CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Sunday, 1 September 2019

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New chief executive waits for the nod

BANGKOK (SE): Over the past few years it has been becoming increasingly apparent that the intensified programme of crushing dissent by the president of China, Xi Jinping, has penetrated the border with Hong Kong and spread its invasive tentacles into the society of the special administrative region.

Bangkok-based China watcher, Michael Sainsbury, recalls in an article posted on UCAN that almost immediately after his elevation to secretary general of the Chinese Communist Party, Xi announced his anti-corruption campaign.

“Dismissed with a certain degree of ho-hummery at first by long-time China watchers who have seen such programmes announced with much fanfare and then wither away after an initial flurry, Xi’s programme has, if anything, continued to intensify,” Sainsbury points out.

He adds that the general consensus among keen observers of the Middle Kingdom is that it is a two-pronged programme—to rid the party of Xi’s enemies and help him build a lasting powerbase.

The second, which could prove to be incompatible with the first, is aimed at breaking much of the systematic corruption that the current president and his predecessor, Hu Jintao, consistently publicly identified as the biggest threat to the party’s continuous rule.

Local media has told us that thousands of cadres at all levels have been detained and jailed, including a raft of extremely senior officials and even former Politburo members.

Xi and his chief lieutenant, Wang Qishan, who is running the campaign, have made it clear that no one is safe from its preying fingers.

“Hand in hand with his internal purge, Xi has moved to exert far tighter controls over problematic critics and other elements outside the party—dissidents, rights lawyers, other advocates and journalists,” Sainsbury points out.

“He has likewise been tightening control on China’s universities—the traditional wellspring in all types of societies for dissent, as seen during the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 that led to the bloody crushing of the country’s only substantial protest movement since the Communist Party took power in 1949,” he continues.

But new rules now stretch their stranglehold across all kinds of dissent and have embraced non-government organisations as well, particularly those backed by foreign interests.

In 2012, Leung Chun-ying was appointed the chief executive of the Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong as the fourth man at the top since it again became Chinese sovereign territory after 99 eventful years under the British.

Sainsbury believes that it soon became evident that his intention was to mimic Xi’s programme and import it into Hong Kong.

He adds that in a city that has for decades acted as a haven where foreign—and increasingly Chinese banks and dealmakers—can operate within the safeguards of the Common Law, Leung is the most obviously pro-Beijing of the four chief executives of the past 20 years.

Even though he seemingly arrived by accident, as Henry Tang Ying-yen was the heir apparent to Donald Tsang Yam-kuen before he mysteriously fell on his sword over the legality of his home basement, Sainsbury comments, “From the start, Leung was reviled and on his watch as the environment in Hong Kong became noticeably more restrictive.”

He then lists increased restrictions on the media, including bizarre incidents like near deadly attacks on leading editors and proprietors, blatant interference on university campuses and the outrageous kidnapping of five booksellers—including a Swedish national from his hideaway in an increasingly Beijing-compliant Thailand.

Then the police to shut down the more than two-month-long Umbrella Movement that saw hundreds of thousands of people protesting for free and fair elections, as well as universal suffrage.

At the end of 2016, the courts in Hong Kong barred two democratically elected members of the Legislative Council after they deliberately flubbed the loyalty oath, despite their willingness to retake it.

It seemed that Xi wanted to use Leung to crack the whip on Hong Kong just as he was doing on the mainland.

But Sainsbury says he fears that it seems like the beginning of the end for the much vaunted one country, two systems principle, which was intended to have a 50-year life span.

However, the sudden decision of Leung to resign and not contest the March selection process for a second term, maybe reflects that Beijing does not want to see the one country, two systems die just yet.

Sainsbury says that he has observed a deteriorating trust in Hong Kong under Leung in the foreign community as well. 

He points to some major global companies beginning to shift their regional headquarters to Singapore and long-time expatriates moving retirement plans forward or simply moving on.

“But Beijing’s effective sacking of Leung signals that things had gone too far, too fast,” he comments.

However, Sainsbury notes that a tiger does not change its stripes, as what is Chinese and what is Communist Party does not vary much and the smoke and mirrors of imperial days are still with us.

But the acid test will come with Beijing’s revelation of its choice for the next chief executive, who will be selected on March 26.

He notes that with the critical economic challenge the territory is facing, John Tsang Chun-wah may get the nod, but his background as the private secretary of the last British governor, Chris Patten, may run against him.

Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has already got up the nose of Hong Kong people, which may not help her, despite her slogan of “We Connect. We Care. We Listen. We Act.”

Nor is her battle cry of We must stay united and charge forward earning great odds on the bookmakers chart.

“Tsang would appear to have the edge. But given Beijing’s fondness for machinations, the game is unlikely to be over just yet,” Sainsbury concludes.

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