Dear Hong Kong people,
Like almost all the weeks since June last year, the past week is a bad one for our city. We are still confronting three severe crises on the public health, socio-political and economic fronts. And they were getting worse, with the political one even uglier.
On the health front, or the Covid-19 pandemic, there is no sign of an early end of the latest outbreak. The Government imposed a week-long whole-day ban on eating in restaurants beginning Wednesday. Pictures of people taking meals at roadside, construction sites, staircases and even inside toilets went viral on social media, fuelling public anger towards the Government.
In an unprecedented and embarrassing U-turn, the Government put an end to the ban on Thursday. It took effect on Friday. Still, the damage to the already-unpopular Carrie Lam administration is done. The “dining-in saga” is yet another goal given away by the team, if there is still one, because of their incompetence, oversight and, more importantly, lack of empathy towards the difficulties of people in their daily life. This time, it is about one of our basic needs: a decent place to eat comfortably.
If the damage to the Government and the society inflicted by the dining-in ban is short-lived, the harm being done to the rights and freedoms of people guaranteed under the Basic Law in the three political sagas in the past week will be more profound and lasting.
On Tuesday, the governing council of the University of Hong Kong sacked law professor Benny Tai for misconduct, ignoring a decision by the senate, which is formed of academic staff. The senate found earlier there were not enough grounds for dismissal. Tai was convicted of public nuisance charges with a 16-month jail term last year, pending an appeal.
Soon after news of the council decision broke, the central government’s Liaison Office lauded the council for making the right decision, slamming Tai for his role in mastermining a list of anti-government protests, which includes the Umbrella Movement, the anti-extradition bill protest and the Legislative Council “35+” gameplan. China’s statement-run media has accused him of being an agent of foreign force in Hong Kong, without elaboration.
The enormity of demonising and personal attacks against Tai bearing similarities to the political purge against liberal-minded intellectuals in China’s Cultural Revolution has sent more chill to the local academia. It has stoked more fears about the erosion of academic freedom and autonomy in universities, which is an important institution that upholds the city’s culture and values.
At stake is much more than the job of Tai, but the strengths of a university with 109 years of history and, indeed, the other tertiary institutions in the city.
Chilly political wind blew on the night of Wednesday when news of the arrest of four members of the now-disbanded Studentlocalism erupted. They were held for secession and inciting secession under the national security law, the first of its kind since the law took effect on July 1. The four suspects aged 16 to 21 were said to be involved with another group, the Initiative Independence Party, which has declared its mission to turn the city into a republic.
If not for the arrests, few people would have taken notice of the launching of the new group. Many people still do not know who they are and what they plan to do from overseas. They may also feel perplexed by how a four-member group of 16 to 21 could possibly separate Hong Kong from the hinterland. But one thing looks certain. The national security law has and will be vigorously enforced. The newly-formed national security team in the Police force will bite with no mercy on what they consider as splittists.
Its timing seems to be coincidental, but the nature of it is not. The disqualification of 12 democrat aspirants from contesting the Legislative Council election, scheduled for September 6, on Thursday is the latest political purge against the democrats. The only difference is that it is the heaviest blow in direct election since it was first held in 1991. Their candidacies were declared invalid by the returning officers in the respective geographical constituency elections, who are all senior administrative officers. Citing their previous deeds and words, they were ruled to be not genuinely supporting the Basic Law and paying allegiance to the Hong Kong SAR.
Like the sacking of Benny Tai, the Liaison Office could not wait to issue a statement giving their full support to the decision of the returning officers whom cynics say did what they were told by their seniors to do.
Forget about the lengthy replies from returning officers to the now-disqualified contestants, their decision is largely expected in view of the hardened approach by Beijing to eradicate what they deem as the city’s pro-independence force - at all costs and with no leniency.
The target of purge is therefore much bigger than predicted, which is aimed to give a more severe warning to the democrats and their supporters not to gamble on the tolerance of the leadership of the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
There is little ground for hopes of a return to pragmatism, self-restraint and common sense in the Beijing leadership despite the devastating blow to the city’s socio-political and economic scene caused by the enactment of the national security law. In an important sign of policy change towards Hong Kong, major Western countries have suspended their extradition agreements with Hong Kong. They say they are unsure whether the “one country, two systems” policy remains what it was and supposed to be.
When US President Donald Trump announced an end of Hong Kong’s preferential trade status, he said, “Hong Kong will now be treated the same as mainland China.” 23 years after the 1997 changeover, the journey of Hong Kong on the path of “one country, two systems” has come to an end, at least from some Western countries’ perspective.
China has put on a brave face and played tit-for-tat against the stronger-than-expected feedback of Western countries on its hardened Hong Kong policy, only to add more oil to the fire.
Labeled by Mrs Lam and the pro-establishment camp as the opposition faction, the democrats have been given another title since the anti-extradition bill protest last year morphed into a social movement with more violence and sabotage of public facilities. They were branded as “mutual destruction faction,” （攬炒派），which could also be translated as “If we burn, you burn with us faction.”
The chain of events in the past week has deepened fears that Hong Kong is now on a slippery slope towards destruction.
Beijing thinks otherwise. They hope that the national security law could restore peace in the city in the long-run. That remains to be seen.
But the scale of destruction to the city’s fundamental strengths - autonomy, freedom and rights, institutions and ties with the world - has already proved to be alarmly large. It is never too late for Beijing to ask themselves whether they really want Hong Kong to be the same as mainland China and, if the answer is no, what they should do.
Greetings from Hong Kong. You said you have been confused by media reports about Hong Kong’s national security law. I don’t blame you. What you read in the Western media have a lot to do with geo-politics and little with the freedoms of the Hong Kong people.
First, One Country Two Systems is alive and well. So are the freedoms that Hong Kong people enjoy. Those who claim that we are losing our freedoms would not swap their residency in Hong Kong for any city in the Mainland of China, or for that matter, any other city in Asia.
On the question of safeguarding national security, if not for the One Country Two Systems principle, the Central Authorities of China would have simply extended to Hong Kong the coverage of the national security laws that have been in force on the Mainland. So think twice when you hear Western politicians say that One Country Two Systems is dead in Hong Kong.
Secondly, perhaps when critics say One Country Two Systems is dead, they actually mean that the autonomy that Hong Kong enjoys has been terminated by the Chinese Government. Here let’s look at the basic facts. The autonomy that Hong Kong enjoys is not the “full autonomy” as Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the United States House of Representatives, once publicly claimed. It is the high degree of autonomy that the Basic Law confers under many of its 160 articles. And so far, no one in Hong Kong or elsewhere has alleged that the enactment or the substance of the national security law breach the Basic Law. I know this question has been asked: why did the National People’s Congress passed the law for Hong Kong, bypassing the Legislative Council? Is that not taking away the autonomy of Hong Kong? The answer can be found in Article 18 of the Basic Law which states “national laws shall not be applied in the Hong Kong SAR except for those listed in Annex III to this Law. The laws listed therein shall be applied locally by way of promulgation or legislation by the Region.” The key words are “promulgation or legislation”. The national security law has taken the promulgation route.
Without going as far as accusing the Chinese government of breaking the Basic Law, some foreign governments have pointed their fingers at the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration. Let us then look at the Joint Declaration. There one of the articles states as follows, “The above-stated basic principles of the People’s Republic of China regarding Hong Kong and the elaboration of them in Annex I to this Joint Declaration will be stipulated, in a Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region... ”. Simple logic tells us that insofar as the Chinese Government’s basic policies regarding Hong Kong are concerned, there can be no breach of the Joint Declaration because there is no breach of the Basic Law.
Let me stay on the Basic Law for a while longer. As part of Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy, at the time of promulgating the Basic Law, Hong Kong was given the autonomy and the responsibility of enacting its own laws to safeguard national security. This is found in the well known Article 23, which starts with the words “The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region shall enact laws on its own to prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion against the Central People’s Government.....”. In 2003, the first and only attempt to fulfil this obligation failed. Since then the often-used filibustering tactic of the pan-democrats meant that any attempt by the Hong Kong SAR Government to enact Article 23 laws would inevitably fail. In recent years the pan-democrats moved the goal posts by insisting that Article 23 laws can only be enacted after Hong Kong has accomplished direct election of the Chief Executive. Indeed as you remember, when I as the Chief Executive tried to reform the electoral system in that direction, the goal post was moved yet again. The pan-democrats with their Occupy Central supporters wanted civic nomination of Chief Executive candidates instead of nomination by a nomination committee which is the requirement under the Basic Law. They also wanted to do away with the power of the Central Government in appointing or not appointing the elected candidate.
So for 23 years Hong Kong did not utilise its autonomy
to fulfil its national security obligations. In the absence of such laws, we have seen in recent years increasing threats to national security, particularly threats to the integrity of Chinese sovereignty over Hong Kong. Both the Chinese Government and the people on the Mainland are rattled. Hong Kong as a whole was seen as abusing its high degree of autonomy and allowing itself to be used as a base and recruitment centre of subversion.
Such people as Jimmy Lai who claim that they are being targeted by the national security law label themselves as leaders in a pro-democracy movement. So let me say something about the nature of democracy in Hong Kong. Hong Kong is not a country. We are a city. But the powers vested in the Chief Executive are much broader compared to those held by the mayors of London, Tokyo and New York, for example. Where do the broader powers of the Hong Kong Chief Executive come from? Not from the Hong Kong electorate. By appointing the elected candidate if it sees fit, the Central Government confers onto the Chief Executive additional powers. So it is the combination of the two mandates, one from the Hong Kong electorate and the other the Chinese Central Government that gives the Chief Executive wide ranging powers and Hong Kong the high degree of autonomy. The pan-democrats wanted to remove the Central Government from this equation and maintain the powers of the Chief Executive. This is not democracy. It is secession by any definition.
Are there other signs of relegating Chinese sovereignty over Hong Kong? Yes. The most recent example was the attempt to frustrate the coming into force of the national anthem law. Filibustering by the pan-democrats wasted months. The goal was to frustrate the passage of the Bill all the way into the summer when Legco would finish its term.
Now that the law has come into force, what’s next? The opposition ironically has been as rowdy and Apple Daily as anti-China as before, despite their claim of being targeted. Roy Kwong Chun-yu, a vocal LegCo member of the Democratic Party happily declared that he had bought a brand new apartment for over HK$10 million and would soon move out of his public rental housing unit. I am glad that the HK$5 million income that he will have received by the end of his 4-year term as LegCo member has been put to good use. Of course he is not alone in the market. Recent offers by real estate developers have done very well. So much for “The end of Hong Kong”. You should be confused. As I said at the beginning, I don’t blame you for it.