Tensions with mainland run high ahead of NPC meeting in Beijing

Tensions with mainland run high as National People's Congress gathers in Beijing, and the bad feelings may be a factor in battle for electoral reform

PUBLISHED : Friday, 28 February, 2014, 10:56pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 March, 2014, 9:24am

There's already a lot at stake this year when the National People's Congress gathers in Beijing starting tomorrow.

But as city officials and political activists hotly debate the process for choosing candidates to become Hong Kong's next chief executive in 2017 - an election that could grant all citizens the right to vote - a hateful campaign against mainland tourists threatens the city's relationship with its national leaders. At the same time, democrats who want Beijing to stay out of the election are promising to paralyse the city with a huge protest.

Several Hongkongers say they worry that growing tensions between city residents and mainlanders, as well as pro-democracy activists, could ruin any chance that Beijing will abide by Hongkongers' voice in 2017. The central government will have enormous power over that election - including who runs, who can't, the election rules, and ultimately whether to back or reject the voters' choice.

The city, some fear, could wind up with a leader who will be deferential and loyal to Beijing.

"Some Beijing officials are concerned with the 'anti-locust' and the pro-independence movement that showed signs of being rooted locally," said a local, long-time congress delegate, using the slur against mainlanders shouted by the street protestors last month. "These thoughts have damaged the prospects of the pan-democrats' demands for electoral reform."

Even the most moderate elections proposal - one seen as the most acceptable by Beijing, in which all 412 elected district councilors would join the nominating committee - now faces a greater challenge, the delegate says.

"Beijing is concerned most with sovereign integrity," she said. "Even though most in Hong Kong are not asking for independence, the growing demand from perhaps a small group of people touches on the nerves of Beijing officials when they contemplate the level of democracy Hong Kong should have."

Hong Kong deputies to the national legislature and the concurrent Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), the top advisory body, tend to avoid making proposals on constitutional issues. But that may not stop them from tangling with central government officials on this sensitive subject.

Hong Kong's electoral reform proposal must be approved by the National People's Congress Standing Committee.

Tensions between the mainland and the city have simmered for years. Things began heating up in 2003. With Hong Kong desperate for money after the Sars outbreak, the mainland created the Individual Visit Scheme, allowing individuals to visit the region and help boost the economy. Hundreds of thousands of visitors from the mainland began pouring into the city, rising to 41 million mainlanders last year.

In recent months, activists have been more openly antagonistic towards Beijing. In February, two democratic groups proposed imposing a tax as high as HK$100 on visitors to discourage mainlanders from coming. An extreme faction calling itself Hongkongers Come First on Facebook has drawn more than 1,600 "likes" since 2012. In January, faction members broke into the People's Liberation Army barracks in Admiralty, holding the colonial-era flag in photographs before they were arrested.

Meanwhile, organisers of the Occupy Central movement vow to shut down the city's major commercial and financial centre with a giant protest in a quest for universal suffrage.

For years, many city residents have complained that the massive influx of tourists has overwhelmed shopping districts and public transport. Local residents accuse mainlanders of stripping stores of vital goods like baby formula, and parents carp about local children being squeezed out of kindergarten slots.

Tensions seemed to peak on February 16, when about 100 people marched through TST yelling abuse at mainland tourists. It triggered a citywide debate about discrimination and the city's relationship with its Putonghua-speaking neighbours.

Several congress delegates said it was important for Hong Kong to resolve these problems on its own, without involving the central government.

"The individual visit scheme has made enormous contributions to the Hong Kong economy," says Chan Kam-lam, a member of the Beijing-loyalist Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, and a CPPCC delegate. He said the conflict between locals and mainlanders should not be aired at the national level. "We have to convince mainlanders that Hong Kong still very much welcomes them."

NPC deputy Ma Fung-kwok said it was unreasonable to ask Beijing to control mainland-to-Hong Kong tourism.

"We asked for more tourists during the economic downturn and the state gave them to us. How can you ask Beijing to backtrack on the policy simply because you do not want it anymore?" asked Ma, lawmaker with the sports, arts and publication constituency.

Dr David Wong Yau-kar, an economist who also sits on the NPC, said he would not make any suggestions regarding Hong Kong's tourism issues because he believed they were the local government's responsibility, not Beijing's.

One NPC delegate proposes capping mainland tourism. Michael Tien Puk-sun said Beijing should set a quota on permits issued to mainland travellers to Hong Kong.

"I am one of the biggest beneficiaries of the influx of mainland tourists," he said, noting that his clothing chain G2000 expanded thanks to mainland visitors.

Under his proposal, the permit quota would allow just single-digit growth for tourism annually. The quota should also be spread through the year to avoid overcrowding during certain seasons, Tien said.

About 54 million tourists from around the world visited last year. Greg So Kam-leung, secretary for commerce and economic development, estimated last month that tourist numbers could climb 30 per cent to 70 million annually in three years, and to 100 million in a decade.

The pressure on the city's transport network was expected to worsen with the completion of the cross-border express railway and the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge in 2015 and 2016 respectively, Tien said.

"Tourists will not be able to move around in the city so easily even after they cross the borders via the new transport infrastructure," he said. "Until Hong Kong has increased its tourism facilities, we should slow down the growth."

Tien's permit proposal drew fire from state-run newspaper Global Times, which ran an editorial criticising his proposal as "selfish and only trying to maximise Hong Kong's interest".

Tien was unswayed by the high-profile criticism on the subject.

"After all, Hongkongers are suffering from a poor quality of life despite the material prosperity," he said.

As the plenary sessions start tomorrow, it is unlikely Beijing officials will issue any explicit orders concerning the city's electoral reform. Officials have stuck to simply asking Hong Kong to adhere to the Basic Law in previous sessions.

Officials in Beijing have denounced the Occupy Central plans, joined by pro-establishment politicians in Hong Kong.

The NPC veteran said scare tactics and threats of protests would not sway Beijing.

"Occupy Central definitely will not work," to intimidate Chinese officials, she said. "A hardcore approach is never effective with Beijing."