Are loving China and the Communist Party the same thing? Hong Kong and Beijing each grapple with question

A veteran pro-establishment figure warned that those calling for an end to one-party rule might risk their future political career locally, raising legal issues requiring further clarification

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 March, 2018, 2:30pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 March, 2018, 10:51pm

“You can continue to curse the Communist Party [after 1997], the party won’t be defeated by your curse ... but Hong Kong must be ruled by people who love the country and love Hong Kong.”

Paramount leader Deng Xiaoping made these words famous in the early 1980s when he met a visiting Hong Kong delegation to discuss the future of what was then a British colony.

The quote has since been widely circulated by many, especially after the city’s return to Chinese sovereignty, to argue that under the “one country, two systems” policy, Hongkongers can enjoy the freedom of criticising China’s ruling Communist Party in whatever way, as long as no action is taken to overthrow its rule, since being patriotic means loving the country.

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Yet, for decades, whether “loving the country” equates to “loving the party” has remained a troubling question for both Hong Kong and Beijing.

Now, under President Xi Jinping’s strong leadership, this issue has become a talking point again after a veteran pro-Beijing figure from the city warned that those calling for an end to one-party dictatorship might be risking their future political career.

Xi made it crystal clear that Hongkongers needed to “strengthen their sense of belonging to the nation and their patriotic feeling” in his keynote speech last week at the end of China’s most important annual political event, the more than two-week-long National People’s Congress (NPC) session.

As Xi’s second term officially begins, much of the focus for the whole world, including Hong Kong, has been on speculating how long he is to stay in power, since the national parliament has passed constitutional amendments that include lifting the two-term limit on the presidency. But an equally significant change that should not be overlooked is that the rule of the Communist Party as the “essential feature” of socialism with Chinese characteristics has been entrenched into the body, instead of just the preamble of the constitution.

This was what prompted Tam Yiu-chung, the sole Hong Kong delegate to the country’s top legislative body, the NPC Standing Committee, to remind the city’s political activists that chanting slogans of “end one-party rule” might jeopardise their chances of running for elections in future. He further asserted that any motion debate related to such calls should not be allowed in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council.

Tam’s comments naturally stirred up quite a big controversy, and he was questioned as to whether he was merely speaking on his own behalf or as a “messenger” of Beijing, given his special capacity.

Ronny Tong Ka-wah, a member of the Hong Kong government’s Executive Council and convenor of political group Path of Democracy, told reporters after a visit to Beijing that Tam was not making an “official statement” on behalf of Beijing. But he also pointed out that Hongkongers “just need to accept” politicians in the city would have to respect the country and its constitution, or “there could be huge constitutional problems”.

Other Beijing officials’ recent remarks indicate that in the central government’s eyes, although Hong Kong follows a capitalist system, its legislature is still part of the establishment of the special administrative region, which is part of the People’s Republic of China.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor earlier left it to returning officers from the city’s Electoral Affairs Commission to decide whether one could run or not in an election. She is right, in terms of the legal process in deciding a candidate’s eligibility.

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Tam, however, raised a completely inconvenient political truth for those who don’t agree with one-party rule, yet still want to join the city’s establishment.

So, what exactly does it mean in legal terms to “respect the constitution” when it comes to an election?

Apparently, Beijing now intends to set a higher threshold for those seeking public office. It’s something also for the government, not just a returning officer, to think about.