A section of the newly-opened Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge, the world’s longest sea bridge connecting Hong Kong, Macau and mainland China. Hongkongers are being urged to see themselves as part of the Greater Bay Area, a Chinese government plan to link cities in southern China. Photo: AFP
Philip Bowring
Philip Bowring

A slow death for Hong Kong’s separate identity in China

  • Philip Bowring says the city’s cherished freedoms and rule of law are under serious threat, amid pressure – now exacerbated by intense US-China confrontation – for it to integrate with the mainland and demonstrate loyalty to Beijing

Hong Kong is between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, it is seen overseas and by most residents as a genuinely autonomous region characterised by free trade, free speech, free assembly and the separation of the executive from an independent judiciary. On the other, the government in Beijing and local acolytes regard Hong Kong’s citizens as insufficiently patriotic, prone to exaggerating their rights to autonomy and in need of rapid integration with the rest of China. 

Tension between these perceptions has long existed, but a series of developments has made them far more pronounced and could eventually undermine Hong Kong’s international status, driving foreign companies and finance houses to Singapore or elsewhere. Hong Kong citizens could also find themselves deprived of benefits such as visa-free entry to dozens of countries that they enjoy – and other Chinese do not.

The roots of this enhanced tension go back to two events. One was the installation of Xi Jinping, set on centralising power and enhancing the singular role of the president in place of the more collective-style leadership practised by his two predecessors. His policy centrepieces include anti-corruption at home and nationalism abroad, evidenced by actions ranging from militarily boosting claims to the whole South China Sea, to the Belt and Road Initiative using Chinese money to build infrastructure and enhance China’s global commercial links.
The other event was the so-called 2014 Umbrella Movement, in protest against Beijing’s imposition of rules snuffing out local hopes that autonomy would enable progress to a higher level of democracy. These and other protests infuriated Beijing, and the Hong Kong government has since gradually taken revenge, with long prison terms for some leaders accused of rioting or incitement to riot. Democratically elected legislators have been removed on various legal grounds and others barred from standing for election.

Watch: How Hong Kong’s 2014 Occupy protests began

Foreign reaction to Hong Kong’s problem was muted as countries prefer to chase China business or simply view Hong Kong as a useful place regardless of politics because of low taxes and commercial freedoms. However, tensions in recent months have increased as actions by the Hong Kong government against dissident voices coincide with the ramping up of US-China confrontation.
What began as trade-focused moves by President Donald Trump have morphed into a broader US attempt, as evidenced by an October 4 speech by Vice-President Mike Pence, to thwart China’s attempts to achieve technological and power parity, if not ascendancy: “Beijing is employing a whole-of-government approach to advance its influence and benefit its interests … we will continue to stand strong for our security and our economy, even as we hope for improved relations with Beijing.”
Hong Kong itself has been subjected to a barrage of efforts by the local administration to prove its loyalty to Beijing, and its 7 million people are urged to see themselves as part of the Greater Bay Area, where immense business opportunities are supposed to lie. Other moves to reduce Hong Kong’s separate identity include a push to use more Mandarin at the expense of Cantonese.
At the same time, the Hong Kong government has made a full, frontal attack on those advocating greater autonomy, or even independence, reaching a pitch that has drawn protests and international attention. One spark was a speaker invitation by the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Hong Kong to Andy Chan Ho-tin, a leader of the Hong Kong National Party. In retaliation, the government declared the National Party illegal on grounds of sedition and proceeded to deny renewal of a work visa to the Asian editor of the Financial Times, Victor Mallet. His offence: presiding over the lunch meeting in his official capacity as the club’s vice-president.

Watch: Was Hong Kong right to deny Victor Mallet’s visa renewal?

This seemingly minor visa issue sent shock waves through the legal, business and media communities. Hong Kong, it seemed, is using administrative measures at the instigation of Beijing to suppress freedoms and the rule of law, which were supposed to be a hallmark.

If discussion of Hong Kong is shut down on grounds of doubting Chinese sovereignty, how long would it be before bans are applied to bigger issues – Taiwan, Tibet, the South China Sea and more – or mere discussion of such topics becomes treasonous and criticism of China’s one-party rule is seditious?
Despite the storm of criticism, the government pressed on with shutting down critics, barring a high-profile candidate from running in a by-election on the grounds that she had once called for “self-determination” for Hong Kong.
Meanwhile, as the US-China tariff war heats up, there are worries that a “patriotic” Hong Kong may find it hard to avoid harm. Although Hong Kong manufactures little, the possibility emerges that its role as a re-exporter of mainland goods could come under scrutiny, with the special administrative region accused of tariff avoidance in the same way it provides tax avoidance for many mainland companies. The government insists that it would be “unfair” to target Hong Kong, lobbying Washington to sustain the region’s separate identity.

Watch: Hong Kong lawmakers quizzed on Greater Bay Area

For now, it is protected by the 1992 US-Hong Kong Policy Act, which provides for special and separate treatment for Hong Kong. In a May review, the US State Department concluded that although there had been some suppression of democratic rights by the central government “inconsistent with China’s commitment” to “a high degree of autonomy” Hong Kong’s differences were “more than sufficient to justify continued special treatment by the United States”.
That remains the case. But the mood is changing. Both the US and China harbour doubts that Hong Kong can be both patriotic and entitled to special economic status. Even in Hong Kong, some voices call for the US to use the Hong Kong Policy Act as a lever to try and reverse authoritarian trends. The US president has authority to interpret the act.

Hong Kong is too valuable to all parties to be relinquished. Erosion of its international status will reduce the city’s significance in a world where globalisation everywhere is under threat from nationalism.

Philip Bowring is a journalist who has been based in Asia since 1973. Reprinted with permission from YaleGlobal Online

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Separate HK identity is too valuable to be relinquished