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Beijing rises to ‘new normal’ challenge in times of change

As the leadership adjusts its Hong Kong policies, the focus falls on those who will carry them out

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 November, 2016, 10:57pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 November, 2016, 10:58pm

“New Normal”, a term borrowed from the West referring to the economic stagnation after the internet bubble, has turned into perhaps the trendiest phrase in mainland China ever since President Xi Jinping used it, two years ago, to describe the country’s economic slowdown.

Yet the phrase, which suggests that something once abnormal is now commonplace, has been given a new connotation when referring to Hong Kong affairs, or, to be specific, when describing post-Occupy Hong Kong-Beijing relations.

Without doubt, there have been fundamental changes in how the two sides see each other since the 79-day mass protests two years ago to oppose Beijing’s election framework for choosing the city’s leader. Beijing regarded the civil disobedience movement as a severe challenge to the supreme authority of the country’s top legislature, the National People’s Congress.

Mutual trust between Beijing and Hong Kong is no longer a given, but a long-term goal that requires the efforts of both to achieve

The movement marked a watershed stage in Beijing’s overall Hong Kong policymaking, revealed in a recently released book by one of China’s leading publishers, the People’s Publishing House.

It summarises four features of the post-Occupy “new normal”: mutual trust between Beijing and Hong Kong is no longer a given, but a long-term goal that requires the efforts of both to achieve; Beijing will further clarify the definition of “one country, two systems” – with one country as the goal and two systems as the means; how Hong Kong and Beijing interact will directly decide the “degree” of the “high degree of autonomy” for the city; and, last but not the least, with the emergence of a new generation of young localists and independence sentiment, Beijing views this kind of “new normal” as a long-term challenge.

It’s worth noting that the author, Dr Yan Xiaojun, a Harvard Law School graduate who currently teaches at the University of Hong Kong, is a council member of the influential Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies, a key think tank for Beijing’s main Hong Kong policymakers. The book is understood to have been recommended to them as a must-read.

When the leadership is adjusting its Hong Kong policies under the “new normal”, all eyes are also on the two top executors of Beijing’s latest instructions: the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office (HKMAO) under the State Council; and the central government’s liaison office in Hong Kong. That was why many were amazed to see the Communist Party’s top anti-graft agency criticise the HKMAO for its “weak leadership” and inefficiency in carrying out party orders. Some also wondered whether the liaison office would be the next to be inspected.

The critical report was released by a team from the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, headed by anti-graft tsar Wang Qishan. Some also worried the “weak leadership” comment would lead to a more hardline style since current HKMAO director Wang Guangya is regarded as an open-minded, dovish official.

But a closer look at the matter can be revealing: it was a nationwide party discipline inspection that has become a “new normal” of Chinese politics, and while the criticism surely is a reminder to the HKMAO, it would be too far-fetched to link it to the chief executive election as some have suggested; also, as a party mechanism, the commission has not sent any team to inspect overseas organisations, not to say to Hong Kong, where the party does not conduct any open activity under one country, two systems.

With the oath-taking fiasco triggering the latest interpretation of the Basic Law by the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, here’s a “new normal” for Hongkongers to realise: how Beijing will “push forward” the two offices’ work on Hong Kong amid the “new developments”.