed, China's victory over its democratic opponents in this round may yet prove pyrrhic for at least two reasons. First, the movement for greater democracy in Hong Kong appears to be expanding from its base among academics and lawyers out to the city's student population, with a series of class attendance strikes planned for late September on university campuses. Second, the city's Legislative Council, where a substantial number of pan-democrats hold seats, must review and approve any change to the city's process of choosing its chief executive. If the 27 members of the 70-seat Legislative Council who caucus together in favor of democracy vote against Beijing's proposed changes, it will mean leaving in place the discredited method of selection by a Chinese-controlled 1,200-person committee that currently exists. Such a step would further sharpen tensions and call into question how any future chief executive could establish even a modicum of legitimacy.

As such, the stage is set for a new, longer-term, and potentially even more difficult stage in Hong Kong–China relations, one in which the two sides are less likely to work cooperatively to solve the city's challenges and more likely to eye each other with suspicion and resentment. Thus, while Beijing has ensured its ability to control who runs Hong Kong in 2017 and beyond, the consequences of its decision could make actually governing the city much more difficult in the years to come. And its overall approach to Hong Kong may well end up destroying the very institutions that made the city so unique.

Scott W. Harold is a political scientist with the RAND Corporation.

This commentary originally appeared on Foreign Affairs on September 8, 2014.