Fri, Jul 04, 2014 - Page 9 News List

The battle for Hong Kong’s soul

Beijing’s grip is slowly tightening, with the Liaison Office playing a key role in developing policy for the territory

By Greg Torode, James Pomfret and Benjamin Kang Lim  /  Reuters, HONG KONG and BEIJING

TOUGHER LINE

In China’s opaque political system, it is impossible to determine whether the party’s growing clout in the territory is entirely the result of a campaign organized from on high, or partly the doing of mainland and local officials eager to please Beijing. Still, a tougher line on Hong Kong is coming from the top.

Despite promises that post-handover Hong Kong should enjoy a high degree of autonomy, Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平), is said to have decided that Beijing has been too lenient.

“Xi Jinping has rectified [China’s] policy for governing Hong Kong,” a source close to the Chinese leader told reporters in Beijing, requesting anonymity. “In the past, the mainland compromised toward Hong Kong too much and was perceived to be weak.”

This tightening grip has fueled resentment and sparked a civil disobedience movement called “Occupy Central,” which threatens to blockade part of Hong Kong’s main business district.

Mass protests can paralyze this high-density territory. Business leaders have said that Occupy could damage businesses: Four of the largest multinational accounting firms placed advertisements in local newspapers warning against the movement, which has been branded illegal by Chinese authorities.

Occupy’s primary aim is to pressure China into allowing a truly democratic election in 2017.

Beijing says Hong Kong can go ahead with a vote in 2017 for the territory’s top leader. However, central Chinese government officials stress that Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law, specifies that only a nominating committee can pick leadership candidates. Pro-democracy activists demand changes that would allow the public to directly nominate candidates.

Nearly 800,000 people voted in an unofficial referendum that ended on Sunday, which called for Beijing to allow open nominations of candidates for the 2017 poll — a vote China’s State Council, or Cabinet, called “illegal and invalid,” Xinhua news agency said.

Fears that the screws are tightening were heightened when Beijing published an unprecedented Cabinet-level white paper last month on Hong Kong. It bluntly reminded Hong Kong that China holds supreme authority over the territory.

“The high degree of autonomy of [Hong Kong] is not an inherent power, but one that comes solely from the authorization by the central leadership,” it said.

The policy document took about a year to prepare and was approved by the 25-member, decisionmaking politburo around a month ago, a second source close to Xi told reporters in Beijing.

It is a tricky issue for China’s new leadership. Hong Kong’s democratic experiment is seen as a litmus test of Beijing’s tolerance for eventual political reforms on the mainland, where calls for greater civil liberties and grassroots democracy have been growing, experts say.

Xi, who has swiftly consolidated power in China since taking office by taking a hard line on domestic and foreign affairs, is unlikely to compromise on Hong Kong, the sources close to him said.

“Hong Kong is no different,” the second source with ties to China’s leadership said. “Pushing for democracy in Hong Kong is tantamount to asking the tiger for its skin.”

China’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong is housed in a skyscraper stacked with surveillance cameras, ringed by steel barricades and topped by a reinforced glass globe. Soaring above streets filled with dried fish shops and small traders, it is known in Cantonese slang as “Sai Wan” a reference to the gritty western end of Hong Kong Island where it is located.

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