Slowly does it for Beijing and Hong Kong

Recent debates - over the status of the Hong Kong chief executive, and the influence of British colonial institutions and China - show the gulf between the Beijing central government and the people of Hong Kong.

More than one thousand pro-democracy protesters gather outside government headquarters in Hong Kong, China on Sept 28, 2015. PHOTO: REUTERS

After the Hong Kong government's proposed constitutional reform on universal suffrage was rejected by the Legislative Council in June, the government said it would focus on economic issues.

There was then a lull in the political arena in Hong Kong - until the recent speeches by Mr Zhang Xiaoming, chief of the central government's Liaison Office in Hong Kong, on Sept 12, and Mr Chen Zuoer, former deputy director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, on Sept 20. The speeches were widely reported and sparked much debate.

Mr Zhang pointed out in his speech that "Hong Kong has not been implementing the political system characterised by the 'separation of powers', neither before nor after its return to China". The textbook definition of separation of powers is to keep the executive, the legislative and the judiciary independent and provide checks and balances to each other in a democracy.

He denied that such a system had ever existed in Hong Kong. He described the political system under the Basic Law as executive-led. The chief executive at the core exercises powers which are derived from and given by the central government in Beijing. Under him, there are the executive arm of government and the legislative branch , which check and balance each other, while the judiciary is independent. The Hong Kong administration is essentially a local government with a high degree of autonomy, not a sovereign government.

The chief executive is a "double chief": He is appointed by and reports to the central government and he also heads the executive branch of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. He bears "dual responsibilities" to Beijing and Hong Kong. As such, he is "transcendent" over the executive, legislative and judicial branches of the government.

Mr Chen spoke at a forum on an equally explosive topic about a week later. He noted that Hong Kong's economic development has slowed and is lagging behind Singapore and Macau. He attributed the lag to two factors: the decolonisation and de-sinofication in Hong Kong.

He identified the failure to implement decolonisation as the root cause of internal strife. Decolonisation was not implemented in accordance with the law, which meant that "things which should be put in the history museum were still hoisted and displayed across the streets". This apparently refers to the hoisting of the colonial flag at protest rallies. On the other hand, desinofication - started by the British in the 1980s to reduce the influence of Beijing as talks began on Britain's handover of the Hong Kong colony back to the Chinese - was revived and intensified. This has harmed Hong Kong, Mr Chen argued.

Both speeches have sparked heated debate. Chief Executive Leung Chun Ying clarified that the non-separation of powers in fact originated from Deng Xiaoping in his discussion with the drafting committee of the Basic Law in 1987.

Deng cautioned that Hong Kong's system should not be completely westernised to adopt separation of powers and British or American parliamentary system. As subsequently interpreted, the reason was that the notion of separation of powers was applicable only to sovereign states and was therefore not applicable to Hong Kong. It would contradict the central government's jurisdiction over Hong Kong if adopted.

Mr Chen's claim that the failure to decolonise was the root cause of chaos is more difficult to understand. After British administration of more than 150 years, Hong Kong has naturally inherited some British socioeconomic and legal institutions. Free market and the rule of law are the two important pillars for Hong Kong's survival and growth. It would be extreme indeed if Mr Chen were advocating the end of the free market and abolition of the rule of law in Hong Kong.

Even pro-Beijing politicians disagreed with Mr Chen. Secretary for Constitutional Affairs Raymond Tam urged the central government and its officials to show the Hong Kong people more tolerance and trust. Mrs Regina Ip, a legislator and member of Executive Council, advocates keeping good traditions and institutions inherited from Hong Kong's colonial past.

In fact, the viewpoints expressed by Mr Zhang and Mr Chen reflect the frustrations and perspective of the central government. In 2003, six years after the handover, the Hong Kong government tried to pass a Bill on national security in accordance with Article 23 of the Basic Law but it was met with an uproar and failed. In 2012, the government scrapped its plan to introduce national education to strengthen national identity, in the face of widespread protests.

The central government's road map towards universal suffrage in 2017 included a requirement that candidates for the post of chief executive be screened by a nomination committee - but this proposal was soundly rejected.

Following the impasse, many protests against the government were staged and it climaxed with the Occupy Central, which crippled traffic flows on main streets of the city. Some so-called nativists hoisted the colonial flag and even raised the topic of independence.

All these must have disappointed and frustrated officials in Beijing, which has helped support the Hong Kong economy. Beijing views Hong Kong as a local region with a government allowed greater, but not total, autonomy. The chief executive may be elected by the people - and is accountable to Beijing. Candidates for the chief executive post are pre-screened to ensure their loyalty to Beijing. Colonial institutions such as the rule of law can be kept - but the people's mindset and loyalty should be shifted from the colonial past to China.

The problem is whether the Hong Kong people can be persuaded to identify themselves and cooperate with the central government.

The danger is that the central government might get impatient and want to hasten Hong Kong's transformation and rid the city of its colonial past, so that the "one country two systems" framework will gradually converge to become one system long before the deadline of 2047. If Beijing tries to grasp control of Hong Kong's internal affairs too tightly, too fast, a brain drain is likely, as Hong Kong's talented, highly-mobile people emigrate. If that happens, the city's denizens will be replaced by new migrants from the mainland. The nature and character of the social and political institutions will change and Hong Kong will lose its diversity and openness, to become a city similar to Shenzhen or Shanghai. It will be less useful to Beijing as a result,

The way forward for Beijing, then, is to understand the thinking of the Hong Kong people and be more tolerant and patient.

The number of hardcore anti-Beijing protesters is likely to be small. It is very likely that the vocal minority had hijacked the silent majority and created chaos in events such as the Occupy Central. Instead of overreaching for political control at a time the Hong Kong people are resisting it, the central government should focus on developing the economy and improving the living conditions of the residents. The uplifting of living standards will earn their trust and win them over to work together with the government for Hong Kong's future.

• The writer was consul-general of Singapore in Hong Kong. He is an adjunct professor of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 30, 2015, with the headline 'Slowly does it for Beijing and Hong Kong'. Subscribe