China’s Hong Kong Policy Is Perverse. It Always Has Been

A scuffle broke out between pro-democracy and pro-Beijing members of Hong Kong’s Legislature on May 18. Credit Anthony Wallace/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
A scuffle broke out between pro-democracy and pro-Beijing members of Hong Kong’s Legislature on May 18. Credit Anthony Wallace/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Beijing says it wants to safeguard “one country, two systems,” the principle that supposedly guarantees Hong Kong’s semiautonomy from the mainland. In reality it is weaponizing the policy to crush the city’s freedoms.

On Thursday, the Chinese government announced a plan to pass national security laws for Hong Kong. It has long been after something like this, though previously it expected the local authorities to do the job. Not this time. This law would be ratified in Beijing — at worst, as soon as next week.

This sinister move caps several weeks of mounting acts of repression in Hong Kong, in almost all spheres of public life — politics, law, education, the media.

Last week, students sitting for a university-entrance history exam were asked if they agreed with this statement: “Japan did more good than harm to China in the period of 1900-45.” The Hong Kong Education Bureau promptly complained that the question was “leading” and asked that it be stricken from the exam, even though some students had already answered it.

The Education Bureau also claimed that the question “seriously hurt the feelings and dignity of the Chinese people who suffered great pain during the Japanese invasion of China.” For many traditional Chinese patriots there is simply no way the Japanese could have brought any benefit whatsoever to China; to merely ask that question is to somehow prettify the Second Sino-Japanese War of 1937-45.

Never mind that the exam referred to the years between 1900 and 1945, rather than solely to the war. And never mind that there is ample historical evidence showing that Japan’s vast influence on China during that period also served China well in some ways. Sun Yat-sen, the most famous early leader of post-imperial modern China; major actors in China’s socialist movement; even Lu Xun, arguably the greatest writer in modern Chinese literature, were all inspired or shaped to a certain extent by contact with Japan.

More than anything, questions such as this one have been a fixture of history exams in Hong Kong. I studied history at university, and I remember this exam question from 2006: “Some people think Emperor Wen of Sui (541-604) did more harm than good. Do you agree with that?”

Then this week pro-Beijing lawmakers hijacked the election for chairperson of a committee of Hong Kong’s legislative council, calling in security guards to control the scene, and placed at the committee’s head a pro-establishment legislator accused of abuse of power.

“Headliner,” a satirical show of the public broadcaster RTHK, was canceled after Hong Kong authorities complained that it denigrated the Hong Kong police.

And the government, even as it is relaxing various social-distancing rules to fend off Covid-19, just extended restrictions on group gatherings to June 4 — the anniversary of the 1989 massacre at Tiananmen Square. The commemorative protest vigil that has been held that day every year may not take place for the first time in three decades. (It occurred even during the SARS outbreak of 2002-03.)

Next week, Hong Kongers face another blatant effort by Beijing to instill in them patriotism for China and loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party: The local Legislature will consider a bill that would criminalize the misuse of China’s national anthem or insults toward it. And, of course, there is the national security legislation.

The Chinese Communist Party is ambitious, and it is impatient. It doesn’t just want to control Hong Kong; it wants to remodel the minds and souls of the Hong Kong people.

Chinese state media said of the history exam controversy that it was an occasion for Hong Kong to “surgically detoxify” its education system so as to make it “compatible” with “one country, two systems.” What they really were calling for is a radical change of the status quo.

“One country, two systems” is designed, in theory, to safeguard the fundamental rights of Hong Kong’s people. In fact, our rights are gradually being taken away in the name of safeguarding “one country, two systems” — Beijing’s version of it. The policy isn’t dead so much as it is perverse. Which it always has been.

“One country, two systems” was a ploy from the outset, a tactic for China to buy time, the better to absorb Hong Kong sooner or later. Preferably sooner, it seems.

Lewis Lau Yiu-man is a special correspondent for Stand News in Hong Kong and a contributor to Up Media in Taiwan.

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