Questions from the New York Times (Chinese) about Hong Kong July 10, 2019
- How do you think the political situation will shake out in Hong Kong —in the near future for Lam’s government and their contentious legislation, and long-term for “one country, two systems”?
There’s a future for Carrie Lam’s government simply because there is no mechanism or political opportunity to replace her. Having been burned and embarrassed by this attempt to push misguided legislation, one can only hope her government will be more careful in the future.
As for “one country, two systems”, that’s a pretty big question. Beijing expects Hong Kong leaders to keep everything in the Special Administration Region nice, quiet, stable and efficient. Mainland businesses and politicians, including their families, benefit from “one country, two systems” and generally don’t want to see much change in Hong Kong. Yet, if the Hong Kong government cannot deliver stability, Beijing will be more and more tempted to interfere itself –in much more ham-handed ways than Hong Kong bureaucrats. Every time Beijing interferes or pressures Hong Kong government, Beijing erodes the foundations of Hong Kong for business and pushes young people to consider alternatives for their future.
- How much is the ransacking of the Legco HQ changing the calculus for the leadership in Beijing and Hong Kong, and for the protest movement?
The ransacking of Legco was a big mistake by the protesters. First, most of the Hong Kong public sympathize deeply with the cause –that was shown in the turnout for demonstrations in support of the rule of law– but very few citizens support for acts of violence that disrupt business and employment. These actions will make the Hong Kong government more determined to control demonstrations and make Beijing more inclined to insist or interfere. Neither one of those outcomes is good. The demonstrators had the world’s attention by the huge turnout in the street; the sacking of Legco was an unnecessary and unhelpful distraction from the main message: respect for the rule of law.
- Did you know Carrie Lam or other current senior officials in Hong Kong? What’s your view of them? How much autonomy from Beijing do you think the HKSAR government wields at this point, with Xi at the helm, as compared to 1997 or other times of political crisis such as 2003 or 2014?
I don’t know Carrie Lam well, but have known many Hong Kong officials over time. They are generally first rate: honest, efficient, and capable with the public interest in mind. Perhaps they inherited some of the paternalism from the colonial period, as well: thinking that they know how to manage the city better than ordinary citizens.
Unfortunately, few of them have strong political instincts and the sophisticated political abilities necessary to manage the contradictions between an increasingly authoritarian group of leaders in China and an increasingly assertive, young population in Hong Kong. Because of the current make-up of Legco and the lack of universal suffrage for the Chief Executive, Hong Kong’s leaders need to reach out throughout society for legitimacy and need to be seen as representing Hong Kong’s interests with Beijing, rather than the other way around.
The lack of political abilities among the efficient and capable Hong Kong civil service leads to unnecessary surprises and confrontations, diminishing their legitimacy in the eyes of both Beijing and the Hong Kong people and their value as interpreters in both directions.
- What do you think the US, UK and others can and should do to help protect civil liberties and judicial autonomy, and pressure HK and Beijing leaders? Are Western leaders and business people doing enough, or should they speak out more? At what point do the risks of tightening Chinese control to the legal and business environment outweigh their commercial or personal interests in Hong Kong?
First and foremost, international leaders need to speak out both publicly and privately. A mention in every meeting with senior leaders in Beijing that Hong Kong’s integrity and rule of law are vital to all of our business and other relationships would regularly remind Beijing to act patiently and carefully with regard to Hong Kong. Visits by foreign leaders to Hong Kong and meetings with business representatives as well as government, judicial, media and civil society members there can also demonstrate the importance of Hong Kong.
As for business people, they generally want to speak out through their associations, rather than bring pressure on their individual enterprises. The American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong has been a persistent and consistent voice, not challenging Beijing’s sovereignty but stressing the key role than rule of law plays in Hong Kong’s and China’s prosperity. I would hope that other business associations –foreign and local– would be as outspoken, either on their own or in groups.
- The US-HK Policy Act — how much does it matter to Beijing? To what extent are views of it in Washington changing, and what do you think are the implications of the recent debate? Do you think HK’s special status under the Act should be reconsidered — under what scenario could it be revoked?
The US-HK Policy Act undergirds US policy in Hong Kong, and stands as a key element in supporting the “two systems” aspect of Hong Kong’s identity. Unfortunately, Beijing leaders seem to care less about protecting this status than in proclaiming China as “one country.” Hong Kongers, therefore, must take on the task to make clear their autonomy and their resolve to protect technology, respect the rule of law, prevent corruption and guarantee open markets –all the elements that the Policy Act recognizes.
Hong Kong unfortunately does not figure very prominently in the debate over China in the US, and even less elsewhere. Given the souring of US views on China in government, in the business community and in Congress, any interference by Beijing in Hong Kong or other compromise of Hong Kong’s integrity, immediately stands as evidence of Beijing’s heavy hand. Such was the case, for example, with the extradition law proposal despite the fact that it stemmed in large part from Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s initiative.
Are there red lines or tripwires that should lead to reconsideration of Hong Kong’s special status? Certainly. Without trying to give a complete list –although it’s useful for international observers to keep such a list in mind– direct flouting of Hong Kong’s judicial process, manipulation of exchanges, trans-shipment of restricted technologies, imposition of mainland educational standards or insertion of the Communist Party into Hong Kong government bodies might constitute examples of the types of steps that should result in reconsideration.
- The protests in recent years have been led by a younger generation of Hong Kongers who are more wary and willing to stand up to Beijing. How do think the younger generation will affect Hong Kong’s political future?
Protests around the globe are usually led by the younger generation and Hong Kong’s young people seem even more motivated than elsewhere. They naturally worry about their future and their opportunities, facing competition from well-educated mainlanders and feeling caught in a squeeze between an education system that may not be improving fast enough and jobs that require higher and higher skills. Their personal futures are caught up in the special political, legal and immigration status of Hong Kong.
Beijing should also realize that every infringement on Hong Kong’s institutions results in a negative rebound among Hong Kong’s young people. Rather than acquiesce, Hong Kong youth react by thinking more and more of independence. They see increasing party control in China over media and business and conclude their only course is more and more autonomy in Hong Kong. Among their elders, they hear advocates of patriotic education and respect for the Communist Party of China and feel that this cannot be their future. So, naturally young people want to secure for Hong Kong’s integrity and turn out to demonstrate when their future is placed in doubt.
We should also note that the same is true in Taiwan, where Beijing once hoped “one country, two systems” could be an example. Every assault on “two systems” in Hong Kong leads young people in Taiwan, as well as Hong Kong, to think of their future in terms of more autonomy, more status or full independence. The “Hong Kong model” now has no meaning to people in Taiwan. Beijing shows little awareness that its interventions, however small, magnify the concerns of the younger generation.
- Does Beijing have a grand plan to make two systems one, whether in 50 years or considerably faster? Or does the Party leadership foresee HK preserving a significant degree of autonomy under its reign perennially? Do you think the protests of the past five years affect Xi government’s thinking on this, one way or the other?
Beijing shows little appreciation of the longer term implications of its actions in Hong Kong and little evidence of a well-thought out ‘grand plan’ except for the economic integration of the Pearl River Delta. Beijing’s hope that economics will drive politics in Hong Kong –naively assuming that ‘the business of Hong Kong is business’– is proving unfounded. So, as Beijing leaders assert more and more party control within China, they appear to expect Hong Kong leaders to keep everything quiet and under control in the city.
As an open society Hong Kong will never be as “under control” as Beijing might like. Every time the Hong Kong government fails to manage events competently, some in Beijing will be tempted to intervene. So far, wiser heads have generally prevailed, but the Hong Kong government needs to show that it can ride the wave of bubbling ferment that is Hong Kong society in ways that do not threaten Beijing’s interests.
The business of Hong Kong is integrity: of deals, of contracts, of regulation, of markets, of personal freedoms. Anything that impinges on Hong Kong’s integrity is ultimately bad for Hong Kong, bad for Hong Kong investors, bad for China. The young people demonstrate because they understand this fact. We should all listen to them.