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The Looking-Glass World of Hong Kong Democracy

The Looking-Glass World of Hong Kong Democracy

Sunday, 17 April, 2022 - 05:00

Analysts trying to evaluate the prospects for a revival of Hong Kong’s economic fortunes under a new chief executive might be better off discarding their political science manuals and consulting Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking Glass.” Assessing whether events will follow the course authorities have prescribed entails grappling with a series of contradictions.

Start with the process itself. John Lee, the No. 2 official in the current administration, has effectively been anointed already as Hong Kong’s next leader. Lee is the only candidate, and the only one there is expected to be, with Beijing having let it be known that he is the central government’s preferred choice. A committee of 1,500 will make his appointment official May 8. The government refers to this contest as an election, and to the city’s democracy as improved, after Beijing intervened last year to shrink the voting base that elects the committee by 97%.

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Lee won before he even had time to produce a manifesto. Admittedly, events have proved he didn’t need one, though for those trying to gauge Hong Kong’s future path it would be helpful to know how he intends to govern. At an April 9 press briefing, the chief executive-in-waiting said the financial center “must expand its international connectivity, establish a more favorable business environment, uphold the value of inclusion, diversity and openness, and further strengthen its competitiveness.”

These are promising words. Hong Kong, which rose to prosperity as an international trading post and is still billed by the government as a “super-connector” of China and the outside world, has been in isolation for much of the past two years. The demands of conforming to Beijing’s Covid-zero policy have forced the closure of thousands of bars, restaurants, gyms and other businesses. National security legislation has reduced diversity and openness in politics, civil society and the media. The erosion of freedoms has caused tens of thousands of people to leave the city, hampering its financial competitiveness. The stock market has slumped 25% in a year, property prices have fallen, and the economy is forecast to have shrunk in the first quarter. So relief on any of these fronts would be welcome.

Discerning what Lee’s words will mean in practice isn’t so straightforward, though. Two days after he spoke, police arrested Allan Au, a 54-year-old journalist, under the colonial-era statute of conspiracy to publish seditious materials. Au had worked as a columnist for Stand News, an online news outlet that closed in December after being raided by national security police. As security secretary, Lee himself oversaw the crackdown on opposition activists and independent media that followed sometimes-violent pro-democracy protests in 2019.

Lee may not have published a policy program, but it is possible to infer the broad outlines of the thinking that will inform his administrative approach by scrutinizing the writings of Beijing-aligned organizations and commentators. Hong Kong will confront “a plethora of grim challenges” in the next five years, with China expecting “intensified efforts” by the US and its allies to weaken the city’s value to the country, Lau Siu-kai, vice president of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macao Studies, wrote in an April 11 article for the state-affiliated China Daily that welcomed Lee’s appointment.

Lau, the former head of the government’s central policy unit, went on to paint a dark vision of the city’s situation, saying that deep-seated social and livelihood problems had become more intractable, threatening to undermine Hong Kong’s “fragile stability, render governance ineffective, and bring about political and social disorder.” Lee was favored because of his police background, performance in suppressing the 2019-2020 unrest, lack of affiliation to any political faction or the administrative corps, and loyalty to Beijing. Lau concluded on an optimistic note, saying that an administration more determined to protect national security would lead to more effective governance, sustained economic growth, and a more stable and just society.

So there we have it. Hong Kong’s position is so precarious and threatened by internal and external hostile forces that only a member of the security establishment is fit to lead. And somehow, an approach that excludes the vast majority of Hong Kong voters and even the city’s civil service as insufficiently loyal and inherently suspect is going to lead to greater social cohesion, better governance and a revived economy.

We don’t know what Lee will do in office, and much may depend on the team he selects. But his anointment as leader, and the views of the pro-Beijing figures who surround him, confirm the impression that the Communist Party sees Hong Kong as primarily a security issue, and tightening its control as the overriding priority. By political necessity, an ever-strengthening security state is deemed compatible with a more stable society and an economic rebound. Those with a more detached view should consider carefully how these contradictions will ultimately be resolved.


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