A new twist in China's political theatre

Xi's position at the Party Congress wasn't dissimilar from ceremony marking 20th anniversary of the Hong Kong handover
A new twist in China's political theatre

People walk past part of a slogan beside a road in Beijing on Oct. 27. The Chinese characters read "Promote Xi's thought of socialism with Chinese characteristics in the new era, making it a lively practice in Beijing." (Photo by AFP)

ucanews.com reporter, Hong Kong
October 30, 2017
For those who watched the political theater of the 19th Communist Party Congress in Beijing from Hong Kong, the future of the city's semi-autonomous political system looks grimmer.

On Oct. 25, Chinese President Xi Jinping revealed the Politburo Standing Committee, himself and six others serving as the core of China's power, to the world.

While it was certainly a highly anticipated show of power, this wasn't the big news that rocked the region.

Extraordinarily, the day before, Xi's own name and ideas were written into the Chinese constitution, propelling him to equal celebrity status with the communist nation's founder Mao Zedong.

These ideas — "Xi Jinping Thought" — concur with Xi's well-known "Chinese Dream" ultra-nationalist goal of making the communist giant a superpower by 2050.

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"Xi made clear that one sign of China's greatness is national reunification and total national security," said Willy Lam, a veteran Sinologist and senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation.

He said that high on Xi's agenda is the absorption of Taiwan and destruction of 'pro-independence,' or anti-Beijing elements, in Hong Kong.

Further erosion of independence may be an outcome of recent political promotions.

During the Party Congress, Hong Kong's Central Liaison Office head Wang Zhimin was promoted to China's Central Committee.

Wang was dispatched to Hong Kong in September and has since said that all Chinese — including more than 7 million Hong Kong people — have 'zero tolerance' for the notion of independence. 

With Wang at the top, the Central Liaison Office may take "more aggressive measures" in Hong Kong, said Lam; such as helping pro-Beijing politicians win more seats in the local legislature.

Macau's Central Liaison Office head Zheng Xiaosong was also promoted to the Central Committee.

Macau, like Hong Kong, is a special administrative region (SAR).

However, unlike Hong Kong, the glitzy gambling hub is governed under a sweeping anti-subversion law known as Article 23.

This makes Macau more compliant with Mainland Chinese law and its central political system.

The enactment of Article 23 was "a given" in Hong Kong, perhaps in late 2018 or 2019, said Lam, who is also adjunct professor at the Center for China Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

"The SAR shoulders responsibility to ensure China's sovereignty, national security, and developmental interests," he added.

"Given this tough posture, Beijing will in the coming years squeeze Hong Kong even more tightly."

Xi's position at the Party Congress wasn't dissimilar from a recent ceremony marking the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong's handover to China.

Then the president chose to preside over a military parade that was unprecedented in size since the end of British colonial rule.

Rather than engage in dialogue at either event, Xi stood as an icon of consolidated power and delivered one-way speeches.

"The image is one of strength, not of negotiations or discussions," said Maya Wang, Senior Researcher, Asia Division, at Human Rights Watch.

"The only thing we know is that President Xi appears to be on track to become a powerful leader among his peers; and that he has taken a consistently hard-line approach across the country and in Hong Kong."

Still, few changes to Hong Kong's political system were addressed specifically at the recent Party Congress.

It would be unusual for Xi or his cohorts to address the bottom line in a confrontational way; more is often said between the lines on China's grand political stage.

But the government's incremental tightening of its grip on politics in all regions of China's will continue.

Xi said that China should "combine comprehensive jurisdiction and a high degree of autonomy in an organic way."

William Nee, China Researcher at Amnesty International, said this comment opened up the issue of what exactly 'organic way' means.

"It seems to imply that Beijing's influence — the comprehensive jurisdiction aspect and the high degree of autonomy — will be combined in a way outside of formal laws and institutions," he said.

Thus it appeared that exercising of jurisdiction would be less formal, lacking in transparency and harder to document.

Going on Xi's past choices, Li Zanshu and Wang Yang — promoted to the Politburo Standing Committee — are set to take charge of Hong Kong's affairs.

While Li worked closely with Xi, Wang was closer to Hong Kong and became known for pushing economic integration with neighboring Guangdong province.

However, the higher echelons of China's central politics are completely opaque and predictions may ultimately be useless. 

Xi's rule will continue at least until the end of his second term in 2022, but the possibility remains he will stay on as the country's top leader even longer.

While the Chinese constitution bans presidents from having more than two terms, Xi could potentially create a new top post himself.

Unlike past leaders, he walked away from the Party Congress without promoting a younger member to the Politburo Standing Committee as an obvious successor.

"Chinese top politics is a black box," Wang said. "Someone more open-minded could become the next leader of China; but that possibility is never high."

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