Published:  12:38 AM, 07 February 2019

Governing Hong Kong in Xi's new era

Hong Kong's position in China's governance framework is becoming clearer. Mainland authorities have achieved a degree of jurisdiction over Hong Kong through a repertoire of different initiatives that may ultimately affect the city's reputation as a global business hub. If Hong Kong becomes more like a mainland city, will foreign countries still find it an attractive place to do business?

The interpretation of the Basic Law handed down by the Standing Committee of China's National People's Congress' (NPCSC) in late 2016 regarding legislators' oath-taking set the scene for Beijing to steer Hong Kong's legal and constitutional order.

The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) government under Chief Executive Carrie Lam is adopting an administrative approach to discipline activists that are seen to be testing Beijing's political 'red line'. For Beijing, this red line represents threats to national sovereignty and security, central authority and the socio-political stability of the mainland.

In 2018, administrative power was used to bar alleged pro-independence candidates from entering by-elections. Candidates had hoped to fill the seats of six directly elected pan-democratic or localist legislators disqualified by Hong Kong courts after the NPCSC's interpretation was handed down.

In addition to sentencing several young activists and trying three initiators of the Occupy Central movement, Lam's government disbanded the pro-independence Hong Kong National Party for threatening national security and violating the Basic Law. This is how political conundrums are being tackled in Hong Kong today.

The pending passage of legislation aimed at deterring and punishing those who publicly ridicule the national anthem is helping to synchronize Hong Kong's laws with those of the mainland. This political-legal order is evolving through interpretations of the Basic Law and through NPCSC decisions, which are subsequently implemented by Hong Kong's courts and administration. This evolution reveals how jurisdiction over the city will be exercised moving forward.

Beijing repeatedly reminds Hong Kong to expedite national security legislation and to strengthen national identity by educating its younger generation. Central officials are also increasingly placing emphasis on the applicability of the Chinese constitution in Hong Kong. Whether these developments will recast the rule of law as one based not on the common law but instead on something more akin to that employed on the mainland remains a critical question for those who continue to endorse 'one country, two systems'.

Concerns about waning freedoms were sharply highlighted by the Foreign Correspondents' Club incident, where a young pro-independence politician was invited to make a speech despite warnings from the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The club's former president was later denied both a renewal of his work visa and entry into Hong Kong. The government and establishment political forces believe that such actions are justified. Together with the earlier Causeway Bay Bookstore incident and the mysterious disappearance of a mainland Chinese billionaire, these events cast a shadow over Hong Kong's freedom and rule of law.

Aside from positioning Hong Kong as a key base for President Xi Jinping's Belt and Road Initiative, Lam's government is actively embracing planning associated with the Greater Bay Area (GBA). Under Xi's direct steering, GBA is a way for Hong Kong to further integrate with its neighboring Pearl River Delta cities economically, socially and perhaps even politically. Xi has also pledged his support to help Hong Kong develop into an international centre of innovative technology.

This GBA planning, which was initiated by Beijing to embed Hong Kong in its system of mainland development, has profound long-term implications for the 'one country, two systems' policy. Lam has formally joined the Chinese policy process as a member of the Leadership Small Group on the GBA.

The much-touted reduction in administrative barriers, taxes and other restrictions to facilitate demographic movement and business activities in the GBA might deepen the region's integration and expand the opening of cities in the delta. But it may also erode Hong Kong's unique status as an SAR that enjoys a high degree of autonomy. Will Hong Kong find itself edged into a position where it no longer enjoys greater room to maneuver?

Even more symbolic of growing integration is the completion of the high-speed rail link and the Hong Kong-Macau-Zhuhai bridge that significantly enhances connectivity between Hong Kong and the mainland. But the controversial arrangement of co-location in the West Kowloon terminus - which provides for the full enforcement of Chinese laws inside the mainland port area and throughout the entire railway - was undertaken in accordance with a decision made by the NPCSC. It was not made through an interpretation of the Basic Law or through an incorporation of mainland laws into the Basic Law's annex three, followed by local legislation.

Developments in 2018 suggest that Hong Kong's two systems will gradually move towards the one country model. Whether the mainland's exercise of legal and administrative power over Hong Kong will quell frustration over the lack of democratic reform, fuel more apathy and resistance or encourage more compliance with Beijing's political prerogatives remains to be seen. What is clear is that in Xi's 'new era', Hong Kong is poised to align itself closely with the parameters of Chinese governance well before 2047.

The writer is Associate Professor of Politics and Public Administration at the University of Hong Kong

-Peter TY Cheung

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