Beijing takes aim at Hong Kong’s pro-independence advocates

Premier Li Keqiang has made clear the central government will act if the local authorities fail to curb separatist forces

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 07 March, 2017, 1:30am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 07 March, 2017, 2:23am

However brief it may have been, the section on Hong Kong in Premier Li Keqiang’s (李克強) annual work report to the state legislature has been taken as an indicator of Beijing’s latest stance towards the city. What set this year’s document apart from previous ones is a reference to the so-called independence movement. For the first time, Li made clear that the notion of Hong Kong independence would lead nowhere. While the rhetoric may seem mild compared to that targeting Taiwan’s independence supporters, it shows that Beijing is alert to the threat, prepared to deal with it according to the law and, if needed, China’s constitution.

This is a politically sensitive year for China. Internally, a new leadership will emerge following the Communist Party’s 19th congress this autumn. Externally, the Donald Trump factor and uncertainties over Brexit as well as a few upcoming European elections threaten global economic stability. Given it is customary for China to be wary in times of change, the reference to Hong Kong independence in the report suggests that it is seen as a risk from Beijing’s perspective.

Premier Li Keqiang sounds warning on Hong Kong independence

That the issue has been raised at this stage may baffle some local observers. After all, the movement lost steam after the local government made a controversial attempt to disqualify a few pro-independence lawmakers for not taking their oaths of office properly. Be that as it may, Beijing sees it as a matter of principle. As Zhang Dejiang (張德江), chairman of the National People’s Congress, told local deputies behind closed doors yesterday, some Hong Kong lawmakers had already crossed the line and Beijing would not hesitate to take action, such as interpreting the Basic Law – the city’s mini-constitution – to keep independence advocates out of the legislature. Beijing has made its stance clear: sovereignty and territorial integrity are not to be compromised.

The message is as much for the local people as for the next chief executive. The three candidates for the job are now in the hot seat, with John Tsang Chun-wah brushing aside independence as a non-issue and Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor saying there is no room for Hong Kong to be separate from China. The third candidate, Woo Kwok-hing, does not see the premier’s remark as adding to the pressure on the next chief executive. Clearly, though, the new chief executive must firmly curb any attempt to separate the special administrative region from the rest of the country. The central government is also prepared to tackle the issue itself if necessary, as the report again stressed the importance of administering Hong Kong according to the law. This includes not just the Basic Law and the city’s laws, but also the nation’s constitution.