Recent Notes from Hong Kong

Earlier this month I spent a few days in Hong Kong, on my way back from Europe. Hong Kong was my home for 6 years – before, during and after the 1997 Handover – and I have continued to visit on a regular basis ever since. While I didn’t directly witness any of the latest clashes between pro-democracy campaigners and the police, I did see (and hear) the knock-on effects of the past 6 months. I also spoke to a range of people living and working in the city – from local residents to long-term expats; from small business owners to entrepreneurs; from corporate employees to public servants; from teenagers to senior citizens. Whatever their particular views on recent events, their one common hope is that the situation can be resolved peacefully, and soon.

“Maze of Today” by Wu Guanzhong (2007) – Image sourced from China Online Museum website*

The trigger for the current protests was a proposed extradition law between the Hong Kong SAR and the rest of the PRC (as well as Taiwan and Macau). The bill was highly contentious, given the very different legal systems between Hong Kong and the Mainland. Serious concerns were expressed by the business sector, the legal profession and the general public. These concerns were given wider voice by the hundreds of thousands of ordinary people who joined the first of the peaceful mass marches at the start of the summer. Since then, nearly every weekend (and at times during the week) there has been direct action in the form of marches, strikes and occupations – sometimes leading to street battles between police and protestors, images of which have been seen around the world. These events have been accompanied by allegations of police brutality, the alleged use of agents provocateurs, and suggestions that the protestors are either terrorists, traitors or a threat to society.

On one level, Hong Kong continues to operate normally (although getting into the international airport is a little trickier since it was the target of so-called “stress testing” of the public roads and transport system). On the other hand, it certainly feels quieter than normal, and visitor numbers are down – as much as 40% overall on one measure, with a 90% decline in visitors from the Mainland. (My flight from Europe was barely half full.)

With the increased protest activity at weekends, public transport can be tricky. Some subway stations are suddenly closed without much warning from Friday evenings onward, and the express train from Central to the airport bi-passes the usual intermediate stops. On the Sunday I was there, there had been a mass gathering in Central, and access to the nearest subway station (for the local train service back to Kowloon) was closed, so there was an orderly queue of several hundred metres as people waited for the Star Ferry – many of the passengers dressed in black t-shirts, the unofficial uniform of the protest movement.

Given the recent bans on marches and gatherings in public places (notwithstanding Hong Kong’s right to peaceful assembly) a strange phenomenon has emerged. Each night, at around 10.30pm, local residents open their apartment windows and start chanting slogans associated with the pro-democracy movement. It is both eerie and extremely moving.

This nightly display certainly evokes the sense that no-one wants to see complete chaos or a violent end to the protests, so they chant in hope that a peaceful solution can be found. Otherwise, hope will give rise to despair, and with it the slow, painful decline of Hong Kong as a global city – a multi-cultural, international hub for trade, commerce, finance, ideas and innovation that combines notions of east and west, new and old, pragmatism and spiritualism.

The protestors have issued a set of five key demands. One relates to scrapping the extradition bill, which has now been withdrawn by the Hong Kong Chief Executive. Three relate to the protests themselves – removal of the term “rioters” to label the protestors; an independent investigation into the police response and alleged brutality (and even into police in-action when protestors were attacked by counter-demonstrators with seeming impunity); and an amnesty for all protestors who have been arrested to date.

The fifth demand, Universal Suffrage in direct elections for both the Legislative Council (Hong Kong’s Parliament) and the Chief Executive, is a lingering issue from the Umbrella campaign of 2014 (when large parts of the city were occupied in protest at Beijing’s decision to “defer” one person one vote). It’s probably even more contentious than the withdrawal of the extradition bill. To summarise: the Basic Law is Hong Kong’s Constitution. It is supposed to enshrine the city’s pre-existing common law systems for a minimum of 50 years after the Handover. Under the “One Country, Two Systems” regime, designed to govern Hong Kong’s legal, political and economic relationships with the Mainland, the people of Hong Kong were assured that their way of life would continue as before after 1997.

Article 45 of the Basic Law, states that:

“The ultimate aim is the selection of the Chief Executive by universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures.”

The above has to be read in conjunction with Article 15 (Beijing directly appoints the Chief Executive), and Annex 1 (defines the candidate selection and election process – which has been revised in recent years).

The challenge is that the Central government believes it has to keep control over both the candidate nomination process, and the membership of the Election Committee (election college). On current evidence, the people of Hong Kong are unlikely to get to directly elect their own Chief Executive, nor nominate the candidates of their own choosing. (And the Legislative Council will continue to comprise members who represent “functional constituencies” – elected representatives voted in by their peer groups from various vested interests.) Even if they did directly vote for the Chief Executive of their choosing, Beijing would reserve the right not to confirm them in office, and would appoint their own candidate instead.

Of course, it’s not that Hong Kong was particularly democratic under colonial rule – the Governor was technically appointed by the British Monarch (on the advice and recommendation of the British Foreign Secretary), and acted as the Crown’s direct representative.

On another level, the model for the Election Committee is something like the US Electoral College that formally elects the President, based on the delegates elected by each State. This process was seen as “a compromise between election of the President by a vote in Congress and election of the President by a popular vote of qualified citizens”.

Finally, I was given an interesting interpretation of “One Country, Two Systems” by an elderly gentleman I spoke to on the MTR one day. “Where are you from?” he asked. “Australia” I replied. “Ah, near New Zealand. Same country.”

* My reason for choosing the above picture of Hong Kong by Wu Guanzhong to illustrate this blog is two-fold:

First, the painting is called “Maze of Today”, rather an apt title for the current state of affairs. Second, while I was working as a publisher in Hong Kong in the 1990s, my company licensed another Hong Kong picture by Wu for the cover of an introductory book on the law of the Hong Kong SAR. The first edition was issued in 1996, with a second edition in 2001 – and it still appears to be on the Hong Kong University reading list for law students, and cited in other law books as recently as this year.

Next week: Startup Vic’s Impact Pitch Night