The indication that the Chinese military might use force a la Tiananmen to put down the ongoing protests against the extradition bill in Hong Kong raises questions on Chinese President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) strategy.
Although the proposed bill was put on hold, prompted by the firestorm of protests that followed, harking back to the 2014 “Umbrella movement,” Hong Kongers have only upped the ante this time around.
It is no secret that the bill, a “Trojan horse” of sorts (apparently envisaged at sending criminal fugitives to other jurisdictions including China), is susceptible to being misused by the territory’s administration in cahoots with People’s Republic of China (PRC) authorities — the former quite likely in thrall to the latter — at the expense of the civil liberties of ordinary Hong Kongers.
Not surprisingly, the bill has not been scrapped altogether.
While the shelving of the bill depicts a partial victory for the voices of freedom in the territory and indeed mainland China, it is, more importantly, a sure sign of how Xi’s attempt to force the pace of the “proceedings” might have suffered a critical blow. Blinded by his zeal to expedite the accomplishment of China’s so-called “manifest destiny,” Xi might have actually done a disservice to the cause that he holds so dear.
The Greater China project roughly embracing mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan might only get more distant. This is especially in the context of the global uproar that ensued over China’s gunboat diplomacy in the South China Sea and the limits to what such diplomacy can pull off.
The taking over of absolutely uninhabited slivers of land and the attempt to create a legal case for itself, already rejected by international courts, cannot be a sustainable template for forcible incorporation of more than 7 million Hong Kongers, or even worse, 23 million Taiwanese.
Within the mainland, the way Xi has ruthlessly concentrated power in his own hands in recent years, anointing himself as “core leader” and now set to rule indefinitely, has hardly inspired much confidence. It is no coincidence that the progressive (read regressive) whittling down of civil liberties in Hong Kong in the past few years has been coterminous with Xi’s creeping consolidation of power in the communist country.
Barely a year after Xi assumed the presidency of the largest communist state in the world, the Chinese State Council issued a white paper on the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region explicitly undercutting the supreme principle that an independent judiciary was at the heart of a “democratizing” polity.
With the white paper terming judges as “administrators” while calling on them to be “patriotic,” this was a brazen and rather blithe reneging on what the PRC had committed to in the course of the negotiations on the handover of the former British colony.
Article 85 of the Basic Law had clearly laid down for the courts to exercise judicial power independently, free from any interference, with Article 88 prescribing that an independent commission comprising of local judges, persons from the legal profession and eminent persons from other sectors would recommend to the chief executive on the appointment of judges in the territory.
With such fine print laid down in law, the attempt to foist nationalistic fervor on judges by way of the white paper was nothing short of constitutional subterfuge.
Furthermore, the raising of questions over the presence of foreign judges, a longstanding tradition in the territory’s justice system with deep historical roots in common law, is an attempt at weakening the foundations of an independent and efficient judiciary in Hong Kong.
In addition to that, imposing an extradition bill on a people, subjecting them to the courts of a distant entity following an absolutely different jurisprudence — remember it is still “one country, two systems” until 2047 — is tantamount to infringing on the legal rights of the people themselves.
Only five years ago, the world was witness to another retraction on the part of Xi’s government from its commitment to the Basic Law.
Under Xi’s watch in August 2014, the National People’s Congress Standing Committee put a spear right through the heart of the spirit of universal suffrage when it proposed that a broadly representative “nomination committee” would prescreen the candidates standing for the position of chief executive.
Worse still, not only did the candidate have to enlist the support of more than half of the members on said nomination committee, even the number of candidates was to be limited to two or three.
So at best, this was universal suffrage with Chinese characteristics, not quite measuring up to what is promised in Article 45, Paragraph 2 of the Basic Law stating that “the ultimate aim is the selection of the chief executive by universal suffrage.”
In yet another crippling blow to democracy, the outlawing of the Hong Kong National Party in September 2017 by the Hong Kong Secretary of Security could only be taken as the authorities being in all-too-much of a hurry to clampdown on a party hardly two years old, when whether it could be a threat to the ruling elite of the territory, much less of the PRC, was still open to question.
Furthermore, the November 2017 incorporation of a national anthem law into Hong Kong’s mini constitution by the Standing Committee, stating that any disrespect of the March of the Volunteers be construed as a penal offense, betrays deliberate indoctrination, despite there being pre-existing guidelines on the subject.
Subsequently, the abduction of booksellers in a bid to censor, intimidate and control the publishing industry underlines the extreme lengths to which the communist regime under Xi has gone.
Interestingly, Taiwan has found itself to be the trigger that lit the fuse of the ongoing demonstrations against the extradition bill.
A Hong Kong man wanted in Taiwan for the alleged murder of his girlfriend in Taipei had apparently escaped justice because of mainly two reasons: One, extraterritorial crimes are not punishable under the territory’s law; and two, there is no formal extradition agreement between Hong Kong and Taiwan, with the existing Fugitive Offenders Ordinance and the Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Ordinance not extending to Taiwan.
This gave the Hong Kong authorities the pretext to force through a bill on extradition that would ease rendition to and from Taiwan, and more ominously, to and from mainland China.
Yet the very fact that the Taiwanese dispensation has taken matters of criminal jurisdiction to the exalted heights of national sovereignty with an eye on asserting its de facto position independent of the PRC suggests that Xi has a more difficult task on his hands vis-a-vis the practically self-governing territory.
Who could forget the explicit support of President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) when she wrote on Twitter: “We stand with all freedom-loving people of #hongkong.”
Perhaps the most benign of the three semi-autonomous regions as a political challenge to Xi, Macau has too, in recent years, displayed streaks of self-assertion.
As the Chinese economy stumbles with direct implications for the casino economy in the territory — given that the mainland is a source of a substantial chunk of tourists — the PRC would no longer be able to exercise the same level of leverage with the territory as before.
The widely reported scenes of protesters, albeit small and sporadic, lining up on Xi’s visit to Macau on the 15th anniversary of the handover in December 2014 might not be a fleeting phenomenon and might only get more frequent. The rise of pro-democracy parties such as New Hope, although politically inconsequential at present, is a definite start.
Bad business for Hong Kong is bad business for mainland China. Is there not a debilitating contradiction between “the world’s freest economy” remaining a separate customs territory and its judicial autonomy being insidiously encroached upon by the mainland?
The US, the second-largest trading partner of Hong Kong, has expressed strong reservations over mainland China’s creeping stranglehold on the territory’s independent judicial system, even cautioning that preferential treatment as a separate customs territory might get taken away with concomitant ramifications on flow of sensitive technology and investment into the territory.
This could cast a spillover effect on the mega Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macau Greater Bay Area project in southern China, a specter that could eventually consume the entire Chinese economy, already floundering in recent years.
Xi would do well to remember that what would not be good for the Hong Kong goose would not be good for the Chinese gander. In essence, any rash and strong-arm decision by the communist regime under Xi could jeopardize China’s manifest destiny enterprise for life.
Importantly, it could recoil on the all-important Chinese leader himself. In a year of a number of anniversaries — the centenary of the May Fourth Movement, the 70th year of the founding of the PRC and the 30th year of Tiananmen — let not this year go down as another tumultuous chapter in Chinese history.
Remember, Hong Kongers are only asking for regular democratic and legal rights, and not freedom altogether. The day that happens, the Chinese leader will only have himself to blame.
Vishal Ranjan is a researcher affiliated with Jawaharlal Nehru University, India.
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