The Slow Strangulation of Hong Kong

The Chinese Communist Party has no peer when it comes to strategic thinking, even if the thinking is wrong or repellent. Anyone else, anywhere else, would have thought that if the Hong Kong chief executive couldn’t cope, the sensible thing to do would be to replace her with someone who could. But no. The party’s answer is to replace its representative in the territory, someone most people wouldn’t have known existed. It’s the right answer, too, for that’s where the real power lies. The new man, Luo Huining, is one who unlike his predecessor isn’t encumbered with any experience of Hong Kong matters. Luo is a party loyalist long familiar with imposing party discipline and organisation in troublesome regions.

It’s an honest answer, too. Chief executive Carrie Lam can continue to twist ineffectively in the breeze, a fit demonstration of the powerlessness of old colonial mechanisms, while the new order gets on with the real task. And the real task is not to address mass protests or their causes, as one might think. Rather, the party’s new representative has announced that his task will be the further integration of Hong Kong into the surrounding provinces of China, especially Guangdong. That means the people of Hong Kong can just get used to the fact that Beijing is not going to take any notice of their demands for democracy and openness; they can start getting used to the inevitability of being more like the rest of China.

Luo has also asserted the right of Beijing to supervise affairs in Hong Kong. The territory’s autonomy is beginning to resemble the autonomy the party promised Tibet when it took over there.

But why not do the obvious thing and replace the chief executive with someone who could do the job? Since the party’s takeover of Hong Kong, that has proved hard to do. The first appointee, Tung Chee-hwa, a shipping mogul, found his business skills didn’t equip him for the heat of politics and stepped down early. He had the unenviable task of following the popular Chris Patten, Britain’s last governor. The difference showed. Patten had been in control, with full support from London. His political skills, affable personality, and importantly his willingness to take on the CCP and not flinch, endeared him to Hong Kongers. The euphoria of the peaceful and seamless handover of Hong Kong to a one-party dictatorship helped Tung for a while, but gradually it became obvious that he had to contend with the party looking over his shoulder, vetoing anything that might reassure the locals but detract from full party control. Unlike Patten, he was not his own master. Donald Tsang, the next candidate, ended up on corruption charges. Leung Chun-ying, next, survived his term in sullen do-nothing isolation, letting the contradictions of his impossible position mount, a time bomb for his successor, Carrie Lam.

In the wake of the thirtieth anniversary last year of the Tiananmen massacre, it may be worth looking at the differences with developments today and why so far Hong Kong has escaped a similar bloodletting. Party leaders seemed to appreciate how catastrophic the consequences would be of a violent crackdown. Damage to Hong Kong from the US-China trade stand-off would pale before further US and international sanctions, including the repeal of special-treatment laws for the territory by the US Congress, and the flight of business and investment. It would also toughen up Taiwan’s resistance to the mainland’s blandishments, and increase Western support for its continued defiance of Beijing’s plans for its future.

None of that, of course, would stop party leaders if they feared Hong Kong was shearing off from mainland control. But it’s not and it won’t. This is not Catalonia or Scotland. In the meantime, with the coronavirus lockdown, the party has time to consolidate. National Security Day in China, April 16, prompted Luo Huining to launch a campaign of struggle, language associated with the purges of the Cultural Revolution. The announcement was well timed, with people housebound. He also foreshadowed the introduction of harsh security legislation, long wanted by Beijing but met with strong resistance in Hong Kong in the years after 1997. For China’s leaders, on the back foot over the coronavirus, every crisis is an opportunity. Growing popular cynicism and resentment are a result party leaders can live with.

Importantly, the nature and cause of the protests are different from the protests leading up to the Tiananmen massacre. In China, if protesters succeed in getting onto the streets for any length of time, it will be because of serious leadership disagreement. Popular unrest is constant, and keeping it in check is a full-time job. Monitoring at the street and building level by low-level party functionaries helps to keep down activity. Intimidation by the security apparatus will come into play for more complicated cases, as we saw with the unsuspecting Dr Li Wenliang, innocently discussing in a chatroom the upsurge in cases involving a curious new virus last November in Wuhan. He was apolitical and easy to intimidate. But in more persistent cases, like human-rights lawyers and over-enthusiastic #MeToo advocates, individuals will just disappear.

Only during a catastrophic split in the leadership, when the party leadership loses direction and cohesion, does the population find an opportunity to express its anger. This was the case in the Cultural Revolution, when Mao found his comrades sidelining him from decision-making after the disastrous 1958 Great Leap Forward. His prestige was enough to bring the frustrated young out on the streets, and too great for his comrades to defy.

Deng Xiaoping similarly had to resort to mass protest in 1979 with the so-called Democracy Wall, when he found his conservative comrades in the party frustrating his efforts to loosen party control of the economy. He won that time, at which point he cynically closed the wall down and jailed the ringleaders.

The 1989 unrest had similar origins. Deng and his liberal lieutenants were meeting resistance from their hardline politburo opponents, as they tried to extend successful agricultural reform further into the industrial sector and to loosen central planning. With control of the propaganda organs, Deng had been letting discussion of political reform rip at the universities and in the media. Democracy groups sprang up in universities, while state television aired controversial programs lamenting China’s backwardness and lack of democratic development. The mood was febrile.

The resulting protests met no resistance because one of Deng’s allies, secret police chief Qiao Shi, held off. He had a reputation as a procrastinator. If he cracked down on the protesters when Deng was behind them, he’d be in trouble. If he didn’t, he’d face the anger of Deng’s conservative opponents. The safest option was to sit on his hands for a time.

He sat on them too long. So did Deng. He had let his lieutenant, the party general-secretary, Zhao Ziyang, have his way on the streets too long. But his opponents finally prevailed, as the chaos mounted. The story goes that in one of their last meetings, Deng asked Zhao to outline how they could prevail. What assets could they muster? Zhao pointed out the window at the million protesters in the square, and at the copycat protests all round the country. I have the people, he said. Then you have nothing, was Deng’s response. It was the end. Deng had lost and he knew it. It was time to save what he could.

The first made-for-television bloodbath followed, as the army mopped up the protesters. The protesters had learnt again that they were not agents of change but just hapless pawns in a titanic leadership struggle. Some 2500 perished that morning, according to the local Red Cross in an uncensored moment. Three years of reform stagnation and repression followed. Talk of political reform has been taboo ever since.

Circumstances in Hong Kong are different. The protesters are not responding to a gap that has opened up in the regime. But brought up with the assumptions of freedom, democracy and an independent judiciary, they fear these eroding. The promise of free election of the chief executive turned out to be a futile exercise in endorsing a party-approved slate. The legislative elections are rigged against anyone critical of the Communist Party or its policies. Chinese security agents now enter the territory with impunity and whisk off critics of the regime. Hong Kong’s constitutional guarantees of due process look empty. Foreign journalists who are too outspoken find their visas withdrawn, or are denied entry to this once free port.

But social controls aren’t so tight yet that any manifestation of backsliding on the government’s part won’t propel people onto the streets. The hapless Hong Kong government, deprived of any residual legitimacy by Beijing’s heavy-handedness, is now a pathetic echo of the will of the party centre. Aware how impatient her party masters are of criticism, the chief executive daren’t be an advocate for Hong Kong’s interests. Rather, she has become a mouthpiece for the party in the territory. She could never tell Xi Jinping in her staged appearances with him every year that only wholesale democratic reform and non-interference could restore popular confidence.

Meanwhile, confidence in the resilience and durability of the current order will drop a notch. Present at a meeting in 1993 between Australia’s Governor-General Bill Hayden and Chris Patten, I remember Patten’s comment as he farewelled us. Hayden would be able to witness Hong Kong’s future when he visited the sleepy Portuguese colony of Macau the next day. Xi Jinping, on the other hand, sees this docile outpost as a successful example of the vacuous one-country-two-systems policy. He praised it in lavish terms on a recent visit.

Nothing like this current unrest occurred under colonial rule. Even without popular participation in the government, British concepts of justice and free speech, improving health and education, and laissez-faire economic growth, gave all a stake in the system. Those underlying principles above all things explain why Hong Kong holds such a special place in the affections of all those who have experienced both sides of the Hong Kong–China border.

The expatriate today in China’s big cities would be hard put to imagine what it was like for the few foreigners marooned there in the 1960s and 1970s. It was like COVID-19 lockdown but without the internet or online shopping. There were no sports facilities, no cinemas, no shops you’d want to visit, no music, no bars, no coffee shops, indeed no coffee. The Chinese restaurants were good and cheap, but they closed by 8.30 at night. A few restaurants serving eccentric imitations of Western food had survived the Cultural Revolution, like the Pakistani restaurant. Once Indian, but renamed after China’s border fight with India in 1962, it curiously served decent caviar at cheap prices, a remnant from old trade agreements with China’s enemy at the time, the Soviet Union.

Other than that, you could walk in the parks in summer or autumn—dusty and grassless, because grass had been declared a bourgeois indulgence; or you could skate on the lake at the Summer Palace in winter; or picnic among the ruins of the Ming tombs. That was it for entertainment. The Cultural Revolution still engulfed the country, forbidding harmless fun and enjoyment.

So it was always a treat to escape to Hong Kong, to have a proper drink in a proper bar, visit a bookshop with books you’d want to read, get a professional haircut, eat Western food, perhaps play a round of golf, catch up on the latest Hollywood blockbuster, watch cricket or rugby, shop for toiletries and medicines, and buy luxuries to take back, like strawberries or Australian lamb chops.

But it was a trek getting in and out. China had few communication links with the outside world, if you didn’t want to fly to Tirana, Ulanbator or Islamabad. Since Hong Kong was illegitimately occupied by Britain, China’s authorities forbade formal communication links. So getting into China was about as inconvenient as they could make it. A two-hour plane trip today took a day. The traveller had to rise at dawn to be at Hung Hom station in time for the 7.30 train to the border town of Lo Wu. There travellers would disembark, walk across an ancient timber bridge into the mainland and catch the slow train from sleepy Shenzhen to Canton. From there a plane to Beijing, arriving about 9.30 at night.

Getting out of China was even more tedious. After taking the morning flight, one had to overnight in Canton before taking the early morning train to the border and again changing trains for the last leg into central Hong Kong. My first escape took place over Easter 1977. I had been at the Peking Language Institute over the seven coldest months of my life, housed in a barely heated concrete bunker on campus and existing on Chinese institutional food. Apart from the odd black-spotted apple, pear or cabbage, no one had seen any fresh fruit or vegetables since winter started. The school had a week’s break for Chinese New Year, and many of us took the opportunity to get out. So after the Beijing–Canton flight, a night shared with rats in a rundown hotel, and the train to the border, I sank into my seat on the Hong Kong train with relief, not minding the prospect of the slow all-stops trip into town. But as the train pulled out, a hawker appeared selling drinks, whisky, vodka, and gin-and-tonic with fresh lemon. Never mind that it was nine in the morning. I hadn’t seen tonic water, let alone a lemon, since I’d arrived in China the previous August. There it was, the triumph of the free market and imperialism in a lemon.

Of course, Hong Kong was much more than that. By all the measures of progress and well-being it was among the leaders in Asia: education, health, longevity and opportunity. Official corruption had shrunk to insignificant levels under the Governor Murray MacLehose, who had set up the Independent Commission Against Corruption, the model for New South Wales’s deservedly maligned commission years later. It worked much better than in New South Wales, probably because it had much more to clean up. MacLehose, against civil service and financial sector opposition, had even introduced rudimentary social services.

But if Hong Kong was a haven for the expatriate, it was even more a goal for ordinary Chinese, battered by Mao’s endless purges and campaigns. The territory was a magnet for the poor and enterprising, especially for those with stigmatised class backgrounds such as landlords, rich peasants, middle peasants, bourgeois compradors, capitalists and rightists. These designations were inescapable, printed forever on your personal file and your children’s, following you wherever you might go—if, that is, you were ever lucky enough to get a travel pass to go anywhere.

Hong Kong had plenty of jobs. It was still a light-industry centre in Asia, and its services sector was expanding. If mainlanders, crossing into Hong Kong’s New Territories, the colony’s hinterland, made it into town, they could legally stay. If they were picked up in the New Territories before that, they’d be taken back into China. Most would try again, any number of times, till they made it. They swelled the population from three million to five million by the time a million of them came out on the streets the weekend after the Tiananmen massacre in 1989.

Any number of reasons have been propelling Hong Kongers onto the streets now. But one can have no doubt that the experience of the arbitrariness of life on the mainland, passed down from those parents and grandparents who’d made it to Hong Kong, will have been in their minds.

In the afterlight of the 1997 takeover, when the apocalypse didn’t happen, it is easy to forget how large the prospect of what would happen in 1997 loomed in everyone’s mind in the 1970s and early 1980s. Nobody knew. Or nobody was saying. Formally, Hong Kong and Kowloon were sovereign British territory. But the New Territories, acquired later, were only on a ninety-nine-year lease and due to return to China in 1997. Hong Kong and Kowloon were not viable by themselves. As it was, Hong Kong was reliant on China for fresh water. At the height of the Cultural Revolution, China had turned off the supply to signal how easily it could destroy the territory. This twitch on the thread complemented the civil-disorder threat from rioters the underground party’s agitprop cadres brought out on the streets at the same time. Since the communist takeover of China in 1949, Britain had been allowed to maintain its administration in Hong Kong on the basis that it was an issue left over from history to be solved by China at some future point.

The regime wasn’t saying at what point. But the issue of the future of Hong Kong was becoming critical. It would soon harm confidence. Contracts and leases were getting shorter as 1997 came closer. Many theories were advanced by the commentariat on what would happen. Hong Kong was such an important financial and later investment source for China, its window on the world when it had shut itself off, that it would be pragmatic. With reform on the mainland in full swing, Hong Kong was even more important. Perhaps the date would just be ignored. One view the government of Hong Kong let run was that in return for an explicit recognition by Britain of Chinese sovereignty, the Chinese would let the lease with Britain roll over. The colonial authorities otherwise kept mum. So did London. Like all governments everywhere, it had too much on its plate dealing with the short term to worry about something a decade or so out.

A conversation in Sydney late one night in 1981 broke that silence—at least among officials. Somewhere in the Department of Foreign Affairs archives is the record of that chat, and the international cable flurry that followed. The department was hosting a ten-day all-expenses-paid visit to Australia by a senior economic adviser to Deng Xiaoping, an affable and capable policy adviser recently rehabilitated from Cultural Revolution disgrace, Huan Xiang. This useful departmental program picked out potential political leaders in countries overseas, and offered them the opportunity to get to know Australia. With any luck they’d return home with favourable memories that might benefit us now or later in those countries’ policies. It is a great goodwill creator.

I was Huan’s escort. One night over a beer I asked him what he thought would happen in Hong Kong after 1997. Was China considering letting the British continue to administer the territory in exchange for an explicit statement of recognition of Chinese sovereignty? Huan was blunt. From the authority of his reply, the question of Hong Kong’s future had clearly already been the subject of internal party discussion with pretty clear guidelines set.

It will return to China, Huan said. China could not countenance continuation of a foreign concession on its territory a day longer than necessary. The anomaly had to be corrected, preferably peacefully. You could see the Chinese Communist Party’s favourite reading at work in the background, Sun Tzu’s Art of War, spelling out that it is better to win a war without actually having to fight. So the end of the lease, extracted from China under a so-called unequal treaty, was the time to take Hong Kong back.

Asked how China would avoid panic in Hong Kong and a catastrophic loss of confidence, Huan said Hong Kong could have a special status and retain its current system. He went on to outline pretty much what has happened. It would remain autonomous and free-market. It was the product of different historical circumstances and the party would not seek to liberate it, as it had the mainland.

It could retain its judicial system and maintain its external economic relationships, too, he said. That latter was a useful concession for China to make. Rather like Byelorussia and the Ukraine for the Soviet Union, Hong Kong would be an extra vote in international forums. Autonomous or not, Hong Kong wouldn’t defy China’s wishes on anything. And so it has proved at the World Trade Organisation and APEC.

Huan also said that Hong Kong could retain its own currency. Meant as a confidence booster, in the end it proved not enough. Hong Kong had to tie its currency to the US dollar to ensure international confidence. This measure, which has kept prices artificially high, and restrained the government’s fiscal freedom, persists. Even in the good years after China’s takeover, the government hasn’t been game to free the Hong Kong dollar.

On learning of this explosive conversation, the Hong Kong governor’s political office, staffed by Foreign Office secondees, there to help the governor understand the wider British interest, immediately went on the offensive. The MI6 station also got involved. The Foreign Office in London backed up its man in Hong Kong. It was UK Inc in full disparagement mode, of the author and the messenger. I must have misheard, they opined. Why was I causing unnecessary trouble on such a sensitive issue at this time? Also, Huan was a has-been, not close to the present Beijing leadership at all. What would he know? Britain had had no such advice or intelligence on Chinese intentions, they all claimed, even though the levels of hysteria would indicate that they had had exactly that intelligence. They feared the cat getting out of the bag. But even though the cat stayed in for a while longer, and this minor bureaucratic flurry died down, that informal chat brought Britain closer to facing up to a post-British Hong Kong.

Still, even after that experience of British pique and economy with the truth, let me add a last word in defence of the Brits, especially as in their current weakened and distracted state, they don’t seem ever to want to defend themselves on the issue. The potshot about the democratic deficit in colonial Hong Kong is easy to make. How dare the Brits now berate China about the lack of democracy in the territory when they did nothing all the while they were in charge, the accusation goes, most brazenly from the Communist Party’s apologists.

But it’s inaccurate. The truth is that after the CCP took over the mainland, Hong Kong looked ripe for liberation. The token British troop presence there couldn’t have held off a PLA advance. Luckily, even then in the flush of communist victory and ideological triumph, the usefulness of the territory was obvious to a party that was about to sever all its links with the civilised world. Chou En-lai, the party’s only sophisticated face to the outside, indicated to the British chargé’s office in the capital that the party would solve the Hong Kong problem in its own time. It would leave things as they were, as long as Britain left things as they were.

With a whole empire to decolonise at that time, tiny, impoverished, insignificant Hong Kong was never going to be a priority for the UK. And at the time, as they dealt with massive waves of escapees and refugees from communist liberation, Hong Kong’s authorities had other priorities than thoughts of political reform.

But by 1971, quit of its empire, Britain had inscribed Hong Kong on the fourth committee, the United Nations body for considering decolonisation matters. The mainland had just taken over Taiwan’s seat on the security council, and in what must have been one of its earliest acts at the UN, it launched that now-familiar and tedious tirade defending China’s sovereignty and inveighing against outside interference. It demanded Britain remove Hong Kong from the fourth-committee agenda. The colony was inalienable Chinese territory. It was a problem left over from history which China had the sole right to resolve in its own good time. China would brook no interference in Hong Kong’s internal affairs—even from Hong Kong’s current internal-affairs administrators. China would be solely responsible for any change in the territory. Again, buried deep in Foreign Affairs files is a copy of that crude cyclostyled memorandum from the PRC permanent representative to the UN setting all this out to all other missions, and sealing the fate of political reform in the territory. Britain withdrew Hong Kong from decolonisation consideration and left its institutions unchanged.

Yet that stifling by China of democratic development didn’t prevent Hong Kong making one of the few successful transitions from Third World poverty to prosperity and modernisation, not only in Asia, but anywhere. On present trends, it looks set to make the journey in reverse.

Peter Rowe is a former senior Australian diplomat whose postings included Beijing and Seoul.


5 thoughts on “The Slow Strangulation of Hong Kong

  • ianl says:

    A very interesting, informative article. It filled in a number of gaps for me.

  • Stephen Due says:

    Accepting that “British concepts of justice and free speech, improving health and education, and laissez-faire economic growth” are among the historical reasons for the success of Hong Kong, one has to confront the fact that, in various ways, several of these concepts are under attack all around the ‘decolonised’ half of the world the British created – not to mention in Britain itself.
    The attack is not necessarily noisy or violent. Rather it proceeds steadily and silently, as socialism eats away from within like dry rot under the weatherboards of a somnolent suburbia.
    How ironic that the British Library itself, one of the icons of the civilisation that formed us, provided a sanctuary for the author of Das Kapital. There he bent over his manuscript in the great reading room, unsuspected, like the death-watch beetle, except for the clicking of his pen-nib moving across the pages.
    It is difficult not be pessimistic about the fate of Kong Kong. But what about the rest of the Anglosphere, with its distinctively British institutions and values? Radical remedial action seems urgently to be needed. Ways must be found of systematically protecting the foundations of our free societies. Once we reach the stage where those who value justice and free speech, democracy and free enterprise, are reduced to protesting in the streets, we will know the battle has been lost.

  • whitelaughter says:

    I recall hearing in the late 1990s that various people proposed creating a ‘New Hong Kong’, carving out an independent enclave somewhere on the Australian coast, that the current citizens of Hong Kong could move to.
    If such an idea ever existed, it should be seriously considered!

  • pgang says:

    My wife-to-be was fulfilling a geology contract in north eastern China back in 2005 – doing it pretty tough (think freezing conditions, chicken heads for dinner and unkempt drop toilets). This was someone used to spartan conditions in the outback, but China was several levels more difficult. She also encountered the reality of life for the people under Chinese Communism – the total lack of freedom, the hideously controlling and corrupt ‘supervisors’, and the lack of basic facilities (except for mobile phones – everybody had one even though there was no running water).
    I went over for a visit and we toured around a bit – as recently as then there were no fancy trains, apart from the Maglev which was awesome. I lobbed into Shanghai initially and wandered around in a daze for the first few days to get my bearings, trying not to get conned by one of the many dubiously affable characters, end up bleeding out in the gutter, or just hopelessly lost. Perhaps my most distinct memories of the time are seeing an old lady peeing in the street, the spitting, and the thousands of bicycles.
    Then I met up with an ex-patriot friend and long-time China resident (who I’m sure Peter would know given his history), and suddenly it was all hobnobbing with the uber-wealthy, foot massages, food, art galleries, tailors, and martinis at M that made you feel like Bond. The transformation in outlook was a remarkable experience, and we owed her a lot for making our stay exceptional. We’ve always wanted to go back for a visit, but my wife can’t bring herself to revive the memories of the exploration camp and the real China.
    As for HK, the young generation sadly have no appreciation for the special place it held in the hearts of Australians. It was THE place in Asia that everyone wanted to visit – the most exciting place in the world, even more exotic than London. Even my dad and mum holidayed there once. Alas, no more.

  • Stephen Due says:

    whitelaughter. Your suggestion reminded me of Freetown, in the colony of British West Africa. Freetown was a city of refuge for slaves released during the British Navy’s campaign to abolish the Atlantic slave trade. If a new Hong Kong were to be established it could appropriately be called ‘Free Hong Kong’.

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