On Tuesday last week, the Chinese government informed the government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region that the APEC Economic Leaders’ Meeting that had been scheduled to take place in Hong Kong on Sept. 10 would be held in Beijing instead.
Observers see this as a sign that Beijing is starting to wield the stick over Hong Kong.
The sudden change highlights the fact that Beijing is able to control the international space Hong Kong receives, but it also shows how worried the Chinese government is that the anti-China “Occupy Central” movement could use the conference to expand its influence.
Meanwhile, Kevin Lau (劉進圖), former chief editor of Hong Kong’s Ming Pao, who has at times been highly critical of the Chinese Communist Party, was on Wednesday last week wounded on his back and legs by unknown assailants wielding cleavers. Although the reasons for the attack are not yet known, it occurred against a background of increasing control over Hong Kong’s media by Beijing in recent years, leading people in Hong Kong to hazard guesses as to the attackers’ motive and provoking a strong backlash.
Following its return to China in 1997, Hong Kong signed the Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement with China in 2003 and started allowing mainland Chinese to visit Hong Kong as individual travelers.
However, Hong Kongers find Chinese visitors’ noisy and unruly behavior very annoying, and incidents of friction have been cropping up since 2008.
Hong Kong’s streets are teeming with Chinese tourists, who caused a milk powder shortage by buying it up in huge quantities.
Another issue that has had a negative effect on Hong Kongers’ lives is the ever-increasing number of babies born there to mainland women whose spouses are not permanent residents of Hong Kong because the children automatically gain the right of abode.
Furthermore, increasing numbers of tourists have driven prices up, while the gap between the rich and poor keeps getting wider.
Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying (梁振英) has not come up with any solutions to these problems.
Meanwhile, Beijing has been increasing its control over Hong Kong.
The Liaison Office of the Central People’s Government in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region has become an underground Hong Kong government and it has penetrated many grassroots social groups.
Another controversial step came in 2012 with the introduction of patriotic national education.
Hong Kongers are worried that the freedom and rule of law that they have long enjoyed may not last much longer, while the prospect of direct elections to pick the chief executive has run up against all kinds of restrictions.
The current confrontations between China and Hong Kong have made the two sides highly distrustful of one another.
Beijing thinks that Hong Kongers do not know how to recognize and return favors, while Hong Kongers interpret anything that Beijing does negatively.
This mutual distrust is beginning to turn into mutual dislike.
In a so-called “anti-locust action” that took place on Feb. 16, some Hong Kongers appeared on the streets holding Hong Kong flags from the British colonial era and giving mainland Chinese tourists “the finger” while shouting: “Chinese locusts, go back to the mainland.”
Social contradictions between China and Hong Kong are turning into political ones, to the extent that the previously unimaginable idea of Hong Kong independence is now being openly discussed.
In Taiwanese eyes, these trends in Hong Kong are surprising and yet somehow familiar.
First, apart from the fact that Taiwan has fortunately not yet “returned” to China, Taiwanese observers are sure to reject the prospect of “one China, two systems” even more roundly after seeing how it has worked out in Hong Kong, and to be very circumspect about interactions across the Taiwan Strait.
Will the Hong Kong of today be the Taiwan of tomorrow?
If people in Hong Kong are seeking independence, why should people in Taiwan aim for unification?
While Taiwan still has the ability to say no, would it not be wise to keep China at arm’s length?
Second, Hong Kongers have been turning their heartfelt regrets aspirations toward the nation, because unlike Hong Kong, Taiwan is still able to govern itself and remains a democracy.
This “Taiwan craze” has many aspects. Taiwan-made films are popular in Hong Kong theaters, Taiwanese entertainers like rock group Mayday (五月天) are very popular there, Hong Kongers like Taiwanese food and Taiwan’s Eslite bookstore has opened a branch in Hong Kong.
Taiwan registered more than 1 million arrivals from Hong Kong last year. More students from Hong Kong and Macau are pursuing their studies in Taiwan, and many Hong Kongers plan to live in Taiwan after they retire.
Third, Beijing is worried about Taipei’s relationship with Hong Kong moving from business and trade to politics.
In September last year, 100 Hong Kongers, including pan-democrat lawmakers Gary Fan (范國威) and Claudia Mo (毛孟靜), placed an advertisement in Taiwanese and Hong Kong media outlets that accused Chinese tourists and immigrants of wreaking havoc on Hong Kong and advising Taiwan to learn a lesson from what has happened there.
On Tuesday last week, the Beijing-based Global Times published a prominent critique of what it called “the confluence of Hong Kong and Taiwan independence movements.”
The article said that Hong Kong’s Democratic Party had invited Chien Hsi-chieh (簡錫堦), who served as deputy director of Taiwan’s “red shirts” during their campaign to oust then-president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) in 2006 and whom the Global Times called a “Taiwan independence element,” to offer guidance on protest methods.
The Chinese government would be wiser to handle the question of Hong Kong more cautiously.
Hong Kong’s average per capita income exceeds US$40,000 and its people are highly educated, so it clearly has the necessary conditions to implement democracy. If Hong Kongers could choose their chief executive through direct elections rather than having “birdcage” restrictions imposed, it would be a successful test case for democracy in China. If Hong Kong’s dream of democracy became a reality, it would be an affirmation of its “China dream,” so Beijing should not obstruct it.
If China and Hong Kong cannot each give way a little, there will never be a day without some kind of friction or disturbance, and a vicious circle will ensue. The more Beijing tries to suppress Hong Kong, the more of a backlash there will be from the people who live there. The Chinese government may eventually refuse to make any more concessions to Hong Kong as a warning to others and let Shanghai take Hong Kong’s place.
If that happens, Hong Kongers will go from disappointment to despair, and more of them will pack up and leave. In that case, China will have a Hong Kong that is patriotic, but has lost its competitive edge. It will find that it has only gained another second-rate city. That kind of outcome would be a loss for both sides.
Fan Shih-ping is a professor at National Taiwan Normal University’s Graduate Institute of Political Science.
Translated by Julian Clegg