Can Hong Kong Keep Its Autonomy?

The city is less free than before, and the downward trend shows no sign of ending.

When Britain handed Hong Kong back to Chinese rule during a rainy midnight ceremony in 1997—with a dispirited Prince Charles then sailing away on his mother’s yacht—there were hopes the thriving city would long keep intact its many existing freedoms under a new “One Country, Two Systems” method of governance agreed to by China and Great Britain.

But ever since, China has steadily eroded those freedoms and is doing so these days at a faster rate. After first abandoning an implied promise to let Hong Kong citizens choose their own officials in free elections by 2007, Beijing has persistently diminished Hong Kong’s civic space, particularly since Xi Jinping took over the Chinese government and ruling party four years ago. Thus new setbacks surface almost daily as Beijing’s officials try to ‘harmonize’ Hong Kong’s civil society, squelching activities they find discordant.   

One key reason is fear of political contagion. President Xi wants to reform both his slowing economy and the Communist Party, giving the former new energy while making the latter more obedient and less corrupt. But vested interests resist change and a cynical public has lost faith in official dogma. Xi has responded with increased repression as he centralizes power, often jailing disputatious citizens for such dubious crimes as an otherwise undefined “making trouble.” By that standard, Hong Kong residents make all too much trouble too often—publicly challenging the party line and local government policies. This feeds spurious Chinese claims that foreign agitators, especially British and American, promote these demands for greater local democracy. Afraid that liberal ideas will seep across the border and infect the general populace, Beijing is intensifying efforts to bring Hong Kong’s public life into line.   

All this suggests a bleak future for those who expected the promised ‘high degree of autonomy’ to retain substantive meaning for at least 50 years; the One Country, Two Systems regime is due to expire in 2047. Though Hong Kong remains far from just another Chinese city under tight Communist Party rule—for some time it’s likely to retain civic rights that Beijing won’t allow elsewhere—the squeeze is on. Residents face a continued subversion of privileges and political autonomy they had every reason to expect, deeply disappointing them and those overseas who prefer democratic politics to Leninist one-party rule.

Consider these examples.


Rule of Law

Hong Kong kept its own legal system, based on British common law with an independent judiciary—unlike the mainland’s system where the ruling party controls the judges. Although the city’s leaders have kowtowed to Beijing and sent a few controversial cases north for China’s parliament to resolve, for the most part Hong Kong’s system has been kept separate and intact. It is now, however, under threat.

One egregious example concerns five publishing executives responsible for highly speculative books (lightly sourced, if at all) devoted to alleged sex and corruption scandals involving senior mainland officials. Available in Hong Kong but banned in China, they often sell to mainland visitors though the works seldom are taken more seriously than supermarket tabloids in America. However scurrilous, they are not illegal under Hong Kong law.

But Beijing officials obviously do not approve and decided to act—in clear violation of laws that set forth how Hong Kong is to be governed. Beijing’s agents apparently seized one executive (who carries a Swedish passport) at his vacation home in Thailand and hustled him to the mainland in secrecy. (However, on Chinese television last week he claimed to have returned ‘voluntarily’ to face a 2003 drink-driving charge and told Swedish diplomats to stay away.) Others were lured across the border to nearby Shenzhen and arrested; a fifth was apparently grabbed inside Hong Kong itself and taken secretly to the mainland by force, ignoring such legalities as passport control or lawful extradition. They may all face charges such as ‘subversion,’ an increasingly elastic term under Chinese law.

Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, Leung Chun-ying, has agreed that Hong Kong residents shouldn’t be taken from their homes by unknown agents, and has promised to look into the case. But few outsiders expect useful results; his main priority appears to be pleasing Beijing and gaining a second term in office. From China’s viewpoint, the tactic has worked; the frightened publishing company has scrapped its latest work—“Xi Jinping’s Nightmare”—because the author doesn’t want to be “the next one to disappear,” as he explained. Beyond that, several Hong Kong bookstores have stopped selling any works about Chinese politics or leaders for fear of reprisals.

Many Hong Kong legal experts call this a grave threat to the entire system if mainland authorities feel free to cross the border and punish those whose actions they dislike—despite the law. Significantly, one Beijing official concerned with overseeing its Hong Kong policy has questioned the basic concept of an independent judiciary, claiming judges should be considered bureaucrats whose main job is to enforce government decisions.


Academic Freedom