Eight months after imposing a national security law on Hong Kong, Beijing is moving to tighten its grip over the supposedly autonomous region, with China’s National People’s Congress expected to review legislation next week that would ensure that anyone elected to any office — from district councilors who deal with garbage disposal to the Chief Executive — would in China’s eyes be a patriot who supports the communist party.
Within Hong Kong, the crackdown continued with the arrest on Sunday of 47 former lawmakers and activists charged with conspiracy to commit subversion, which carries a possible life sentence.
Meanwhile, the western world continues to support Hong Kong, with Canada announcing on Feb. 5 — days after a British initiative to accept up to 5 million Hong Kongers came into effect — that Hong Kong residents could apply for work permits that could lead to permanent residency. China’s emphasis on loyalty to the party marks a departure from what the late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, who decided to take Hong Kong back from Britain in 1997, had pledged to the people of the then British colony in the 1980s.
Xia Baolong, a Chinese official responsible for Hong Kong affairs, disclosed last week that Beijing would unilaterally implement changes to Hong Kong’s systems to “ensure that the members of the administrative, legislative and judicial bodies of the special administrative region and the heads of important statutory bodies are all held by true patriots.”
As for how to define a patriot, Xia, director of the State Council’s Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office, cited Deng’s definition of June 1984. Deng said, “A patriot is one who respects the Chinese nation, sincerely supports the motherland’s resumption of sovereignty over Hong Kong and wishes not to impair Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability.”
But Xia did not quote Deng’s next sentence: “Those who meet these requirements are patriots, whether they believe in capitalism or feudalism or even slavery. We don’t demand that they be in favor of China’s socialist system; we only ask them to love the motherland and Hong Kong.”
But Xia urged the need to uphold the Chinese constitution, which was amended in 2018 by the addition of the words “Communist Party of China” and its “leadership” to the main body. Thus, Xia suggests that Hong Kong people now have an obligation to support the communist party. This is clearly contrary to Deng’s pledge.
But it is one that has already been adopted by the Hong Kong administration, with Erick Tsang, secretary for constitutional and mainland affairs, asserting, “You cannot say that you are patriotic but you do not love the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party or you do not respect it — this does not make sense.” He added, “Patriotism is holistic love.”
Deng showed wisdom in deciding not to politicize Hong Kong. If Hong Kong is to remain an international financial center, it is important that the global financial services community has confidence in the integrity of its institutions, especially those having to do with the stock and futures exchanges, banking, anti-corruption and, most importantly, the judiciary. Hong Kong’s Basic Law provides that foreigners can serve as judges and up to 20% of legislators can be foreign nationals. An emphasis on patriotism puts such people in an awkward position, to put it mildly.
It is somewhat reassuring that Xia, in his speech, asserted that “the vast majority of Chinese citizens in Hong Kong society are patriotic,” with only a few “anti-China rioters.” This being the case, it would appear unnecessary to subject everyone to a loyalty test and, in particular, to insist on allegiance to the communist party. Over the last 70 years, China has seen no shortage of political turmoil. Deng wanted a buffer between Hong Kong and the mainland’s internal political debates.
That buffer helped smooth Hong Kong’s return to China; it is still needed as long as “one country, two systems” continues. After all, China recognizes that a special administrative region, which is the constitutional status of Hong Kong, has a political system different from that on the mainland. Xia, in his speech, said that “political dissent can be allowed” but it cannot be allowed “to damage the fundamental system of the country, that is, damage the leadership of the Communist Party of China.”
So, perhaps the degree of political dissent in Hong Kong will reflect the situation in the mainland, where several minority parties that support the Communist Party are allowed to exist. Xia said that having patriots in charge is the only way “one country, two systems” can be successful. But this begs the question: How is that different from one country, one system?
Frank Ching is a U.S. journalist based in Hong Kong who frequently writes on China-related issues.
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