‘Freedom’ Island

Is Hong Kong free, or does Beijing really call the shots?


HONG KONG — The flight of a government whistle-blower — or possible fugitive from justice — to the quasi-democratic Chinese enclave of Hong Kong has given this former British colony a bit of free PR. Edward Snowden, the self-proclaimed leaker of classified documents about the National Security Agency’s PRISM data-collection program, praised Hong Kong for its "strong tradition of free speech" in a video posted on the Guardian‘s website. "I believe the Hong Kong government is actually independent in relation to a lot of other leading Western governments," the seemingly unperturbed 29-year-old said. (On Monday, as the U.S. Department of Justice began preparing charges against him, Snowden checked out of his hotel. According to an interview today, he is still in Hong Kong, where he hopes to remain indefinitely.)

While noting the advantages this relatively unrestricted entrepôt offers over the autocratic mainland (Hong Kong, for instance, is not behind the Great Firewall, China’s notorious web filtering system), Snowden — perhaps revealingly — did not suggest that it was independent from China. Indeed, despite having its own local political structure with a professional, non-politicized bureaucracy, a vocal, market-oriented media, and "long tradition of protesting in the streets," as Snowden put it, Hong Kong does not really enjoy the high level of autonomy it was promised in the Basic Law, which is the closest thing the special administrative region has to a constitution. "It is apparent that Hong Kong’s autonomy is being eroded like a frog in slow boiling water," says Yew Chiew Ping, co-editor of a new book, Hong Kong Under Chinese Rule. "Some even said the water has reached boiling point."

As the world’s attention briefly turns to this tiny corner of the Middle Kingdom, it’s perhaps worth asking the question: Who calls the shots in Asia’s Gotham City?

Like the gambling Mecca of Macau, Hong Kong enjoys a special status in China. "One country, two systems" is the oft-repeated mantra, first expounded by Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s. But the two systems Deng was referring to were economic: capitalism vs. socialism. Initially, notes Bo Zhiyue, a senior research fellow at the East Asian Institute of the National University of Singapore, the idea was "politically, there should be no distinction." Yet today Hong Kong and the mainland resemble each other more economically than they do politically. Hong Kong remains an oasis of political freedom inside the world’s largest authoritarian state, in part, because it is a testing ground for democratic reform and a "showcase" for Taiwan, which China also claims as its territory.

The Basic Law — drafted in Beijing, and passed by China’s rubber stamp parliament, the National People’s Congress (NPC) in 1990 — makes the central government responsible for foreign affairs and defense, but everything else is up to the local government, which operates more like a liberal democracy than Beijing — think Singapore, for example. Unlike the mainland, where the Communist Party is supreme in all branches of government, Hong Kong has a genuine separation of powers: an appointed chief executive, a partially elected legislative council, and an independent judiciary. Yet, while the central government tries to maintain the appearance of a hands-off approach, it is still a hovering presence, speaking softly and carrying a big stick.

This unique system, so far, has guaranteed relatively robust freedom of expression, comparable with the West. As Snowden noted, there are regular political demonstrations here. Hong Kong’s "Occupy Central" outlasted Occupy Wall Street by almost a year. Meanwhile, just last week, more than 50,000 people showed up for an annual vigil commemorating the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen Square massacre. Subjects that are taboo in the mainland are fair game here. Hongkongers have protection from a legal system Hong Kong inherited from the British. "It’s not for them [the government] to decide if the court will sentence us to jail," says "Long Hair" Leung Kwok-hung, a radical legislator known for his waist-length hair and signature Che Guevara t-shirts, and who is occasionally arrested for breaching the Public Order Ordinance by blocking traffic during protests. "It’s for the prosecution. They cannot order someone to send me to jail. In Hong Kong it’s different, still."

But this political setup also created a relatively weak government — "a thoroughly democratic society coupled with a non-democratic state," as local commentator Alex Lo notes. The legislature is a democratic-corporatist hybrid, where only half the legislators are elected, and the rest represent various interest groups, including the financial industry, labor, and the real estate and construction sectors. Meanwhile, the chief executive is currently selected by an "election committee" of 1,200 notables, and is ultimately accountable to Beijing, instead of to Hongkongers (one reason, perhaps, why the current chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, gave his 2012 acceptance speech in Mandarin — the mainland dialect — instead of local Cantonese). Beijing gets to formally appoint the person selected by the committee, and it has the power to reject the choice or remove the chief executive from power.

The "debilitating disconnect" between the legislature and the executive branch — as Hong Kong politician Regina Ip put it — can create gridlock, in particular because the chief executive cannot be a member of any party. "It’s very confusing, but from Beijing’s perspective, it’s good," says Bo. Without local unity, there’s no space for an anti-Beijing consensus to develop. But Beijing still tries to act judiciously. "If they’re getting too much involved in the selection process," says Bo, "then people get annoyed."

But that doesn’t mean Beijing doesn’t try. During the 2012 chief executive "election," a politician revealed that the central government’s Liaison Office — Beijing’s official organ in Hong Kong — was trying to persuade some members of the election committee to switch support from one pre-approved candidate to the other, after he gained more favor in Beijing. Soon after, the Liaison Office, which is housed in an otherwise drab tower crowned by an ominous black orb, was also accused of pressuring the media to stop reporting negative news about the favored candidate.  "They cannot do it openly," says Bo. "The Liaison Office gets the blame, but the Hong Kong people know it’s the national leaders."

That said, Beijing isn’t interested in micro-management. Officials "tend to get in involved in personnel issues," says Bo. "They tend not to get involved in details." But they still have wide-ranging powers, which are only occasionally invoked, usually to postpone universal suffrage. In 2004, in the wake of mass protests against an anti-sedition law proposed by then Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa that raised fears about the erosion of political protections, the NPC unilaterally re-interpreted the Basic Law — which originally permitted universal suffrage to start as early as 2007 — to rule it out until 2012. (Later that was extended to 2017.) "They have the trump card, always," says Long Hair, the pro-democracy legislator. "It is not interference. It’s control."

Such overt meddling in Hong Kong affairs — legal, but heav
y-handed — not only galvanized the democracy movement, but also backfired in another, indirect way: Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian partially credited his 2004 re-election to the "total failure" of "one country, two systems" in Hong Kong. It’s little wonder, then, that the central government prefers subtler methods of exerting influence over Hong Kong. Beijing often tries to shape debate, through propaganda aimed at Hong Kongers — sometimes directly through media such as the state newswire Xinhua, but also through proxies such as pro-Beijing legislators and newspapers, which often parrot talking points — as well as through pronouncements from the mountaintop.

At the end of March of this year, a representative from Beijing invited pro-Beijing lawmakers for a closed-door chat across the border in Shenzhen, where he reiterated an oft-stated position: that only a patriot can become chief executive. In the government’s coded language, that means someone loyal to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). In the upcoming 2017 chief executive election, which is expected to involve universal suffrage for the first time, Beijing could potentially disqualify candidates who don’t fit that requirement — a bit like the mullahs of Iran. Or perhaps it won’t have to: The more power Beijing has, the less it needs to use it. Everybody can read the writing on the wall.

In fact, the signs of Beijing’s influence are everywhere. Whether it’s a patriotic education curriculum exalting the CCP — that led to street protests last year — or the occasional deportation of Falun Gong members, it’s clear that Hong Kong is guided by Beijing’s ethos if not directly taking orders. When revered Hong Kong democracy activist Szeto Wah died in 2011, for example, Hong Kong authorities denied two activists — both of whom had been student leaders during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests — entry to attend his funeral. Mainland authorities insisted Hong Kong has the right to handle its own entry requests, but as Albert Ho, leader of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party noted at the time, "We have every reason to believe this decision was not made by the Hong Kong government alone."

Other reminders of the mainland’s raw power are invisible. China’s military, the People’s Liberation Army, tasked by the Basic Law with keeping public order — "when necessary" — quietly maintains a barracks next door to City Hall. In tense political moments, meanwhile, Hongkongers are often reminded of where their water supply comes from — across the border in mainland China — a fact that was also used as leverage in negotiations with the British. But perhaps Beijing’s greatest asset is the underground Communist Party in Hong Kong. Even 16 years after the handover, Party membership is still secret, meaning nobody knows who in the government may indeed be taking direct orders from Beijing. The president of the legislature himself, Jasper Tsang, has refused to disclose whether he’s a Party member, although Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying has denied being one. As former legislator Christine Loh notes in her book Underground Front, the Party has tried to co-opt Hong Kong’s elites the same way the British did. "The CCP essentially decided to retain the colonial system because it was a tried and tested way to maintain central control," she writes.

None of this has been lost on the people of Hong Kong — especially those in the pro-democracy camp. In 2010, when a loose coalition of pro-democracy politicians known as the pan-democrats reached an impasse with Chief Executive Donald Tsang over political reforms, the largest coalition member, the Democratic Party, went over his head to Beijing. (The compromise barely advanced their cause, to the consternation of their allies.) "Everybody knows Beijing holds the key," said Allen Lee, a veteran pro-Beijing lawmaker, at the time. "Do you think pan-democrats still want to talk to Bowtie in the future when they need to negotiate for something?" he said, referring to Tsang by a nickname his fondness for flamboyant neckwear earned him. Similarly, in May, the local media reported that Beijing was preparing a "Plan B" to remove the current chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, whose short tenure has been mired in scandal. Even though mainland authorities denied the rumor, it would be entirely within their power to replace him, regardless of Hong Kong’s supposed "high level of autonomy." 

When it comes to Snowden’s case, however, Beijing’s behind-the-scenes power may have little relevance. Hong Kong has an extradition treaty with the United States, and it would damage bilateral relations between the United States and China if Beijing tried to invoke its right to block an extradition on national security grounds. Assuming Snowden really did act alone, and China was not involved in the leak, then the mainland government would be playing with fire if it tried to exploit him. Since Snowden has said he has no desire to sell out his country, the only guarantee would be a vociferous objection by the United States. A spat over Chen Guangcheng, the blind human rights activist who sought refuge in the U.S. embassy in Beijing and was eventually given permission to study in the United States, is one thing. A diplomatic war over a potential espionage case is another.

Already, however, the usual gang of local activists, including Long Hair, has begun organizing a march with the slogans "protect Snowden" and "no extradition." The government of Hong Kong might not be all that autonomous, but the people certainly are.

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