By Jason Y. Ng
On Thursday evening, Chinese dissident and political prisoner Liu Xiaobo died from liver cancer in a Shenyang Hospital. Liu was, as the Western press sharply pointed out, the first Nobel Peace Prize laureate to die in custody since Carl von Ossietzky did in Nazi Germany in 1938. Supporters the world over mourned the death of a man who lived and died a hero. The only crime he ever committed was penning a proposal that maps out a bloodless path for his country to democratise.
Then on Friday afternoon, Beijing’s long arm stretched across the border and reached into Hong Kong’s courtroom. Bound by the National People’s Congress Standing Committee’s decision on oath-taking etiquettes, the Hong Kong High Court ruled to unseat four democratically-elected opposition lawmakers, including Nathan Law, the youngest person ever to be elected to the legislature. The only infraction the four ever committed was straying from their oaths during the swearing-in ceremony to voice their desire for their city to democratise.
The two news stories, less than 24 hours apart, share a chilling symmetry. They underscore the Chinese government’s growing intolerance for dissent on both the mainland and the territories it controls.
But Beijing’s tightening grip comes at a cost. In Hong Kong, Liu’s death has rekindled an anti-mainland sentiment that has been smouldering for years. To the seven million citizens who watched Liu’s slow death in equal parts horror and grief, any remaining pretence that modern China is a benevolent paternal state that has moved beyond a brutal response to political debate has been shattered once and for all. And all current and future attempts by Beijing to win over Hong Kong people, especially the younger generations, are doomed to fail. The indelible images of a skin-and-bone dissident on his deathbed or of that famous empty chair in the Oslo City Hall have been seared into their collective mind. China has lost Hong Kong forever.
Similarly, the removal of four pro-democracy lawmakers is not without consequence for Beijing. By reinterpreting the oath-taking provisions in the Basic Law, the Chinese government has sidestepped the judiciary in Hong Kong and dealt another blow to the city’s rule of law. Each time the NPCSC rewrites the rules and overrides local judges, Hong Kong’s independent judiciary—the bedrock of its economic success—means a bit less. With each heavy-handed attempt to squash the opposition, “one country, two systems”—the framework of happy coexistence for Hong Kong that President Xi Jinping is fond of parading in front of world leaders and hopes that Taiwan will one day embrace—looks a little more like a broken promise.
What’s more, the loss of four pro-democracy seats has removed the checks and balances in Hong Kong’s bicameral legislature – the Legislative Council – which comprises the democratically-elected Geographical Constituencies and the undemocratic Functional Constituencies stacked with pro-business special interest lobbyists. The unseating of the foursome has cost the opposition its majority in the Geographical Constituencies, which means that any unwanted bill proposed by a pro-Beijing lawmaker will sail pass both houses.
One of the first things that the pro-Beijing camp plans on doing is amend the voting procedures in the legislature to put an end to filibusters. Without the ability to block that amendment, the opposition will see its only effective weapon against the government taken away. That means there will be nothing to stop the Hong Kong government from pushing through Beijing’s political agenda for Hong Kong, from the passing of a highly unpopular anti-subversion law to the approval of multi-billion dollar infrastructure projects for great economic integration with the mainland.
All that will work in Beijing’s favour in the short run, but the headache won’t be far behind. A legislature that acts with complete impunity will further embitter the population and destabilize Hong Kong. By pushing the opposition out of the legislature and back onto the streets, Beijing may have inadvertently set in motion a new era of resistance.
The same ingredients that ignited the Occupy Movement three years ago will once again bubble to the surface, pushing the city toward a political movement of a larger scale and with more far-reaching repercussions. None of that is in President Xi’s interest, considering that the senior Chinese leadership is already mired in factional infighting and an increasingly ungovernable Hong Kong will hurt the strongman image that Xi has so carefully crafted for himself.
What separates a skilled autocrat from the rest of the mad dictators is his ability to judge the difference between going too far and just far enough. Control may be the Chinese Communist Party’s best substitute for legitimacy and a necessary condition for self-perpetuation, but how much control is too much continues to confound –and may one day trip up – Xi’s leadership. What happened to Liu Xiaobo and the four ousted lawmakers in Hong Kong suggests that Beijing is now dangerously close to overstepping that line. The price for misjudging the situation will be high, and while most of it will be borne by mainland dissidents and the citizens of Hong Kong, it may pack enough punch to upset the ever-delicate balance in the house of cards.
Jason Y Ng is the author of a book on Hong Kong’s occupy movement and a member of the Progressive Lawyers Group.
Article originally appeared in The Guardian on 17 July 2017