Jul 10, 2014

    Beijing needs good grasp of HK's soul

    IN 1995, Beijing official Li Ruihuan likened Hong Kong to a 100-year-old clay teapot famous for the quality of the tea it poured.

    But its owner, after selling the teapot, proceeded to scour it clean, removing the patina within that had given the tea its deep flavour. Alas, the teapot is now worthless, the dismayed buyer pronounced.

    The message by Mr Li, then a member of China's powerful Standing Committee of the Politburo, was clear: Beijing must take care not to rub out Hong Kong's special character that makes it valuable to China.

    Almost two decades on, it seems that Beijing is coming to a two-fold conclusion - that Hong Kong's "special character" is becoming less special as the rest of the country opens up and that even if the city retains a certain value, it is hardly worth the trouble any more.

    Whatever kid gloves the central authorities had donned in the 1980s and 1990s - to assure Hong Kongers that, despite returning to Chinese rule under the Communist Party, their way of life would be retained under the "one country, two systems" framework - are now off.

    This was evident in the hard-line tone Beijing took in recent months to make it clear to Hong Kong who is the boss.

    An unprecedented White Paper last month said that whatever autonomy that Hong Kong enjoys is at Beijing's pleasure, infuriating the city's denizens.

    The stridency continued thereafter, with Beijing indicating it would not budge an inch, never mind the overwhelming turnouts for a mock democracy referendum that it denounced as "illegal and a farce", the July 1 protest march or a subsequent mini-Occupy Central exercise by students.

    Well-placed figures have also alternately evoked the spectre of the People's Liberation Army moving in to clear the chaos - a viscerally powerful image in a city that feels personally bound to the 1989 Tiananmen student movement - and the veiled threat of withdrawing preferential policies for the city.

    Beijing's harshness may seem justified to its supporters.

    In its eyes, "radical Hong Kongers" are the ones who are playing a dangerous game of brinkmanship by making the contentious constitutional reform process an "all or nothing" deal and by lobbying for full-fledged rights to nominate and elect their leader.

    Beijing, on the other hand, wants to reserve vetting power by pre-selecting only those who "love China, love Hong Kong" - a byword for a Communist Party supporter.

    An acquaintance who works for the Chinese government made this telling comment when I observed that the White Paper had added fuel to the fire: "They will find an excuse to be provoked, no matter what."

    It is a reflection of how certain segments in Beijing appear to view "the Hong Kong problem" - that the city is behaving like a wayward child who does not see reason and therefore needs to be chastised.

    But looking at the society through such lenses and deploying a sledgehammer strategy will simply stiffen Hong Kongers' resistance and alienate the majority who are otherwise moderate and pragmatic in viewing their fraught relationship with the mainland.

    Neither the pro-democracy advocates, who threatened to hold an Occupy Central civil disobedience movement to paralyse Hong Kong's financial district if the government's proposal does not meet "international standards", nor the radical groups, which led an attempted siege of the legislature over a controversial government plan to develop New Territories towns, initially had the broad support of Hong Kong society.

    What eventually propelled so many people to step out - nearly 800,000 voted in the referendum and a reported 510,000 marched during the protest - was a sense of emergency over a larger issue.

    Hong Kongers are proud of their city and their core values. Threatening their way of life and browbeating them into submission is not the way to go.

    Now, Hong Kong's largest pro-democracy party - the formerly moderate Democratic Party - is saying that it is preparing for an Occupy Central movement which could happen as early as this month, citing the huge public turnout as something it cannot ignore.

    To observers, it is a dangerous and dispiriting cycle of action and overreaction, with both sides digging in and having no way to go but down.

    How will it end? Politics is unpredictable and, with some players still trying to find a compromise, what has been termed Hong Kong's biggest political turmoil since 1997 may well have an amicable ending.

    But, for a start, Beijing could perhaps take to heart again Mr Li's advice.