The slow death of Hong Kong

Sue Sparks reports from Hong Kong, where mainland China is tightening its grip

Photo: Sue Sparks

Photo: Sue Sparks

Hong Kong rarely makes it to the international news, but the disappearance of five people, all connected with a publishing company and bookshop in the city which specialises in titles unwelcome in mainland China – many of them scurrilous accounts of the CCP leadership’s sex lives rather than more substantial political fare – has aroused interest because of its implications for Hong Kong’s ‘one country, two systems’ status.

Without delving into the details of the story, it is obvious now to everyone that these people are being detained somewhere on the mainland. One, who holds dual Swedish nationality, disappeared from his vacation home in Thailand and has now surfaced making a confession on Chinese state television. Another, who left Hong Kong without his ‘home return permit’ (a document needed by Hong Kong residents to enter the mainland from the city) has made phone calls and sent letters, evidently from Shenzhen, just across the ‘border’. It is this case, where it is a near-certainty that he was abducted by mainland security officials, that has raised fear in the city, as the only forces legally entitled to operate in Hong Kong under the “Basic Law” that serves as a mini-constitution are Hong Kong’s own police. If the mainland has sent officers into the city to kidnap Hong Kong citizens and render them into detention across the border, then effectively ‘one country, two systems’ is dead.

These events follow a series of actions and incidents, both before and since the Occupy protests ended over a year ago, which have indicated Beijing’s intention to tighten its grip on Hong Kong. Beijing has issued statements indicating that it believes Hong Kong’s judges are simply “administrators” and should demonstrate “patriotism” and that the Chief Executive, CY Leung, holds a “transcendent” position above the law (quickly disputed by the Chief Justice).

Another example is the assault on the academic freedoms of the city’s universities, especially its most prestigious one, HKU. The governing Council (to which the city’s Chief Executive can appoint members) rejected the appointment of a law scholar who had been a prominent supporter of the Occupy movement as a pro-vice-chancellor, in spite of the fact that he was the unanimous choice of the university’s search committee and was backed by the staff, students, alumni and vice-chancellor. The student union representative on the Council leaked the discussions from the Council meeting, revealing the spurious arguments used to reject him. Students and staff have held protests and many students are currently boycotting classes.

Since the ‘fake universal suffrage’ proposal to elect the Chief Executive (instead of the restrictive franchise there would have been one person, one vote, but only for candidates vetted by a small committee) was defeated in the Legislative Council last year, the government has tried to argue that it will concentrate on livelihood issues rather than politics. Yet it is so bound to the property developers and the big business interests that run Hong Kong that it is unable to deliver on anything for ordinary people, whether it is more affordable housing (Hong Kong currently has the highest price to income ratio of any city in the world, including London and New York, and many people in their late twenties and thirties continue to live in tiny flats with their parents), standard working hours or a proper pension scheme.

At the same time, they spend billions on prestige projects such as the high speed rail link to Guangzhou and the Hong Kong-Macau-Zhuhai bridge, not coincidentally projects of which Beijing approves. The failure to legislate for standard working hours, which allows employers to get away with not paying overtime, and the refusal to stop the practice of letting employers pay severance and redundancy out of people’s compulsory MPF (pension) contributions has pushed even the pro-establishment Federation of Trade Unions into some oppositional stances recently. A few other pro-establishment (which means pro-Beijing and pro-big business, they are one and the same) politicians have also voiced disquiet over the government’s failure to do anything substantial about the extreme and worsening inequality in Hong Kong, despite sitting on enormous fiscal reserves. The recent ‘consultation’ about a universal pension scheme is a case in point. The government presented two ‘alternatives’: a miserly means-tested pension for people with less than HK$80,000 in assets (around £7,000) and a pension payable to everyone, which they claimed would lead to a massive government deficit and a huge hike in taxes. They ignored an affordable scheme that would ensure universal pensions put forward by a large group of academics, who are now boycotting the whole exercise.

While there is a general air of gloom in the city – exemplified by a recent local box office hit for an independent film called Ten Years, which depicts a grim Hong Kong in 2025 – and people are pessimistic about the chances of taking on Beijing, there is still a great deal of discontent. There may not be quite as many demos as when I first arrived in 2011, when it seemed there was one every day, but there are still many issues on which people will hit the streets or launch judicial reviews of government policies (one of the few avenues open). Parents are fighting the testing of primary school children through the Territory-Wide System Assessment (TSA). Thousands turned out on the New Year demonstration and again to demand answers about the missing booksellers. The local elections for District Councillors in November delivered some victories for candidates from newly-formed parties springing from Occupy, not all of which are ‘localist’. A candidate – Sally Mei Ching-tang of Socialist Action – who stood on an explicitly socialist platform (including rent control, rights for women and migrant workers, solidarity with workers on the mainland and declaring she would take much less than the salary she would be entitled to), campaigned hard in a working class district and polled 33 per cent of the vote, drawing around her a number of local people, mainly working class women and migrants, who then came on the 1 January demonstration. This shows what can be done here, given the right politics, and the resources and effort.

Unfortunately, socialists are in a tiny minority, which is not surprising in the light of the fact that for most Hongkongers (many of whom either fled the mainland or are the children of mainland refugees) socialism Chinese-style hardly looks appealing. “Left-wing” here tends to mean Red Guard-type Maoists. The pan-democrat parties are largely bourgeois or professional middle-class democrats of the US Democratic Party variety (minus the clout and money) or populists willing to exploit hostility to mainlanders in a xenophobic way. It was this vacuum of political leadership which led the Occupy movement into a blind alley, as these people were quite unwilling to make any connections between universal suffrage and economic and social demands. Though they lost influence early to the student leaders, the latter were too inexperienced to make the strategic links or to take the right tactical decisions.

Meanwhile, across in the mainland, there is a huge crackdown taking place on labour rights activists and human rights lawyers, as the regime is worried about the upsurge in industrial disputes brought on (especially in Guangdong just over the border from Hong Kong) by factory closures and relocations as a result of the rise in labour costs and the drying up of the supply of migrant labour from the rural areas. China is facing both a short-term crisis as a result of a property bubble and over-indebtedness, and a longer term one as the economy needs to shift from low-cost manufacturing into higher-value-added industries and services, based more on domestic consumption and less on exports. It is in danger of being caught in the ‘middle-income’ trap which places like Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea escaped – but these were much smaller economies. At the same time, Xi Jinping is engaged in the anti-corruption drive, which has spread from middle-ranking officials into the top echelons of the Party-state, and now into the private sector. This is accompanied by increasing attacks on the limited space within which the media operates, on NGOs, and on academic freedom, and by a higher volume of vaguely Maoist rhetoric. It is not entirely clear what is going on, but the abductions in Hong Kong may fit into this, as the leadership is especially sensitive to anything published concerning the family interests of top officials. It was investigations into these which have led to the deportations of western journalists in recent years.

What is clear is that – with the rise of Shanghai as a financial centre in particular – the Beijing leadership has much less need of Hong Kong. The city has long lost its manufacturing industry and relies heavily on its unique position in China as a place where international companies can make contracts that they can expect the courts to enforce impartially, where corruption is kept under control and where expatriates can live a similar life to the one they are used to in their home countries. The spectre of mainland thugs snatching people off the streets at will, judges placing ‘patriotism’ above the law and the rapid increase in the culture of guanxi (you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours) will certainly render Hong Kong just like any other small Chinese city, which may be exactly what Beijing wants. It will be a sullen city, but unless there is a way to link Hong Kong’s struggles with those on the mainland, they will inevitably be defeated.

 

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