Tag Archives: Hong Kong

Beijing brings order to its colonial “Savage Reservations”

Turpan Bazaar in Xinjing, in February, 2017. Photo by Sergio Tittarini via Flickr, Creative Commons

JONATHAN MANTHORPE: International Affairs
April 1, 2017

Beijing is reaching back into the excesses of Maoist Stalinism and forward into the high-tech social control of Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” to try to contain the restive natives of its colonial outposts, Tibet and Xinjiang.

And Beijing’s problems with its occupied territories don’t end there. After a farcical process to “elect” a new governor for Hong Kong, the stage is set for more grief for Beijing from the territory’s people, who increasingly feel themselves culturally and philosophically divorced from the Mainland.

Lhasa, Tibet, in October 2015. Photo by Laika ac/Flickr/Creative Commons

Beijing has beefed up its campaign of cultural genocide – no other phrase adequately describes what is happening – in both Xinjiang and Tibet since Xi Jinping came to power in 2012 as China’s Communist Party leader and President.

The campaigns are not quite the kind of cultural dislocation and reprogramming foreseen by Huxley in his 1932 novel “Brave New World.” But the effects are similar, and Beijing has been swift to understand and adopt the opportunities for the control and management of its dissident citizenry offered by technological innovations.

For example, authorities in Xinjiang issued orders in February that all vehicles – not just new ones — must be equipped with GPS trackers. The system will allow police to pinpoint the position of cars and trucks at any time. “The car is the main means of transportation of terrorists, and is often also used by them as a weapon,” said the police statement. “It is imperative that we move to a GPS and electronic license plate system to manage vehicle positioning.”

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At the same time, about 40,000 high-definition surveillance cameras with riot-proof protective shells had been installed throughout Xinjiang. Nearly 17,000 were installed in the territorial capital, Urumqi, the state-run Xinhua news agency has reported.

Since the middle of last year these campaigns have shifted into a higher gear. The intensified repression appears to be only partly in response to unrest on the ground, and primarily to reaffirm Xi’s well-established reputation as an uncompromising autocrat ahead of confirmation later this year for a further five years at the helm.

Many of the tactics used by the Chinese regime to culturally, politically and economically destablize the Tibetans and the Uighers would be familiar to the old Communist dictators Mao Zedong and the Soviet Union’s Joseph Stalin.

Indeed, the repression campaigns appear be largely successful. There has been little trouble in Xinjiang since the last serious outbreak of civil unrest in 2009, when nearly 200 people died in fighting between Uighers and Han Chinese, and during the intervention of security forces.

In Tibet and the Tibetan regions of Sichuan province there was a rash of self-immolations in 2012 by Buddhist monks and nuns protesting Beijing’s destruction of monasteries and monastic life. There were seven such suicides in 2015 and three in 2016. The International Campaign for Tibet says the first one this year was on March 18, when a farmer and former monk, Pema Gyaltsen, set himself on fire in Kham in the Tibetan region of Sichuan. He may have survived the suicide attempt, and his relatives and supporters have been detained and beaten by police.

At the same time, Human Rights Watch says there is a massive campaign underway to remove monks and nuns from Buddhist monasteries and communities in Sichuan’s Larung Gar and Yachen Gar. The local government has ordered the monks running Larung Gar to reduce the number of monks from the estimated 15,000 to 5,000. To enforce this order on March 12 the local authorities began the demolition of nearly 3,300 homes associated with the monastery.

Meanwhile scores of nuns evicted from monasteries have been subjected to “re-education” that amounts to psychological abuse. Human Rights Watch says one video on social media shows young Tibetan women with shaven heads, who appear to be nuns, dressed in military clothes and drawn up in military ranks. They are chanting words from a propaganda song used by the authorities. “The Tibetans and the Chinese are daughters of the same mother, the name of the mother is China.”

Another video on social media shows a dozen Tibetan nuns in religious robes dancing and singing on a stage in front of what appear to be Chinese officials. They are singing “The Song of the Emancipated Serf,” another Maoist propaganda hit. Tibetan novices usually make a vow to refrain from singing or dancing when they become nuns. The performance thus seems to be an attempt at humiliation aimed at breaking the nuns’ religious dedication.

Beijing accuses the Tibetans, most of whom are devout Buddhists, of being separatists and mired in archaic superstition. The native Muslim Uighers of Xinjiang are also accused of “splittism” – separatism — by Beijing, but it also says they harbour Islamic terrorists. Beijing has managed to get an acquiescent Washington to agree to designate some Uigher groups as “terrorist organizations.
Meanwhile in Xinjiang, the regional Communist Party Secretary, Li Jianhua, has cited the example of Donald Trump’s putative Muslim travel ban to justify a clampdown on Islamic practices considered “manifestations of extremism.” These include men wearing beards, women wearing veils and anyone opting for Islamic weddings and divorces instead of civic procedures.

The campaign of repression in Xinjiang has been stepped up since the issuing of a video last month, purportedly by the Islamic State group. The video detailed official actions against Uigher Islamic observance, and then showed Uigher-speaking fighters vowing to “shed blood like rivers” in Xinjiang.

And in both colonial territories – China took full control of Xinjiang (“New Frontier”) in 1949, and invaded and occupied Tibet in 1950 – Beijing has intensified programs to move Han Chinese settlers into the outposts. This is both to provide work and opportunities for Han Chinese who need employment, but also to make the Tibetans and Uighers into politically irrelevant minorities. The Uighers are already a 46 per cent minority among Xinjiang’s 21 million people. Beijing insists that 90 per cent of the just over 3 million people living in Tibet are still Tibetans. But the exiled Tibetan religious leader, the Dalai Lama, believes the Han Chinese population is much larger, and increasing daily, in large part because of the opening of the first railway line into Tibet in 2006.

Much of the apparent success of Beijing’s campaign of repression and cultural dislocation seems to be the work of one man. Chen Quaguo was the Communist Party secretary in Tibet from 2011 until the middle of 2015, when he was appointed party boss in Xinjiang. Australian professor of politics and Asian studies at Melbourne’s La Trobe University, James Leibold, and Adrian Zenz, lecturer at the European School of Culture and Theology in Korntal, Germany, have studied and written extensively about Chen’s methods.

One of Chen’s most successful strategies has been to give a modern twist to an ancient system of urban district surveillance and control. Such systems go back to the Roman Empire and perhaps earlier. District-level party snoops were at the heart of Mao’s command and control system, and to a large extent still are.

Chen, however, has adopted what is known as “grid-style social management.” This involves building and manning a police outpost to cover an area of up to 500 meters in radius in order to monitor the 400-or-so people living in that block. In order to give the impression that these outposts are just shelters for the local kindly bobby on the beat, they have phone battery re-chargers for the public and even umbrellas for those caught in rainstorms.

But the police posts, say Leibold and Zenz, “are equipped with the latest anti-riot equipment, and, in some cases, high-tech surveillance equipment such as face and voice recognition software, which is used to track suspects and even build profiles of likely troublemakers.” The purpose of the grid monitoring posts, said an article in a state-controlled Xinjiang newspaper, is “complete coverage without any chinks, blind spots, or blank spaces.”

Beijing’s investment in this tight network of surveillance and control in its colonial outposts is massive. Zenz and Leibold say that Chen oversaw the building of 698 police outposts in the Tibetan capital Lhasa alone during his tenure. The system is now being applied to other Tibetan towns and cities, and even out into villages.

In the Xinjiang capital Urumqi there are nearly 1,000 police outposts. Again, the grid monitoring system us being set up in other Xinjiang cities, and especially in areas where the Uighers still outnumber the settler Han Chinese.

It has, of course, taken a massive increase in manpower to manage this intense program of social control. The two academics reckon that about 200,000 Communist Party officials are being dispatched to village and rural areas to keep an eye on the Uighers. They have also studied government recruitment advertisements and calculate that 31,000 additional police officers were taken on in Xinjiang last year, three times the number recruited in 2015. Leibold and Zenz also reckon that Xinjiang’s total security budget was the equivalent of about $30 billion in 2015.

So far, Beijing has been constrained from using similar tactics in Hong Kong by the “one country, two systems” agreement by which the former British colony was returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. But that has not discouraged Beijing from taking every opportunity to undermine or discard the rapid advance to democracy, and maintenance of the British-style independent judiciary and rule of law Hongkongers were promised in the handover agreement.

Beijing’s contempt for meaningful democracy was on display again last weekend when a new governor, known as the “Chief Executive” was selected by a 1,194-member “election committee.” The committee is dominated by people who for one reason or another are beholden to Beijing. In the run-up to their final vote for the Chief Executive, the committee members look to Beijing-controlled media and the speeches of Communist Party leaders to learn what is expected of them. This time, the message from Beijing was clear. It’s favourite from among the three candidates was Carrie Lam, the departing head of the Hong Kong civil service, and the fourth governor picked by Beijing since the handover nearly 20 years ago.

The last three Chief Executives have been disasters to varying degrees and all have been down the list of the leaders Hongkongers would have chosen given the chance. It appeared there might be a change in the system in 2014 when a proposal for a popularly elected Chief Executive was on the table. However, that fell through the floor when Beijing insisted there could only be a free elected if the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party first decided on the list of candidates.

Tens of thousands of young pro-democracy activists occupied Hong Kong’s main commercial centres for nearly three months and this upwelling of discontent pushed the territory’s legislature to reject the Beijing proposal. So now Beijing has total control of picking the governor, and will doubtless be happy to continue with this system for as long as it can.

The prime qualification for becoming Chief Executive is “loving China,” which means in this context not doing anything of which the Chinese Communist Party does not approve. It is very difficult for a Hong Kong Chief Executive to do that and also keep the confidence of Hong Kong’s 7 million people. Most of them cherish their liberties and polls show a growing proportion – now well over 50 per cent – think of themselves either as exclusively Hongkongers or Hongkongers first and Chinese only second.

Beijing likes to blame these sentiments on un-reconciled leftovers from British colonialism or people infected by “foreign” propaganda. The reality is that the vast majority of the young people who took to the streets in 2014 and those who continue to demand democratic reform were either toddlers at the time the British left or have been born since 1997.

In her first speech after her “election” Lam said her first task will be to “reunite Hong Kong people.” That job was immediately made more difficult when within hours of her taking office police laid charges against at least nine people, including two members of the legislature, involved in the 2014 demonstrations.

It is hard to dismiss the notion that the timing of these charges is politically motivated and that Beijing is pulling the strings on the Hong Kong police force. There are now several examples of Mainland Chinese police kidnapping or otherwise spiriting over the border people from Hong Kong who they wish to detain and question. Also, Hong Kong has a very efficient judicial system, and the mere fact that it took nearly three years to bring the charges against the demonstrators speaks volumes. The timing of the charges suggests too that everyone – Lam included – was being told that any moves on political reform in Hong Kong are a matter for Beijing and Beijing alone.

The Chinese Communist Party may come to regret that position just as it may come to regret its oppression in Tibet and Xinjiang. All of the serious or successful political revolutions in China in the last 160 years have begun in the Cantonese region of southern China, of which Hong Kong is a part.

 

Copyright Jonathan Manthorpe 2017

Contact Jonathan Manthorpe, including for queries about syndication/republishing: jonathan.manthorpe@gmail.com

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Manthorpe B&WJonathan Manthorpe is a founding columnist with Facts and Opinions and is the author of the journal’s International Affairs column. He is the author of “Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan,” and has been a foreign correspondent and international affairs columnist for nearly 40 years. Manthorpe’s  nomadic career began in the late 1970s as European Bureau Chief for The Toronto Star, the job that took Ernest Hemingway to Europe in the 1920s. In the mid-1980s Manthorpe became European Correspondent for Southam News. In the following years Manthorpe was sent by Southam News, the internal news agency for Canada’s largest group of metropolitan daily newspapers, to be the correspondent in Africa and then Asia. Between postings Manthorpe spent a few years based in Ottawa focusing on intelligence and military affairs, and the United Nations. Since 1998 Manthorpe has been based in Vancouver, but has travelled frequently on assignment to Asia, Europe and Latin America.

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Hong Kong activists split over Tiananmen Square

For the first time, Hong Kong’s Federation of Students, a coalition of student unions, will not take part in the Victoria Park demonstrations. Instead, it will help organize a number of events and demonstrations confronting democracy and even independence in Hong Kong’s future.

JONATHAN MANTHORPE: International Affairs
June 4, 2016.

By ryanne lai/香港人一條心/Flickr, Creative Commons

A candlelight vigil in Hong Kong in 2009, on the 20th anniversary of the June 4 incident. Photo by Ryanne Lai/香港人一條心/Flickr, Creative Commons

There will be many fewer people this year at Hong Kong’s annual demonstration to mark the anniversary of the 1989 crushing by the army of the student protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square and many other city centres around China.

But the Beijing government should take no comfort from the decision by many student organizations in Hong Kong to boycott the annual gathering, which has regularly seen 100,000 people or more gather for a night-time vigil at Victoria Park in the city’s Causeway Bay district.

The students have decided that the Victoria Park demonstration, with its emphasis on seeking democratic reform in China, does not meet their aspirations. The students want democracy or even independence for Hong Kong. They don’t care much what happens in China and they don’t think it’s their responsibility.

This schism in the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong should be more concerning for Beijing than the old mass protests every June 4. It stems from the fact that more and more of Hong Kong’s 7.2 million people do not identify themselves as Chinese citizens. They think of themselves culturally and politically as Hongkongers. These feelings are especially strong among the young, which means that this identity crisis is likely to intensify as the years pass.

For the first time, the territory’s Federation of Students, a coalition of student unions, will not take part in the Victoria Park demonstrations. Instead, it will help organize a number of events and demonstrations confronting democracy and even independence in Hong Kong’s future.

Chow Shue Fan, one of the student organizers, told Singapore’s “The Straits Times” newspaper this week: “The candlelight vigil is calling for a democratic China. But we don’t think we are Chinese and so we don’t have a responsibility to remember June 4. Whatever significance it holds for China, it means nothing to us.”

In another interview Chow added that he considers the candlelight vigils to be “part of a package to indoctrinate participants” into believing they are Chinese and that their political fate is inexorably linked to that of China.

It is true that the leading figures of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement have usually presented themselves as Chinese patriots whose only problem is the autocratic, anti-democratic instincts of the Chinese Communist Party. They shy away from notions of Hong Kong independence and say the best path to assuring the territory’s autonomy is to promote democracy in China.

This strategy does not impress many of the Hong Kong-nationalist students and young people. An editorial in one student newspaper this week went so far as to characterise the June 4 vigil old guard as “pimps and bawds in a brothel.”

This development is an indictment of the way Beijing has handled its relations with Hong Kong since the territory was handed back to Chinese sovereignty in 1997 after 156 years of British colonial rule.

Several pollsters and university projects have kept track of Hongkongers perception of themselves since 1997. At the time of the handover and for a short period afterwards there was a surge in Chinese patriotism, but since then there has been a steady decline in Hongkongers’ attachment to the mainland, even though about 95 per cent of them are ethnic Chinese. Instead, more and more of the territory’s people identify themselves either as exclusively Hongkongers – 40 per cent — or Hongkongers first and Chinese second – 27 per cent. Only 18 per cent of Hongkongers identify themselves as exclusively Chinese.

Yet at the time of the handover Hongkongers had high expectations that Beijing would stick to its agreement with London, allow the territory to continue running itself “with a high degree of autonomy,” observe the continuation of the British-style rule of law, and facilitate the swift transition to full democracy.

That has not happened. Early on, Beijing made it clear that the rule of law applies in Hong Kong only so long as it does not challenge the supreme power of the Chinese Communist Party.

Beijing allowed the autonomy of Hong Kong’s administration and legislative assembly to continue. However, this was only because Beijing ensured it controlled the governors – known as the Chief Executive – and that a majority of the members of the legislature were business people economically dependent on their commercial relations with China.

As for the democracy timetable, well that kept disappearing into the future. Matters came to a head in 2014 when Beijing released a ruling on the direct election of the Chief Executive in 2017. The ruling was that candidates must be “patriotic” and would have to be approved by Beijing.

This sparked what became known as the “Umbrella Revolution,” as protesters, mostly students, occupied two commercial centres in Hong Kong and brought them to a standstill for weeks. The demonstrations got their name because protesters used their umbrellas to fend off tear gas used against them by the police.

These protests closed down the Central business district on Victoria Island and Mongkok in Kowloon for 79 days. These mass occupations and the political debates among the protesters fixed the notions of Hong Kong’s cultural and political separateness from China that had been building since the handover.

The umbrella protests effectively put an end to the plans, however constrained, to directly elect the Chief Executive next year. However, it was a Pyrrhic victory. Beijing will carry on using a committee of its sycophants to “elect” the governor, and is probably quite happy that it will not have to manipulate anything as complex as direct elections for the foreseeable future.

This was not the first time since the handover that Beijing has had its plans foiled by the mass opposition of Hong Kong people. When, at Beijing’s behest, the Hong Kong government attempted to introduce a highly restrictive anti-subversion law in 2003, at least 500,000 people took to the streets in a peaceful march through the city’s main business district. The peacefulness of the march and the participation of very many middle class people not usually associated with the pro-democracy movement made its impact even more powerful. The Hong Kong administration shelved the legislation and has not tried to reintroduce it.

There was another mass protest in 2012 when, again at Beijing’s insistence, the Hong Kong government tried to impose a “patriotic education curriculum” into schools. Again there was a public outcry, and the government backed down.

So this year may mark the beginning of the end of the era of the June 4 vigils, which began in 1989 when at least one million Hongkongers took to the streets in protest when the news of the massacre in Tiananmen Square began to filtre through. And in the following months, Hong Kong became an important sanctuary and escape root for Chinese pro-reform demonstrators who managed to avoid the dragnet by Chinese authorities.

But that was all a generation ago. Hong Kong’s new activists were in their cribs or not even born in 1989. For them, the reality of Beijing’s repression is here and now, and it is trying to impose on them a cultural and political heritage that they find alien and unacceptable.

Beijing will probably find that the new Hong Kong is far more difficult to manage and control than the old one.

Copyright Jonathan Manthorpe 2016

Contact: jonathan.manthorpe@gmail.com. Please address queries about syndication/republishing this column to jonathan.manthorpe@gmail.com

 

Manthorpe B&WJonathan Manthorpe is a founding columnist with Facts and Opinions and is the author of the journal’s International Affairs column. He is the author of “Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan,” and has been a foreign correspondent and international affairs columnist for nearly 40 years. Manthorpe’s  nomadic career began in the late 1970s as European Bureau Chief for The Toronto Star, the job that took Ernest Hemingway to Europe in the 1920s. In the mid-1980s Manthorpe became European Correspondent for Southam News. In the following years Manthorpe was sent by Southam News, the internal news agency for Canada’s largest group of metropolitan daily newspapers, to be the correspondent in Africa and then Asia. Between postings Manthorpe spent a few years based in Ottawa focusing on intelligence and military affairs, and the United Nations. Since 1998 Manthorpe has been based in Vancouver, but has travelled frequently on assignment to Asia, Europe and Latin America.

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F&O’s CONTENTS page is updated each Saturday. Sign up for emailed announcements of new work on our free FRONTLINES blog; find evidence-based reporting in Reports; commentary, analysis and creative non-fiction in OPINION-FEATURES; and image galleries in PHOTO-ESSAYS. If you value journalism please support F&O, and tell others about us.

 

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Focus on China and Hong Kong

Photo by Pasu Au Yeung, Creative Commons

Hong Kong came to a halt this week as hundreds of thousands of protesters jammed the streets to protest China’s move to control democratic elections. Social unrest threatens China’s economic plans, writes Damian Tobin — but the protest is unlikely to deter Beijing’s crackdown on democratic freedoms, predicts Jonathan Manthorpe. Photo by Pasu Au Yeung, Creative Commons

Here are some of the stories on F&O that provide some clarity on the Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong:

 

Beijing will outwait Hong Kong’s Protesters, by Jonathan Manthorpe (paywall)

 

Tens of thousands of Hongkongers took advantage of today’s Chinese national holiday to join students who have clogged the city’s streets for four days demanding Beijing deliver on its promise to give the territory democratic autonomy. But the numbers do not look large enough to prompt Beijing to rethink its decision to keep control of the process by which the head of Hong Kong’s government, the Chief Executive, is chosen. The likelihood now is that the authorities will stand back, watch the protests run out of steam and wither of their own accord.

Hong Kong’s storms threaten China’s Economy, By Damian Tobin

The pro-democracy protesters in the streets of Hong Kong, once again confront Beijing with the age-old conundrum of how to balance authoritarian control and the demands of a complex modern society. For Beijing, this conundrum is particularly acute as the Communist Party has long lacked the ability to mobilise popular opinion after the discrediting of the mass, populist campaigns of the Maoist era. For Hong Kong, the conundrum offers another insight into the failure of its legislative council to adequately respond to pressing social issues and emerging threats to Hong Kong’s role as a gateway to China — and  how to maintain its reputation for business and financial probity and deal with the consequential domestic wealth inequality.

 

Beijing reneges on Hong Kong freedom guarantee, by Jonathan Manthorpe (paywall)

The Chinese government has confirmed what everyone has known for a long time: it was lying when it signed a treaty guaranteeing Hong Kong substantial autonomy, speedy progress to democracy and protection of the rule of law. Protesters took to the streets in Hong Kong today and burned copies of a “white paper” Beijing issued on Tuesday reminding the territory’s seven million people that their institutions will only be on a loose leash so long as they are “patriotic.”  There are profound implications in Chinese government’s publication of its position that “the high degree of autonomy of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) is not an inherent power.”

 

Photo by Leung Ching Yau Alex, Creative Commons

Photo by Leung Ching Yau Alex, Creative Commons

 Can Disneyfication save a Chinese City’s Poetic Soul? By Michael Silk and Andrew Manley

Chinese cities are often contradictory bricolages of old and new. They wrestle with extraordinarily rapid rates of economic growth, concentrated urbanisation, the growth of a burgeoning middle class as well as extreme social, political and economic disparities. Award-winning Suzhou has not escaped the extraordinary rates of urban growth of other Chinese cities, and the traffic congestion and internationalisation that comes along with it. Yet, unlike other Chinese cities, administrators are seeking to preserve its poetic soul. 

China manufactures islands to back its sovereignty claims, by Jonathan Manthorpe (paywall)

Not content with stealing other people’s territory, the Beijing government is now manufacturing islands to boost its insubstantial claim to ownership of the South China Sea. The Philippines government has released aerial photographs of Chinese dredgers and construction teams pulling up millions of tonnes of sand and rock from the ocean floor to create islands on Johnson South Reef, which is claimed by the Manila government.

China accepts tribute from its vassal, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, by Jonathan Manthorpe (paywall)

The air in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People was heavy with the pungent smell of irony this week as China’s President Xi Jinping greeted his visiting Zimbabwean counterpart, Robert Mugabe, as an old comrade in the struggle against “imperialism, colonialism and hegemony.” For Mugabe had come to Beijing to give his south-east African country of 13 million people to China, if not as a colonial possession, at least as a vassal state.

China’s Xi launches his own Cultural Revolution, by Jonathan Manthorpe (paywall)

Xi Jinping is not content with being the most powerful leader of China since Mao Zedong. He also wants to play God. Xi’s ruling Communist Party announced last week it will write its own version of “Chinese Christian theology” to ensure adherents abide by the country’s party-imposed political culture. The attempt to take control of religion in China is part of a broad campaign by Xi to establish “cultural security.” The aim is to outlaw and control all foreign influences that might undermine the communists’ one-party rule.

BRICS Bank a Game Changer. By Ali Burak Güven, The Conversation

The top news from this year’s BRICS summit was the announcement of a New Development Bank. Headquartered in Shanghai, the bank will become operational in 2016 with an initial capital of US$50 billion. Its core mandate is to finance infrastructure projects in the developing world.

Weibo IPO Reveals a Company Struggling With Censorship. By ProPublica staff.

Weibo, “China’s Twitter,” has begun offering shares on one of America’s free market stock exchanges. But unlike in the United States, where freedom of expression is protected, in China social media companies rely on censorship for their business model. Weibo’s regulatory disclosures reveal a company’s balancing act between censoring too much and too little.

 

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Hong Kong’s storms threaten China’s Economy

Photo by Leung Ching Yau Alex, Creative Commons

Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution confronts Beijing with the age-old conundrum of how to balance authoritarian control and the demands of a complex modern society, writes Damian Tobin. Photo by Leung Ching Yau Alex, Creative Commons

By Damian Tobin, SOAS, University of London
October 1, 2014

The pro-democracy protesters in the streets of Hong Kong, once again confront Beijing with the age-old conundrum of how to balance authoritarian control and the demands of a complex modern society.

For Beijing, this conundrum is particularly acute as the Communist Party has long lacked the ability to mobilise popular opinion after the discrediting of the mass, populist campaigns of the Maoist era. For Hong Kong, the conundrum offers another insight into the failure of its legislative council to adequately respond to pressing social issues and emerging threats to Hong Kong’s role as a gateway to China.

Recent developments including Alibaba’s decision to launch its IPO in New York, uncertainty over the direction of political reforms and the emergence of new financial centres on the Chinese mainland have all cast doubt over Hong Kong’s future as a business and financial gateway to mainland China. On the surface these events might appear to signal the end of Hong Kong’s special advantage as a gateway to China.

But despite this, its role as a globalising force for Chinese business and financial sectors has remained. Financial stability in the Special Administrative Region (SAR) remains a non-negotiable concept. Hong Kong successfully weathered one of the world’s worst financial crises and offers an interesting model for mainland China in addressing its own fragile and dysfunctional financial sector.

And, as we have seen this week, the social challenges now facing Hong Kong which politicians have failed to address, including the widespread inequalities of wealth, provide a powerful forewarning to the mainland on the dangers such issues pose.

Threats to Hong Kong’s position are not new. During the Cold War era it was assumed that PRC’s intervention in the Korean War would spell an end of Hong Kong’s entrepôt status. The subsequent embargo on US dollar transactions, which only ended in 1972, threatened Hong Kong’s free market, especially its involvement in the sterling trade.

A succession of banking crises during the 1960s and the revelation of high levels of official corruption threatened its reputation as a financial centre. The relocation of HSBC to London in advance of the 1997 handover, despite the reassurances of Deng Xiaoping, also threatened to derail Hong Kong’s post-1997 future as a financial centre.

Yet Hong Kong has proved remarkably resilient in responding to these challenges. After the US embargo, Hong Kong’s free market emerged as one of the PRC’s only points of safe access to international markets. The public backlash against official corruption witnessed changes that saw Hong Kong emerge as a model of clean governance and business integrity in the region.

During the 1970s, PRC banks in Hong Kong provided the first tentative efforts at promoting the Renminbi as currency of trade settlement, following the collapse of Bretton Woods. Since 1993 Hong Kong has been the destination of choice for the IPOs of some of China’s largest business and banks, including the IPO Agricultural Bank of China in 2010, which represented the world’s largest bank IPO.

Against this, the development of free trade zones and financial centres in neighbouring Qianhai and in Shanghai has to date been disappointing. And while Guangdong’s GDP surpassed that of Hong Kong in 2003, this has not witnessed financial centres such as Qianhai moving up to displace Hong Kong.

History indicates that the success of major financial centres such as London and New York was due to quality and liquidity. The slow pace of development in the Shanghai Free Trade Zone succinctly illustrate the both the caution of Chinese financial reforms and the time it will take to achieve full capital account convertibility, allowing capital to move freely in and out of mainland China.

It is no accident that Hong Kong has provided the institutional interface for the internationalisation of the Renminbi. For these reasons, it is unsurprising that the Chinese leadership continue to view Hong Kong as vital to the development and prosperity of southern China and for advancing the country’s financial reforms.

Perhaps more importantly, Hong Kong offers the mainland an alternative governance model to that of the Anglo-Saxon world. When it came to banking, Hong Kong did not play the Anglo-Saxon game, thus avoiding the worst excesses of the Anglo-Saxon model. This offers the Chinese leadership a powerful example of the value of strong prudential controls over bank behaviour.

Similarly, allowing state enterprises to list shares on Hong Kong’s stock exchange has exposed these enterprises to international governance standards without relinquishing control. A recently announced pilot programme to connect the Hong Kong and Shanghai stock exchange offers an incremental and controlled way of reforming the Mainland’s capital markets.

But Hong Kong’s development also offers cautionary lessons on the political and social dangers of tolerating widespread poverty alongside high levels of affluence. Hong Kong’s reluctance to address these issues and its apparent obsession with fiscal austerity despite having ample fiscal resources appears at odds with rising social expenditures and concern with for these issues on the mainland.

Beijing’s role in the selection of political candidates may be the focus for now, but for Hong Kong a more pressing concern is how to maintain its reputation for business and financial probity and deal with the consequential domestic wealth inequality.

Creative CommonsThe Conversation

Damian Tobin, Lecturer in Chinese Business and Management at SOAS, University of London, does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Images of the Umbrella Revolution

Leung Ching:Yau Alex.jpgPhoto by Ansel Ma.jpgPhoto by Leung Ching Yau Alex.jpgPhoto by Mario Madrona.jpgPhoto by Roger Price.jpgUmbrella Revolution. Photo by Chet Wong.jpg

Photos by Mario Madrona (Dreamer); Ansel Ma (Cry Harder); Chet Wong (Ladder); Leung Ching Yau Alex (Hands up), Creative Commons

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Clouds over Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution

Hong Kong's Umbrella Revolution. Photo by Pasu Au Yeung, Creative Commons

Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution. Photo by Pasu Au Yeung, Creative Commons

Beijing has balked at loosing the virus of democracy that could sweep, ebola-like, from Hong Kong across the country and herald the end of the one-party state, writes International Affairs columnist Jonathan Manthorpe. He argues there is little hope that protests in Hong Kong will force Beijing to compromise, after the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress announced in late August that Hongkongers in 2017 can freely elect their Chief Executive — but only after Beijing has selected candidates of unimpeachable loyalty. An excerpt of Manthorpe’s new column, Beijing will outwait Hong Kong’s Protesters (paywall*):

 Photo by Chet Wong

Photo by Chet Wong

Tens of thousands of Hongkongers took advantage of today’s Chinese national holiday to join students who have clogged the city’s streets for four days demanding Beijing deliver on its promise to give the territory democratic autonomy.

But the numbers do not look large enough to prompt Beijing to rethink its decision to keep control of the process by which the head of Hong Kong’s government, the Chief Executive, is chosen. The likelihood now is that the authorities will stand back, watch the protests run out of steam and wither of their own accord. If the protesters do get re-energized, the authorities may well feel the bulk of Hong Kong’s citizens will accept police action to clear the streets, so long as it does not involve riot squads, tear gas and pepper spray used against the protesters last weekend.

For Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, a serious review of its objectives, strategy and tactics is clearly necessary if it has any hope of achieving its objectives. There has already been fracturing of the movement and more rifts are likely. This carries the danger of militant factions emerging. Until now the demonstrations in favour of political reform in Hong Kong have been almost universally peaceful and even astonishingly courteous, with demonstrators clearing up their own litter before going home.

But frustration with Beijing’s obdurate refusal to acknowledge the aspirations of its citizens may lead some to turn to violence … log in first to read Beijing will outwait Hong Kong’s Protesters (paywall*).

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Hong Kong’s prospects for reform dire: Manthorpe

International affairs analyst Jonathan Manthorpe writes today on the crisis looming over Hong Kong, and the fraught relationship between its citizens and Beijing. An excerpt:

Manthorpe B&WA crisis is fast approaching in the relations between Beijing and the people of Hong Kong, a relationship which has been on a downhill slide since the territory was returned to China in 1997.

Within the next few months, Beijing is set to decide whether to keep to its promise made before the handover to foster democratic government in Hong Kong, or to continue dictating who will run the territory of over seven million people.

The prospects for meaningful reform in Hong Kong do not look good.

Increasingly, in recent years Beijing has been given little cause to think Hongkongers can be trusted to run their own affairs without causing problems for China’s Communist one-party state.

Months of public consultation by the Hong Kong government on the territory’s future political structure will end early in May.

Log in to read today’s column: Decision time looms for Hong Kong democratic reform(Subscription or day pass required*)

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Triads suspected in brutal attack on Hong Kong journalist

Today’s brutal attack on Kevin Lau Chun-to, a prominent journalist in Hong Kong, raises the specter of Chinese criminal gangs — triads — being called in to suppress campaigners for democratic reforms. An excerpt of international affairs analyst Jonathan Manthorpe’s  new column:

Manthorpe B&WThere is renewed suspicion in Hong Kong that Beijing is using hit men from triad criminal gangs to attack outspoken advocates of freedom in its truculent territory, and to intimidate other campaigners for democratic reforms.

The latest example of the Communist Party’s apparent use of triad thugs against troublesome opponents came this morning when Kevin Lau Chun-to, the recently sacked editor-in-chief of Hong Kong’s Ming Pao newspaper, was brutally attacked after he left a restaurant in the city’s Sai Wan Ho district.

In a classic triad-style assault, Lau, 49, was slashed six times with a butcher’s meat cleaver on his back and legs. He is in critical condition in hospital, and even if he survives it is uncertain he will ever be able to walk properly again.

Lau was reassigned last month after Ming Pao took part in an investigation by an international journalists’ organization, which documented the off-shore assets of leading members of China’s Communist Party regime and their families, including President Xi Jinping, his predecessor Hu Jintao, and former premiers Wen Jiabao and Li Peng.

Log in to read the column, “Patriotic” triad thugs attack Beijing’s critics in Hong Kong*

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