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China's handling of Hong Kong and Macau spells trouble

Heavy handed approach is likely to provoke a showdown

<p>Hong Kong and Macau media and universities have been increasingly intimidated by pro-Beijing influences (picture: AFP Photo/Philippe Lopez)</p>

Hong Kong and Macau media and universities have been increasingly intimidated by pro-Beijing influences (picture: AFP Photo/Philippe Lopez)

  • Michael Sainsbury
  • China
  • July 28, 2014
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When Cardinal Joseph Zen, a long-time critic of Beijing and a democracy advocate, was mobbed like a rock star at Hong Kong’s 25-year anniversary vigil for the Tiananmen Square massacre on June 4, few could predict the democratic tug of war with the mainland would get so heated.

Beijing, incapable of subtle or incremental change, has shifted gears with a lurch and is sending Hong Kong in a direction that has snapped its citizens out of their political torpor.

Hong Kong and Macau are the only Chinese territories where such vigils are permitted. But for how much longer will the heavy handed Chinese Communist Party allow such political activity?

As a condition of the 1997 handover from the UK to China, Deng Xiaoping promised Margaret Thatcher that the people of Hong Kong would be permitted to choose their leader directly by 2017.

But as this deadline draws closer, Beijing is showing every sign of backsliding. There are mounting fears that the “one country, two systems” agreed between Thatcher and Deng is rapidly evolving into a more authoritarian 1.5 model, or less, even though the deal was for 50 years after 1997.

On July 1, the anniversary of the handover, about half a million people marched in another rally as the pan-democrats – a loose alliance of groups intent on maintaining the ‘one country, two systems’ model – marched on Government House to protest against Beijing’s tightening grip.

Ten days later, Beijing responded with an unexpected white paper which contained a warning: "The oppositions in Hong Kong should understand and accept that Hong Kong is not an independent country. They should not think that they have the ability to turn Hong Kong into Ukraine or Thailand.”

The issue at the heart of the debate is not whether Hong Kong voters can choose their own leader, it’s whether they can nominate people to the list to choose from in the first place. Beijing is insisting not stoking fears that all will be Communist-approved, democrats in Hong Kong say that the people must decide.

Beijing’s point-man on this is Zhang Dejiang, the chairman of the National Peoples’ Congress (NPC) and number three in the Politburo Standing Committee of the CCP, the seven-man group that runs China and is regarded as the strongman of the group. He recently met pro-Beijing loyalists in Shenzhen, adjacent Hong Kong, and pan-democrats are now demanding a meeting to reach a compromise ahead of the NPC’s decision on Hong Kong’s 2017 election’s next month.

As an example of just how quickly things have moved, there have been suggestions that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) might intervene here. This was politically unacceptable until very recently, but it is now raised as a possibility by some of Beijing’s advisers.

“A showdown is getting more and more inevitable by the day, and some degree of violence is imminent,” said Lau Nai-keung, a member of the Basic Law Consultative Committee and one of Beijing’s most prominent allies in Hong Kong. “If worst comes to worst, the PLA will come out of its barracks.”

This seems a long way off, but there is no doubt that Beijing has become more intimidating, especially with the media. For some years, Hong Kong’s freewheeling press has been under attack from both without and within. Some journalists have been attacked, most notably Kevin Lau, a former editor of the Ming Pao newspaper, by street thugs not inconceivably in the pay of the CCP.

The South China Morning Post, the English language daily that remains one of the best sources for news on China, has recently devoted many of its front pages to pro-Beijing stories that would not look out of place in the mainland press. It is shedding good, critical reporters and increasingly composes editorials praising Beijing.

Ahead of the handover anniversary this year, a 10-day poll conducted by the pro-democracy group Occupy Central, suffered an unprecedented and clearly coordinated cyber attack against its websites. Still about one fifth of eligible voters took part in its unofficial referendum asking people if they would like to nominate candidates as well as choose them, a suggestion that Hong Kong’s notorious money obsession is morphing into appreciation for politics, Beijing’s worst nightmare.

Just a short ferry ride away, much smaller Macau is also feeling heat from the Communist Party. Outspoken University of St Joseph (USJ) Professor Eric Sautede was sacked on July 4 – effective a week later – presumably for his regular outspoken commentaries against Beijing in newspapers like the Macau Daily Times.

His organizing of a lecture with Hong Kong University Professor Frank Dikotter, author of Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-62 and subsequent refusal of the university’s request to suspend the event appeared to be the final straw. It was unclear how the powers that be exerted their pressure behind the scenes, and little was cleared up by Rector Peter Stilwell’s explanatory missive, which was as vague and opaque as anything Beijing itself would be expected to produce.

“The fundamental point my attention ultimately focused on was: How does a Catholic university position itself in Macau so that it is true to the core human values of a 400-year-old tradition and is perceived as such by the local community -- not as a haven for foreign interests or for local political infighting?," he wrote. "So that is where we stand. Eric and USJ part company. The responsibility for the decision is mine, and no 'blame' is attached to Eric, except that he remains true to his convictions."

Others have followed through the exit door. Emilie Tran, the dean of Saint Joseph's faculty of administration and leadership and Sautede's wife, has been demoted. Bill Chou Kwok-ping, a political scientist at the University of Macau, is waiting to be told when his 24-day suspension without pay comes into force, according to the South China Morning Post.  

Both are considered major proponents of democracy in Macau, a major concern for Beijing given that – unlike Hong Kong – there was no mention of democracy and universal suffrage when the Portuguese handed over the territory in 1999.

The developments in Hong Kong and Macau are deeply troubling not just for the people that live there but as a signal that under Xi Jinping, China is moving backwards on political reforms and acceptance of free thinking and speech.

Meanwhile, the citizens of Hong Kong and Macau will be wondering what Beijing has in store for them next, and vice versa.

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