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To win trust of HK public, China must understand them better

China needs to dial down on political changes and step up economic engagement to win Hong Kongers' trust.

BEIJING • That Hong Kongers mistrust their city's Beijing masters was seen all too clearly in the election last week of their Chief Executive.

To observers, Mrs Carrie Lam, who won the election, has shown herself to be more committed than her rivals to addressing the growing social and economic inequality in Hong Kong and the lack of affordable housing and job opportunities.

And yet, because she was backed by Beijing and seen to be a Beijing loyalist, she was unpopular among Hong Kongers, polling only 29.5 per cent compared to the 46.6 per cent of her nearest rival John Tsang, the former financial secretary who had a more laissez-faire attitude towards social and economic issues.

Mrs Lam was "too loyal to the Communist Party at the expense of Hong Kongers' interest", a retiree was quoted by Hong Kong newspaper South China Morning Post as saying at a rally two nights before the election.

Mrs Lam was elected by a committee of nearly 1,200 members of mostly pro-establishment, pro-Beijing Hong Kong elites.

This election by committee is stipulated in Hong Kong's mini-Constitution, the Basic Law. The committee is made up of the 70 members of the Legislative Council, as well as members of various sectors of Hong Kong society such as businesses, professional unions and academia.

It did not help that Mrs Lam had led a government task force on political reforms, coming up with a proposal - based on an August 2014 framework set by China's Parliament - that was hugely unpopular.

The proposal allowed for a popularly elected Chief Executive but required that the candidates be vetted by a nominating committee handpicked by Beijing. This was rejected by pro-democracy Hong Kongers who thought it would lead to sham elections. They demanded that candidates be publicly nominated, never mind that nomination by a committee was stated in the Basic Law.


ST ILLUSTRATION : MANNY FRANCISCO

The Basic Law says "the ultimate aim is the selection of the Chief Executive by universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures".

As Assistant Professor Tim Summers of the Chinese University of Hong Kong said, Beijing did not want to dictate political reforms. "But it does want to be able to prevent candidates they find unacceptable from becoming Chief Executive."

Chinese analysts think Beijing should focus on economic cooperation to raise Hong Kong's status as an international city and create job opportunities, with political reform to take place gradually.

While Hong Kong's opposition found this unacceptable, "under 'one country, two systems', it was always understood that Beijing should have a say in the Chief Executive role", he added.

"One country, two systems" is the arrangement under which Hong Kong was to enjoy its capitalist system and way of life for 50 years after its handover to China in 1997 from the British. Hong Kongers were to enjoy a high degree of autonomy.

The reform proposal brought out thousands of Hong Kongers, many of them young people, to protest against it and agitate for greater political freedoms.

The 79-day Occupy movement failed to move Beijing. But neither did the proposal get the two-thirds majority needed to be passed by the Legislative Council.

The mistrust between the Beijing government and Hong Kongers deepened. The situation was not always like this.

EROSION OF LIBERTIES - AND TRUST

In the years leading up to July 1, 1997, when the British government would return its colony of more than 150 years to China, about half a million Hong Kongers left for countries such as Australia and Canada.

The atrocities on the mainland during the Cultural Revolution of 1966 to 1976 and the harsh crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in the Tiananmen incident of 1989 led to misgivings among Hong Kongers about their new political masters.

However, many returned a few years later after they saw that little had changed after the handover and that Hong Kongers were free to live their lives as before. Beijing, for the most part, kept to its side of the bargain after the handover.

But things started to change from the 2000s. In 2003, an anti-subversion Bill was introduced. A mandatory patriotic education curriculum for Hong Kong schools in 2012 was met with massive protests. While the government retreated over these, the moves got Hong Kongers worried about Beijing encroaching on their autonomy.

Fears of erosion of their civil liberties grew through the years, fuelled by the abduction of a Hong Kong bookseller from Hong Kong soil and the disappearance of several others in late 2015, who later appeared on TV confessing to crimes.

The promotion of the use of Mandarin as a medium of instruction in schools has also caused concern among Hong Kongers about losing their cultural roots.

Economic integration from 2003 through the Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement brought economic benefits to the city but also resentment of the presence of huge numbers of mainland tourists, among other things.

Overall, Hong Kongers fear "mainlandisation" - the gradual acceptance of values and norms prevalent on the mainland.

HEALING THE RIFT

Beijing needs to reduce mistrust of Hong Kongers in the central government and assuage their fears of the erosion of their autonomy.

Prof Summers thought this would be difficult, given the deep anti-Communist Party sentiment in the city.

The central government needs to keep a low profile and its Hong Kong representative, the Central Government Liaison Office in Hong Kong, "could be less active", he said.

Chinese analysts think Beijing should focus on economic cooperation to raise Hong Kong's status as an international city and create job opportunities, with political reform to take place gradually.

However, Dr Richard Bush of the Brookings Institution believes Beijing should restart political reform soon.

"The proposal that ultimately went to Legco (the Legislative Council) in April 2015 was better than people realised, and maybe reviving it with modest changes would elicit enough support from the democratic camp. Unless politics is restored to institutional channels it will stay in the street," he said.

Beijing also needs to respect the rule of law, stop nibbling away at civil and political rights and give the Hong Kong government the green light to focus more on housing and social welfare gaps, said Dr Bush.

Perhaps most of all, Beijing needs to understand Hong Kongers better if it wants to manage its relations with them well, maintain the city's social and political stability and ensure its continued vibrancy. In short, ensure the success of Hong Kong after its handover.

Beijing "doesn't understand the social and political dynamics of advanced economies like Hong Kong and Taiwan", said Dr Bush, adding that it "particularly doesn't understand the priorities of young people".

"Most of all, it does not understand how its own policies are creating the problems it finds troubling," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 07, 2017, with the headline 'To win trust of HK public, China must understand them better'. Print Edition | Subscribe