Soon one country, one system

Soon one country, one system

wGreg Sheridan — The Australian — 15 June 2019


When Beijing took control of Hong Kong in 1997, there was a certain brutality underlying the process. There was never any question of an act of self-determination for Hong Kong, as for other colonies being freed from their colonial rulers.

But under the rubric of “one nation, two systems”, Britain negotiated what seemed like the best deal reasonably possible for its former showpiece of good governance and the rule of law. Hong Kong would enjoy a high degree of autonomy, keep its special way of life, keep its distinctive institutions. There was even a promise, eventually, to implement full ­internal democracy.

The larger question was always this: would Hong Kong influence Beijing to become relatively more liberal while remaining orderly and retaining authority, or would Beijing slowly strangle the freedom and institutional autonomy that made Hong Kong such a special part of the Chinese universe? Would Hong Kong one day be just another Chinese city?

At first, Beijing was sophisticated in its rule of Hong Kong. It never allowed full internal democracy. It never allowed the extension of any freedom in Hong Kong. But it moved slowly. It didn’t crush Hong Kong.

Beijing was concerned about its international reputation, only a few years after the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. It also had huge economic interests tied up in Hong Kong’s success. In those days, most foreign investment into China came through Hong Kong. The rule of law, then and now, had commercial benefits for Hong Kong.

Now the answer to that question is clear. Beijing, under the centralising leadership of Xi Jinping, has brutally turned its back on any aspect of liberalisation. Now it is turning the screws on Hong Kong.

It’s not a sudden process. Much of press freedom went gradually in the first decade after 1997. There have been many incidents of Hong Kong businessmen who fell out with powerful mainland figures, and even dissident Hong Kong booksellers, disappearing without explanation, only to turn up some time later in detention in China, having effectively been kidnapped from Hong Kong.

But Beijing is no longer satisfied with operating above and beyond Hong Kong’s institutions. Instead, it wants Hong Kong’s institutions to crumble and fall, to be incorporated into the institutions of mainland China, to lose their independence and serve the political and ideological interests of the Chinese Communist Party, as do all mainland institutions.

And so the Hong Kong government is proposing a bill that would allow Beijing to extradite citizens of Hong Kong to mainland China to face trial for a variety of offences. Under this, there would no longer be any need for mainland agents to kidnap people from Hong Kong. Suspects could be extradited in a straightforward fashion to the mainland legal system. But in the mainland legal system, the conviction rate is higher than 99 per cent. It is utterly opaque.

In its turn against liberalism, Beijing has crushed the once flowering movement of human rights lawyers in China. The ­judiciary in the mainland is not independent. Like all other institutions, it must follow the leadership of the Communist Party.

The greatest failure of the British in their long colonial rule of Hong Kong was never to introduce any internal democracy, so that Hong Kong never had leaders elected in a territory-wide franchise to negotiate their own future with Beijing when the time came.

On the other hand, the greatest achievement of the British in their long colonial rule in Hong Kong was the establishment of the rule of law. The Hong Kong judiciary has had its problems, like everyone, but it is and has been for a long time a credible, independent, disinterested, legally competent, fair system, where defendants get a fair trial and commercial disputes are settled according to the law.

The people of Hong Kong value this rule of law profoundly. At the time Beijing took control of Hong Kong, a cynical, faux world-weary view of the brilliant Hong Kong people gained currency in the West. This cynicism was evident in works of popular culture like the novel Kowloon Tong, by the ever tin-eared Paul Theroux. Hong Kongers were seen as economic automatons whose only value was money, or at a stretch family, who didn’t care for the deeper things in life, the idealism and heroism and romance.

This stereotype is deeply untrue, as anyone who has spent any time in Hong Kong knows. Its people work hard, but they support flourishing churches and charities, there is a vibrant environmentalist movement, there is a strong tradition of scholarship, the arts — popular and elite — flourish. Hong Kong people are as complex and idealistic as anyone else and they have made a brilliant success of their society, which is not to say it has no problems.

Last Sunday, a million of them came on to the streets to protest against the extradition bill. That is close to a seventh of the population. For many, these protests are genuinely heroic. They recall the heroism of the Tiananmen protesters, as Claudia Mo, a pro-democracy member of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, ­suggests.

For if you resolutely do as you’re told, are not political, stay away from any criticism of Beijing whatsoever, censor yourself politically and culturally, then you are not likely to be directly affected, at least in the short to medium term, by the extradition law. On the other hand, joining the protest carries real dangers. There was the physical danger of the rubber bullets and teargas the police used on the demonstrators. But there is the much bigger danger that you’ll blight your future, and maybe your family’s future, by earning the enmity of the Beijing authorities.

On the mainland, the Beijing government has instituted the “social credit” scheme under which you earn points, and civic and even financial benefits, by being pro-government, and you earn demerit points, and often enough financial penalty, for being critical of the government. One of the most chilling images to emerge from Hong Kong this week was the sight of police taking individual photos of demonstrators. And there is another huge demonstration planned for tomorrow.

The police labelled the demonstrations a riot, meaning demonstrators can potentially face long prison sentences. Beijing foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said of the protests: “It was an organised riot. Any civilised society would not allow this activity.”

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam claimed to be outraged that people were saying she was selling out Hong Kong’s interests. But in the face of overwhelming public opposition, she also said she would nonetheless continue with the bill.

She also said the bill was Hong Kong’s idea, not Beijing’s.

(On Saturday she anounced it would be shelved pending further consultation)

Yet everyone knows that extradition treaties have been a key element of Beijing’s attempts to extend its reach into the farthest corners of the Chinese diaspora, wherever they might be.

The Chinese Communist Party follows an ideology that might reasonably be termed now as totalitarian, certainly beyond the old authoritarian systems that preceded Xi’s rule. The party wants to collapse every aspect of the Chinese universe into its own leadership. Thus the state of mainland China, the overseas territories of Hong Kong and Macau, the de facto independent Taiwan, but also all members of the Chinese diaspora worldwide and the limitless riches of the sublime Chinese culture, are all to be collapsed into one entity called China, which is ruthlessly and permanently ruled by the Communist Party.

Senior party spokesmen have often enough said that all so-called “overseas Chinese” are regarded as Chinese, and as owing loyalty to the Chinese state.

This act of definition, which can be marketed as benevolently inclusive, of course actually deprives anyone of Chinese descent of the simple rights called free will and civic autonomy. It is especially relevant for countries such as Australia that have large populations of Chinese ethnic extraction.

Chinese Australians, of whom there are more than a million, are a magnificent asset to Australia and have no complicity in Beijing’s plans.

But in 2017, the Coalition government nearly made a critical mistake in failing to sedulously guard their integrity as Australian citizens. That was when the Turnbull government tried to ratify an extradition treaty with Beijing. There was a furious rebellion within the Liberal Party over this, led by Tim Wilson, Andrew Hastie, James Paterson and Jonathon Duniam. Even more important, the Labor Party, after facing intense pressure from the Beijing government, and after an agonising internal process, also decided to oppose the treaty.

The most significant public act of leadership on the issue, however, came from former prime minister Tony Abbott. He opposed ratifying the treaty on principle and was widely defamed by the then government for his troubles. When he called for the relevant documents on the matter from his own prime ministership, it turned out that the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet had recommended not ratifying the treaty, in part because of the unreliability of China’s legal system.

The tale of the treaty is itself a tragic affair, which speaks to the failed promise of the liberal project in China, one of the greatest ­historical disappointments of the past 100 years.

The treaty was signed in 2007 under John Howard. But over the next decade Howard himself grew to privately oppose its ratification.

In 2007, the Chinese government was still on a path of slow, difficult liberalisation. Private companies were becoming a bigger part of the national economy. The space for personal autonomy was growing. A cautious institutionalism had been established, with term limits for the president, a division of the top positions in the state, some room for internal debate, a tolerance for some religious life and some human rights activity. And slowly, slowly, slowly, the development of a legal system.

This is a very old story in modern China, which has now come to a tragic end. When I was a correspondent in Beijing in 1985, the most important story I wrote, which ran in Britain’s The Sunday Times as well as The Australian, described the then seemingly inspiring Chinese ambition to establish an independent and reliable legal system. Chinese academics and think tank leaders told me they could learn a great deal from the traditions of Western jurisprudence. They knew deeply, and explained to me, the difficulty of producing “divided power” within their system.

The Hawke government began a sophisticated human rights dialogue with Beijing. Although this often involved raising the names of imprisoned dissidents, from a very early stage it focused on trying to help Beijing develop a better legal system. The Howard government in 1997 convinced Beijing to formalise the talks into an institutionalised, annual human rights dialogue. The focus was even more heavily on the development of the legal system.

Instead of complaining about issues such as Beijing’s misbehaviour in Tibet, Australian officials would brief out at the time it was better to put our efforts to the constructive and tremendously promising long-term project of building the Chinese legal system.

All of this went into screaming reverse when Xi came to power in 2013. The last meeting of the Australia-China human rights dialogue was in 2014. Canberra laboured mightily to get it to meet again but these efforts were met with deep disdain from Beijing. Finally in 2017 Beijing announced that its human rights dialogue with Australia was over forever.

In the same period, as noted, the human rights lawyers were crushed, a savage new persecution of Christians was instituted, up to a million Muslim Uighurs were put in detention centres in Xinjiang, dissidents were jailed and the social credit system was implemented. The characteristic of the Xi period has been extreme ideological self-confidence from the Communist Party and an explicit rejection of Western notions such as human rights and independent legal systems.

So whereas in 2007 Howard’s authorising of an extradition treaty was perhaps heroically optimistic, it was not necessarily irrational. By 2017, it would have been extremely dangerous. Extradition would have been a way for Beijing to reach out and touch ­diaspora Chinese in Australia.

The judicial review processes included in the treaty would have allowed for review only on matters of process, not matters of substance or fact.

Beijing put a huge effort into getting this treaty ratified in Australia. The Turnbull government tried hard to accommodate it.

Senior ministers lobbied stakeholders with the direct threat that Australians in custody in China could suffer if this treaty did not go ahead. This was an outrageous and shocking threat. The way it was framed was that the special friendship between Canberra and Beijing meant that a number of Australian citizens in custody in China were less harshly treated than they would be in the absence of that friendship. And that friendship would disappear if the extradition treaty did not pass.

These weasel words did nothing to conceal the deep menace behind them. That the Australian parliament refused to go along with the government’s most ­ardent wishes is a high point in Australian democracy.

The people of Hong Kong are as heroic as the parliament of Australia. But their prospects are not good. All kinds of nonsense is spoken about the influence of ancient Confucianism on the modern Chinese state. But the Communist Party is not a Confucianist party, it is a Marxist-Leninist party.

The essence of Leninism is the overwhelming priority on ­achieving and maintaining state power, and the sanguine willingness to use power to whatever extent and in whatever way deemed necessary. Nonetheless, the people of Hong Kong deserve the support of every democrat in the world as they try to maintain limits to power.

This article originally appeared in The Australian.

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