Comment

Beijing hits resistance in its push-back against democracy in Hong Kong

China's attempts to take power away from the financial hub's citizens is causing widespread concern, writes Robin Fitzsimons.

The handshake said it all. This week Li Ka-shing,  Hong Kong's richest tycoon, stood side-by-side with China's Communist President, Xi Jinping.  Li and some 70 fellow tycoons were in Beijing, determined to persuade China's leaders to disavow Hong Kong's increasingly vocal democrats. George Orwell and the inhabitants of Animal Farm would surely have recognised the coalition of communists and capitalists intent on disempowering the citizenry.

China has issued a blueprint for the 2017 election of Hong Kong's Chief Executive, and given a new meaning to the term "universal suffrage", so long promised. Only two or three candidates, effectively chosen by Beijing via an unrepresentative Nominating Committee, can stand. This has infuriated Hong Kong and polarised its financial community. It has raised questions about China's compliance with the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration which provided for the return of all Hong Kong to China in 1997 in exchange for strong civic guarantees and autonomies.

Handover: Former Hong Kong governor Chris Patten, left, and his successor under Chinese rule, Tung Chee-hwa, in 1996.
Handover: Former Hong Kong governor Chris Patten, left, and his successor under Chinese rule, Tung Chee-hwa, in 1996. Photo: AP

This declaration applies for 50 years from 1997, with  Hong Kong as  part of "one country, two systems". It entrenches Common Law in Hong Kong, and an expectation of elections. Hong Kong is granted a "high degree of autonomy", except in defence and foreign affairs. Its Court of Final Appeal has rights of final adjudication. Freedoms enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights explicitly apply in Hong Kong. Meanwhile, Xi talks of Hong Kong "under the leadership of the central government".

Whereas China now asserts that all powers in Hong Kong derive from the central government, the reality is that they derive primarily from this bilateral international treaty, which is registered with the United Nations, and secondarily from the declaration's derivative "Basic Law".

So why the present international concerns? 

As the Union Jack descended over Hong Kong at approach of midnight on June 30, 1997, and the Chinese flag was raised, one figure in red commanded centre stage. As the respected Chief Secretary and head of Hong Kong's civil service under both Chris Patten, the last British governor, and Tung Chee-hwa, the first Hong Kong Chief Executive under Chinese sovereignty, Mrs Anson Chan remained in post as the second-most senior figure in Hong Kong's administration -  a reassuring symbol that Hong Kong's way of life and freedoms would continue.

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Little did she expect that 17 years on she would be seeking international support for Hong Kong, and for the perpetually foreshadowed but recurrently postponed democratic elections. Her views reflect pervasive concerns of increased mainland infiltrations across Hong Kong institutions, in ways that sit oddly with the guaranteed autonomies. And a worrying failure of China to understand properly how the independent Hong Kong legal system, which limits government powers, makes Hong Kong "tick".

When she and former veteran legislator, Martin Lee, visited Washington in April they received a sympathetic audience with US Vice-President Joe Biden.

Things were more complicated in Britain in July. As a signatory to the declaration, Britain has a special responsibility to ensure that compliance continues until 2047; it also has burgeoning trade with China. Thanks to a vigilant British press led by The Financial Times,  Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg had an unscheduled meeting with Chan and Lee. The House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee announced an appraisal of Hong Kong. Unsurprisingly, China tried to stop it. To no avail.

Chan demolishes the argument that Hong Kong is not ready for democracy. "Look around countries in our area – Indonesia, Malaysia, India. Are you suggesting that we are in some way inferior to people in those countries?"

She says that Beijing representatives in the Hong Kong "liaison office" are now infiltrating and influencing Hong Kong policy, personnel and elections in a way that would never have been tolerated in the early years following the 1997 "handover". 

Chan is not the only former senior office-bearer concerned about civic developments. Andrew Li Kwok-nang was the inaugural chief justice When China issued a white paper on Hong Kong governance in June, which classified its judiciary as part of the "administration" with a duty support China's security and development, Li responded:

The rule of law with an independent judiciary is universally recognised as a cornerstone of our society.

Andrew Li Kwok-nang, inaugural Hong Kong chief justice

"The rule of law with an independent judiciary is universally recognised as a cornerstone of our society - at  the heart of our separate systems. The white paper issued by the [Chinese] State Council in June has raised widespread concern over judicial independence in Hong Kong. The concern is justified."

Should Andrew Li wish to stand as Chief Executive, he would have support across the political and financial spectrum. But his record of independence would likely disqualify him.

Beijing's election blueprint might yet be knocked back by Hong Kong's legislature.  That could give opportunity for reconsideration. Even Jasper Tsang, the pro-Beijing Legco President, has said that there would be riots in Hong Kong without democracy.

The combined influence of Hong Kong protests  and international condemnation has been effective before now – notably in 2003 when some 500,000 citizens demonstrated against proposed anti-subversion laws which were widely condemned by the international community. This resulted in both the withdrawal of the legislation and the resignation of Chief Executive Tung – ironically now the leader of the tycoons' delegation .

Robin Fitzsimons is a Sydney freelance writer.