EVENT TRANSCRIPT: HongKongFile: A Year in Review, and Where Next?
DATE: 12 30 pm, 11 February 2020
VENUE: The Henry Jackson Society, Millbank Tower
SPEAKERS: Dr. Brian C.H. Fong (Secretary-General, Progressive Scholars Group); Evan Fowler (Associate Fellow, Asia Studies Centre); Matthew Henderson (Director, Asia Studies Centre)
EVENT CHAIR: Matthew Henderson
Well welcome all, and thank you very much for coming today. We have a fascinating subject. We have a speaker extremely well-qualified to talk about it. I don’t want to waste too much time on introductions, but I would simply like to say it is a great pleasure for the Henry Jackson Society, and for me as head of the Asian Studies Centre – Matthew Henderson is my name – to introduce Dr. Brian Fong, a distinguished public intellectual, a proponent of Hong Kong’s freedoms and democracy, and a researcher into the complex and fluid evidence base for recent developments and what they mean, to give us an update and some thoughts about the future, and to identify some really big strategic issues that arise from what has been, I think, a most worrying and chaotic series of events over the last year and more. We are also supported here today by my colleague, Evan Fowler, who is probably, I think, best known to us here as one of the founders of the Hong Kong Free Press, but maintains a strong and courageous interest in the same sorts of areas that the Henry Jackson Society does, freedom, human rights and democracy, and the all the detail that Brian is aware of, Evan immerses himself in that as well. I look at this somewhat from the outside. My view of Hong Kong was shaped by having worked there in the early days, when the Sino-British Joint Declaration liaison group was first set up permanently in Hong Kong. And that gave me a chance to see what high ideals and goals we shared, and I believe at that stage shared with many of our Chinese interlocutors. The theme of today’s talk is how that ideal of One Country Two Systems has been undermined and corroded, and how this very worrying process is beginning to create an entirely different picture there from that which we all had hoped to see. But enough from me. What we’re going to do is listen to a presentation by Dr. Fong which will last about 45 minutes. And we will then throw it open to the audience for questions. We’re having two broadcasts made of this. One is our own, which unfortunately can’t be sent to Hong Kong. The last time we tried one of these things, the signal was not allowed to go through. But we’re also doing a live streaming broadcast. We were hoping to get questions fired in directly. I don’t think that is possible technically, but we will be asking Hong Kong viewers on that stream to write in questions which we will address hereafter. That’s it. Perhaps I can hand over now to Dr. Fong.
Dr. Brian C.H. Fong:
Hello. Thank you Matthew. It is my great pleasure today to be here to share with you my research findings and my thoughts about the autonomy of Hong Kong – my homeland. So thank you very much to the Henry Jackson Society for hosting this event, and thank you Matthew and Evan. So, I just have a simple PowerPoint to illustrate some of my research findings. First of all, I’ll just give you some background about myself. I’m a political scientist now working full time at the education university of HK. Apart from academic research, I have been quite active in organizing and founding several civil society groups. Two of the groups that I think are most relevant to today’s discussions is these two. The first one is NetworkDiplo, which is a citizen diplomacy group dedicated to informing the state of Hong Kong autonomy to the international society. We have been established for almost three years. Nowadays we regularly organize policy briefings for foreign councils and foreign correspondents stationed in Hong Kong. We do these kinds of policy briefings at least two times a year. Also, I’m now travelling around different free world countries in order to extend these kinds of policy briefings outside Hong Kong. Aside from NetworkDiplo I have also founded the Progressive Scholar Group, which is a scholar network. We have about two hundred members – two hundred scholars – from different universities in Hong Kong. Most of us are humanities scholars and social scientists. We principally focus on academic freedom and higher education issues in Hong Kong. So this is some background about myself.
Today, I think all of us here are very concerned about the state of autonomy in Hong Kong. So I’m going to present to you a recent report that I have just published through the NetworkDiplo, about the – which is empirical research about the state of autonomy in Hong Kong. Before introducing my research findings, I just want to highlight a few points that I think are – which is pretty much important – we must get before going into discussions about HK’s autonomy. Of course the state of HK autonomy will have a direct bearing on the wellbeing of 7.5 million HK people. We all know that. But I think HK’s autonomy is far from just a local issue. It is far from just an issue for Hong Kongers. HK’s autonomy is an international issue. HK’s autonomy is an international issue because it involves extensive states of free world countries. First of all, HK’s autonomy is a matter of international responsibility. The reason is very clear: Hong Kong’s autonomy is built upon the Sino-British Joint Declaration, which is an international treaty registered in the United Nations. So the SBJD imposed upon the Chinese Government, which has an international obligation to live up to the promise of Hong Kong’s autonomy, not just to the people of Hong Kong, but also to the international community. The SBJD itself is a test of China’s willingness to comply with international treaties that are signed with the free world. If we cannot ask the Chinese government to comply with SBJD, how can we ask the Chinese government to comply with all other international obligations that it promised to the international community? Secondly, Hong Kong’s autonomy will have an implication on the national security of free world countries, because under one country two systems, Hong Kong has its own legal personality in international law. It has its own separate customs territory, a separate shipping system, aviation system, financial system, passport, and currency. Hong Kong has also signed hundreds of bilateral agreements with different countries, the terms of which are often more favorable than those China has signed with the same country. Why will other free world countries give more favorable treatment to Hong Kong rather than China? The reason is very simple. We assume that Hong Kong is autonomous from China. So for example, in the US context, they have lots of restrictions over the transfer of sensitive tech to China. But they will allow the sensitive technology to be exported to Hong Kong, because they trust that the Hong Kong government will enforce export control, and will not easily let the US’s sensitive technology to be transferred to China. But, as we all know, it doesn’t happen. Because of the Hong Kong government’s failure to maintain its autonomy, vis-à-vis the Chinese government, it becomes an increasingly national security concern of the US government, to watch over the state of autonomy in HK. There are lots of things where HK could potentially become a loophole for the national security of free world countries. That’s why the international community needs to pay closer attention to Hong Kong’s situation.
Hong Kong’s autonomy is also important to the free world because it provides the necessary perceptions for an extensive international interests within the territory. Many free world countries have lots of direct investment in Hong Kong, and they have lots of citizens living in Hong Kong. And for a few countries like the UK and the US, their presence in HK is geopolitically and strategically important. All these international interests can only be protected if HK could maintain a substantial level of autonomy, so that, – particularly its freedom and rule of law – in order to protect the international interest. So for me, the issues for HK autonomy is far more than just an issue for the HK people. All the people in the FW should pay closer attention to the situation in HK.
The next background I think I would like to introduce to you, before we move on to talk about the exact situation in Hong Kong now, is the China policy towards Hong Kong. Probably we all understand that over the past few years, particularly, China is gradually stepping up its control over Hong Kong. But I think the situation is much more complicated than that. I argue it in this way: there are basically two sides of the Chinese government’s policy towards Hong Kong. The first side of the policy coin is to impose greater centralized, authoritarian control over HK. And this side of the policy coin is basically an extension of the Chinese government overall strategy of stepping up its control on Chinese peripheral regions, ranging from Manchuria and Mongolia, to Xinjiang and Tibet. So it’s not something that’s just imposed on Hong Kong. Because it was basically the policy of the Xi Jinping regime to impose strict – stronger control over all the Chinese periphery. But Hong Kong is still not Tibet and Xinjiang. Because another side of the Chinese government policy coin towards Hong Kong is to mix bad news of Hong Kong status as an international financial center. Hong Kong has still not become a Tibet or a Xinjiang, because Hong Kong is still so important to China. Hong Kong is so important to China in the sense that Hong Kong continues today – or over the past few decades, it is the largest source of China foreign direct investment. About seventy percent of FDI of China comes from Hong Kong. Hong Kong is the largest major offshore IPO center for Chinese enterprise. HK is also the major source of offshore band loans for Chinese companies. Hong Kong also provides the major offshore platforms for bond financing. Not just for Chinese companies, but also for the Chinese government, for its treasury bonds. HK is the largest Renminbi [inaudible – gearing?] center, and also the offshore safe haven for hiding private assets for many Chinese officials. All these things, all these functions – essential functions of Hong Kong as an international financial center, could only be sustained if the international community continues to recognize that Hong Kong is autonomous, under one country two systems. So the problem is, the issue is, much more complicated than just stepping up control by Chinese government. The Chinese government basically has two seemingly contradictory agendas. On the one hand, they want to step up control, but on the other hand, they want the international community to still recognize Hong Kong as autonomous – still recognize HK as an international financial center, so that they can make sure that they can make best use of Hong Kong. So how they can do this? They do it not by completely overturning the one country two systems. Because if they do it, everyone will not regard Hong Kong as an international financial center any more. So what they are doing is keep the outer layer of one country two systems on the one hand, and then hollow out the inner contents of Hong Kong’s autonomy. So in other words, Hong Kong’s autonomy has not been completely destroyed overnight, but it is being killed by a thousand cuts.
So I come back to my research, about the state of autonomy in Hong Kong. In order to provide a comprehensive and empirical study about the state of autonomy in Hong Kong, I came up with this research framework. I tried to conduct a news archive research, surveying all kinds of decision making of the Hong Kong and Chinese government in 2019, to see any of them – any of such decision making considered as not – considered as not consistent with the provisions of the joint declaration and the basic law. And I developed this framework – basically a model on the US-Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act – the US government now, according to their annual [inaudible] process they are required to use this indicator to look into HK’s state of autonomy, including judicial independence, education, police and security functions, universal suffrage, freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, et cetera. I tried to categorize all these indicators into three major dimensions: autonomy, democracy and human rights. And then I tried to – and my research team, we looked into the decision-making of the Hong Kong and Chinese governments throughout 2019, to see which decision-making may touch on these indicators. This is an overall empirical pattern. After research, we identified a total of forty-six decision-making made by the Hong Kong and the Chinese government in 2019, as inconsistent with the JD and the basic law. Most of these cases are related to erosions of human rights. Thirty-two cases, roughly sixty-nine percent, are related to erosions of human rights. Many of the cases are about the suppression of freedom of assembly. It is because in the latter half of 2019, the police have banned lots of applications for organizing protests and public assembly. Also, the education bill – they have also been involved in suppressing freedom of expression, by punishing – imposing punishment on those teachers who have made anti-government and anti-police remarks. So we consider all these cases as explicitly not consistent with the human rights perceptions, under the JD and the bill. Another thirty percent, roughly – twenty-eight percent of the total cases related to the autonomy of the Hong Kong government. Many of these cases are related to police and security functions. Because a number of persons who are critical to the Chinese government, but not the Hong Kong government, have been banned from entering into Hong Kong, including two former government ministers from the Philippines, and also some Falun Gong activists, some Chinese – some leaders of the Chinese democratic – some overseers of the Chinese democratic movement – they have been banned from entering into Hong Kong. These call into question the autonomy of the Hong Kong government under the basic law to maintain its own immigration control. Also there is a very important case about education. Nowadays there is a regular mechanism called the Regular Liaison Meeting – have been held on a biannual basis between the HK educational bill and the National Educational Ministry in Beijing. According to basic law, Hong Kong should have complete autonomy over educational policy making. But now, on a half-yearly basis, the Hong Kong government education bill need to go to Beijing to report the situation of HK education policy to the National Education Ministry, through these kinds of liaison meetings. We consider such arrangements as an explicitly – as explicit violations of the provisions of the JD and the BL. Another incident that I would like to draw your attention to is the introductions of the Greater Bay Area development plan. This plan has been imposed on Hong Kong without consulting the people of Hong Kong. According to the spirit of the JD and the Basic Law, apart from national defense and foreign affairs, all the policymaking should be the internal affairs of the Hong Kong special administrative region. Including economic policy, town planning and infrastructural development. All these things have been grouped under the banner of the Greater Bay Area, and have been imposed over Hong Kong without consulting the people of Hong Kong. And, now there is a leading group, personally chaired by Chinese Vice-Premier Han Zheng, to oversee the implementation of the Greater Bay Area development plan. I urge the international community and the local society to pay close watch over the future operations of this leading small group. Because if you are familiar with the politics in China, the real decision making power usually resides on these kinds of leading groups. So whether these leading groups – there is a potential danger at least that these leading groups could be developed into some sort of super government that could effectively hollow out the autonomous power of the Hong Kong special administrative region. And finally there is only one case on democracy. It is about the disqualifications of Joshua Wong as a candidate from the district council election. So this is an overall pattern that I hope that the IC and LC can better understand the general pattern of the state of autonomy in HK now. And I would like to draw your attention to here. We have also categorized documents – who are the decision-makers of these 46 decisions that are considered as not consistent with the JD and the BL. You can see that just two cases – 4.3% – are directly made by the Chinese government. 95% – 44 cases – are actually made by the Hong Kong government itself. In other words, it is the HK government that play a major role in undermining HK’s autonomy, democracy and human rights. So I draw to this conclusion. The HK government is basically an agent government of the Chinese government. Because of a lack of democratic accountability systems, the HK government is more inclined to follow instructions from its Beijing masters, rather than being accountable to the people of Hong Kong. So we basically cannot rely on the HK government anymore to defend the autonomous – the autonomy, human rights and democracy of HK now.
So I have some recommendations, or some ideas that I hope to take this chance to discuss, and explore together with all the friends here who I am sure are concerned about the situation in Hong Kong. So I think there are several directions that we may consider. I think in this short and medium term, we need to put in place stronger international and local check-balance mechanisms, in order to stop, or at least to slow down, the further erosion of HK’s autonomy. On the international level, we need to put in place stronger international monitoring and sanction mechanisms. As far as the UK is concerned, I think one of the things that, there are already some discussions about Global Magnitsky Act and whether it could be applied to HK situations. If it could be done, it should be very good. But, here I would like to throw other ideas to discuss and brainstorm before you, I think apart from the Magnitsky Act, probably UK is in good positon to introduce a new version of Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act. In the US context, according to the 1992 US-Hong Kong Policy Act, US recognizes HK as autonomous and gives HK lots of favorable treatment, which is much better than the treatment the US government gave to China. But, this act, the 1992 US HK Policy Act proved that is not good enough because it does not have any sanction mechanisms. In other words, when US government, over the past few years, they are not satisfied with the state of autonomy of HK, they basically can do nothing. Until last year, the congress passed the HK Human Rights and Democracy Act. Now the US government can have the mechanism, very good policies too by way of – certification and imposing sanctions on those officials and entities which the US government consider as undermining the autonomy of HK. This mechanism is very powerful because for those HK and Chinese government officials, they may face the dangers of being denied from entering US or their own personal access may be frozen, according to the HK Human Rights and Democracy Act. So of course we need to wait and see, whether and how the US will make us of this powerful policy tools to step up its oversight of HK autonomy. Bu my point is, UK should also be in a better position to do this. If we look at the Sino-British Joint Declaration, one of the, probably the most important limitation of Joint Declaration is that it doesn’t have any enforcement mechanism. It does not have any sanction mechanism, in other words, if the UK government, if the people of the United Kingdom are not happy, if they are not satisfied with the state of autonomy in HK now, they can do nothing, except for publishing the 6 monthly report. Of course, to refer to the FCO, the 6 monthly report itself is also quite effective, it’s also an important way to put some media pressure on the Chinese government, but that’s not enough. Over the past few years, its proved that just issuing the 6 monthly report, issuing warnings through the 6 monthly repost, it’s not enough to stop the Chinese government from undermining Hong Kong autonomy. So just like the case of the US, I think the UK also needs to introduce its own version of HK Human Rights and Democracy Act, so that if UK government considers that any person has seriously violated the provisions of Joint Declarations and basic law, they can have policy tools to take action. So this is something probably we can think about in order to strengthen intel monitoring over HK autonomy. And of course, as a I mentioned, HK autonomy is not just a local issue. It is, involves, lots of interests of countries, not just US and UK, but also Europe, Japan, all these countries. So I think the UK and US probably can take the lead to drive more free world countries to work together on HK issue. For example, last year, the G7, they issued a joint statement about HK autonomy, supporting, or urging the Chinese government to protect HK autonomy under One Country Two Systems according to the Sino-British Joint Declaration. I think that is very powerful statement. If the Free world countries can join hands to do more things together it is not just good for HK, it is also good for the free world as a whole. And we also need to, of course, empower the local civil society in HK so that the civil society groups in HK can function as a more effective and powerful check and balance against the further erosions of HK’s autonomy. So far, over the past few months, over 10,000 protestors have been arrested. We must give stronger support to all these front line protestors who sacrifice their life, who sacrifice their career, to fight for the freedom, democracy, and autonomy of HK. So I think the UK government, because of its historical relations with HK, is in a very strong position to do more. We can provide more student visas, more flexible student visas to the protestors who are students. We can provide better working visa arrangements for the young professionals. We can also think about adopting more flexible working visa arrangements for BNO holders, and think about providing more scholarships, internships, all these things, through think tanks, through universities, to provide more support to HK prodemocracy activeness. More research, research collaborations, more civil society dialogues like events today, could help empower the HK civil society so that it could function as a more effective local check on the erosion of HK autonomy and of course finally, as I’ve mentioned, the major problems now is that the HK government, as an agent government, can no longer be relied upon to defend HK autonomy. So in the long run, HK people and the free world must join hands to urge the Chinese government to introduce constitutional reform so that we can establish a truly autonomous government and legislature by way of universal suffrage. In the long run, I think HK autonomy could only be institutionally safeguarded by democratic self-government. So that’s all for my presentation today. Thank you very much, I am very happy to take questions from you all. These are some reports that you can find online recently published by NetworkDiplo and also Progressive Scholars Group, apart from the Hong Kong autonomy report that I have just presented, we have also recently released a report about academic freedom and a very thick 200-page report on police brutality. So if you are interested in this issue, you can find it by Google.
Thank you very much.
I think before we open the floor, I am going to invoke my privilege as chair to ask my own question, it would be very helpful if Evan could give some of his comments on this important presentation.
Thank you Brian for that presentation. I have to say, as a Hong Kong boy who was born and raised there, I found what’s been happening in HK not only last year, but we have to understand that this is something that’s been happening for many, many, years and really what happened last year has been sort of an escalation. I do find it very saddening, but, if I may, sort of add to some of the points that Brian has made already, I think you know, when we sort of look at the international dimension, there is also one other international dimension. All of us know how important the rule of law is in Hong Kong. Hong Kong is part of the common law; you know we share that with the UK. Now, what’s happening in HK, I personally have a lot of engagement with judges and legal professionals there, I have no doubt whatsoever that by and large, the legal profession in HK remains highly professional with a very high level of integrity. But I don’t think that the issue. The problem is, even if you are doing your best, China has changed the game. China has come out, it’s made statements, where it has claimed to have comprehensive jurisdiction over HK. It feels that it can override the courts in HK, there’s quite clear sort of pressure. We expect pressure, honestly, we do expect a certain degree of pressure from, let’s say, certain protest groups who don’t agree with certain decisions. It becomes a lot more worrying when we see pressure also being applied by those who not only support the government, but those who actually speak on behalf of the government, you know, that is actually a critical point to consider. The other thing of course, is with these challenges to the rule of law, what impact is that actually going to have on the reputation of the British common law system that we share? Without saying things are terrible, the reality is that of course Hong Kong remains a lot better than the situation in China. But at the same time, Britain has a lot to lose in its credibility and its respect of the institutions that we have left with Hong Kong. And that is certainly in regards to the law that we continue to share. I’d also like to touch on the point on I guess sort of, I put it down in my notes as “international confidence”, When we talk about, when Brian brought up this term “façade autonomy,” and quite correctly. We have to understand what’s happening in Hong Kong within the greater context of a significant change in policy in the mainland. Now the thing is, as businesses, things are never black and white. When you make a decision to go and engage with China, or to go engage in HK, it’s about weighing up risks. What I think is critical here, is that with what’s happening in HK, we’re seeing that balance changing. My concern is that if China wishes to maintain this façade of autotomy in order to maintain trust, in order to maintain this balance, to be a favorable balance, if you nibble away at that, you’re going to hit a point when that trust breaks down very quickly. It doesn’t have to go from black to white to see that happen. And of course again, if there are significant British interests in HK, which I think could be deeply damaged should there be a significant withdrawal, again should that balance just change. And the final point I’d like to make, is just to stress the point that it’s all about holding China, holding Beijing, to a commitment that it made. One point, very unfortunately, Martin Lee, who was supposed to be in the UK a week ago, he hasn’t been able to make it, but it’s a point which I think he stresses. As someone who was there during the negotiations, and it’s a point I hear consistently by others involved, and that is, the way China seems to be understanding and interpreting the relationship is fundamentally different to what Deng Xiaoping had in mind. Now, I certainly don’t think it’s in the UK’s right to define what the relationship should be, but surely the UK should be in a position to raise that to Beijing and say quite simply, “look, we have the records, we have people who were involved in these negotiations, and there does seem to be a change.” China should be quite clearly told that it is not simply a Chinese issue, and I think actually by doing that, it only strengthens the UK’s position, it strengthens the UK’s hands because what we’re doing is being a friend to China. We’re saying “look, it is in our interest, it is also in China’s interest, to join the international community in the spirit that we felt you were joining 10 or 15 years ago, and what we see at the moment is a change in policy that raises some very big red flags. And we’re doing this, we’re calling you out as a friend to say please engage in a way in which you will be taken as a responsible and serious partner.” That’s all the points I wish to make.
Thank you Evan very much, and these are most important ones. I will, if I may, ask one question, and then I’ll hand it over.
Brian, I would like you to comment on what you described, I think very interestingly is the contradictory elements within Beijing’s policy. That contradiction is exactly that, a contradiction, but it contains two different strands, which are essentially around risk and gain. What is Beijing’s risk-gain equation look like, how has it changed, and does it enable a more nuanced position to be taken, and how can we encourage that without being described as black hands who are interfering, old colonials, dreaming long past ourselves, and how do we think that Beijing actually understands what’s going on there now, and are they likely to understand the place better when they send down the former Party secretary from [Chinese city] who doesn’t seem to have any HK background as their chief liaison officer, whose main reputation is an enforcer of Communist Party control. This is perhaps not encouraging. Could you comment on what Beijing’s risk-gain equation looks like and how it might change? Thank you.
Dr. Brian C.H. Fong:
As I’ve mentioned, there are two sides of Chinese policy cons to us, Hong Kong, which is as mentioned by Matthew, is seemingly contradictory. But what Beijing is trying to do is to maximize for its own gain. So that’s why they choose not to completely overturn One Country Two Systems because they need some sort of One Country Two Systems in order to maximize the use of HK as an international fincancial center for its regime interests. But on the other hand, they also want to establish control, so that’s why what they’ve been engaging in is to redefine One Country Two Systems as mentioned by Evan. To be frank, over the past few years, Beijing has actually been quite successfully in doing that. The extradition bill was not the first time that Beijing tried to step up its control over HK. Before that, for example, we have the co-location arrangement, the disqualifications of six legislators, all these things, the reinterpretation of the basic law, all these things are examples showing that Beijing on the one hand is trying to impose stronger control over HK, but on the other hand it’s still raising capital in HK and quite successfully. And a few years ago, the international pressure, or international response to Beijing actions was not that strong, to be frank right? So for Beijing, it was actually quite encouraging over the past few years, it seems that the model or façade of autonomy was quite good for them until the extradition bill saga. So put in that context, the anti-extradition bill movement was probably the first major failure that Beijing encountered over the past few years when pushing for its model or façade of autonomy. So in other words, whether the Chinese government will really change its policy, it depends very much on the subsequent development. If Beijing finds that “hey, the local pressure, the international pressure, are not really strong, and they can, after overcoming the failure of the extradition bill, they can push the model of façade autonomy again, and of course they will. But as I’ve mentioned, if we can put in place stronger local and international check and balance mechanisms, at least to stop or slow down the imposition of this model façade autonomy over HK when Beijing finds it quite difficult to push further, then there may be a window forcing Beijing to revisit its policy. So the point is for me, we must stop it first.
Question from audience:
Hi, my question really is to do with the power of pulling the financial plug on HK that the west has, what would be, in the panel’s view, the impact of I believe what you’re referring in the US legislation and I’ve read in the press, if they no longer recognize HK’s integrity as a finance center, what would be the impact on China and indeed on the rest of the world?
Dr. Brian C.H. Fong:
I think it boils down to the question of whether Beijing has an alternative to HK in terms of raising capital if Beijing, actually Beijing I think that they know that they are too relied on HK in terms of financial raising so that’s why they’ll go to London to try to buy the London exchange because they know that they cannot put all their eggs in Hong Kong’s basket, they know that, but for various reasons they fail to do it, which is good for HK I think. So the point is I think whether, or how far Beijing can push forward the model of façade autonomy, it also depends very much on whether HK can sustain its position as the major financial center also for China, and in this aspect the international community should have a strong say because Hong Kong cannot function as an international financial center without the support of intl community, particularly the US and UK. So the point is, if the free world countries together send a very strong signal to Beijing, a very strong message that you cannot on the one hand keep controlling HK, while on the other hand keep making use of HK financial center, you need to give HK real autonomy, real democracy, so as to sustain One Country Two Systems. If Beijing finds it cannot get all the things, that they cannot take their approach anymore, then they will revisit the policy. But if the free world countries are adopting some form of appeasement policy towards China, then if I am Xi Jinping, why not go further?
Thank you very much. My take on this is that, it’s a very big victory that we’d get, that this legislation can be only be invoked if it’s not actually implemented cause the minute you’ve used it, you’ve destroyed the very freedom and specialness of Hong Kong. So to my mind, there’s a very big amount of risk involved in this sort of thing, there’s a huge risk for Hong Kong. And whether China perceives that risk in the same way we do, and would respond to the invocation of that risk, by all means you can say yes, we have the capacity to move the special status of Hong Kong, to remove its edge over the mainland as a place for FDI and so on. That effectively saying we will ruin Hong Kong in order to put pressure on you, and I regard this myself as an extremely risky strategy, however I fully respect Brian’s sense that we have to invoke some kind of leverage, and that is one that certainly does have some potential to have an effect. Evan did you want to add on to that?
If I could just very quickly add, I don’t think Hong Kong has an edge, I actually think Hong Kong is critical to Beijing. you cannot have successful access to international markets without freedom of information and without the rule of law. We know on both of those accounts, which way China is unfortunately heading under Xi Jinping. my personal take is, Xi Jinping has also revised in some way the contract between the Party and the people of China, it is no longer simply about economic growth. He’s added quite clearly a significant element of nationalism now, it is the party represents china, there’s a nationalistic element involved. So you know the chances of Xi Jinping, sort of backing off and allowing the rule of law to really develop in China is pretty slim at the moment, which actually makes Hong Kong even more valuable and even more important. I do agree with Matthew, it’s a very difficult thing, no one wants to see damage done I think to China, after all it will damage us as well. But I think Brian is also right, China is moving in a direction which I think raises a lot of concerns, and if Hong Kong is a way to certainly say, “look, we realize that Hong Kong is this important to you” and it is a way to actually leverage some sort of power over Beijing, to at least get them to take a check and review what they’re doing, then I think that’s a positive step.
Question from Audience:
My name is John Dobson, I write for the Indian newspaper, [ inaudible ] Guardian. I also by the way, 50 years ago I was associated with HMS Tamar, just shows how old I am really.
Two short questions if I may. I was intrigued by your first slide when you described the 7.2 million people of Hong Kong as being stateless. Maybe you could expand on that. But my main question is this, I have a friend whose son until quite recently ran Cathay Pacific and he lost his job as you know, the story’s well known. Mainly because the facial recognition technology in HK recognized two of his employees marching with the protestors, and he was called up by the authorities and told he was getting sacked because of that. So my question really is, facial recognition, which I believe is the biggest threat to freedom anywhere, we know how extensive it is in china, I was intrigued to hear about this story in HK my question is how extensive is it and if it is extensive, if everybody’s being viewed from Beijing, how would you describe your freedom?
Dr. Brian C.H. Fong:
Let me respond to your first question about the notion of stateless nations. Actually this comes from my recent articles in Nations and Nationalism if you are interested in academic research, I just published a paper in May 2019 one month before the outbreak of the extradition movement. The title of that paper is “Stateless Nation within a Nationless State – the political past, present, and future of Hong Kongers”. I used the academic concept of stateless nation to describe the nature and characteristics of Hong Kongers so that we can better understand why HK people have been mobilized so extensively to fight for its freedom and autonomy, and I think the extradition bill movement itself is a very good example to show how different groups of people, different classes, different generations of Hong Kongers, they can come together as one people to fight for our autonomy. If you look at HK news recently, it is quite interesting that on the one hand, we have nearly about 100 new staff unions, have been established in different sectors, but on the other hand we have so-called ideas of yellow economic circles, a number of small, medium, enterprises, they have been mobilized to support the movement. It would be quite interesting and even a bit contradictory to the traditional left right politics. In HK, the new labour unions, they are mobilized, not because of class interest, they are organized not for improving their salary or benefits, or employee conditions, they just mobilized for fighting for greater autonomy of Hong Kong. On the other hand, the yellow economic circles, they will also mobilize, they are not asking for fewer business regulations, lower poverty tax rate, they are not doing that they are also mobilized for greater autonomy. And the two groups of people, it seems that the working class and the capitalists, it seems like they should be contradictory right? But that’s not the case, many of them work together in the movement. For me, why they can do this, why they can overcome their class interests, their seemingly contradictory class interests and work together for HK autonomy? The reason is very simple, because of Hong Konger identity, because Hong Kong has, and already been evolved, and been consolidated as stateless nation, as I’ve argued in my paper, which is comparable to the people of Catalonia, Quebec, Scotland, Ireland, South Tyrol, all this territorial autonomy. So that is my basic response to your question about the stateless nation.
Secondly, for facial recognition, I think over these past few years, HK government has been doing some pilot projects to install facial recognition equipment in HK, but the scale is not that extensive and many of these equipment has been attacked by the protestors over the past few months, so at this stage we’re still OK. But if you look at the example of Macau, this is very worrying, because in Macau, they have already installed lots of facial recognition equipment in every corner of Macau’s society like in other mainland cities. Chinese government also praises Macau as a model for One Country Two Systems, or their model of façade autonomy, to use my language. It’s Macau. So in other words, Hong Kong is facing dangers of moving in the direction of Macau, we also need to probably pay attention to Macau, because if you’re concerned about Hong Kong, and what the Chinese government is doing in Macau is a very good indicator of what may be in introduced into the context of Hong Kong.
I have a very short qualification to that point, which is what the first thing the government tried to do was to impose no wearing of masks, and you may not be able to use a smart lamp post anymore because somebody cut it down, but you can certainly use your Huawei phone to take a picture of people. So from that point of view, I’m afraid while institutionalized facial recognition may be better installed and established in Macau than it is in Hong Kong, when you actually have an agent government and the people who are communicating very closely with their partners across their boundary, its only as good as the Huawei phone that’s pointed at you.
And can I just very quickly add on I suppose the point of interjection, regarding Scotland. Well the Scots can have a referendum, it’s not a dirty word, and as far as I understand, the British government does recognize the term “citizen”, which of course Beijing has a problem with. It’s difficult to sort of make a like for like comparison. But anyway, the point I really want to touch on there is regarding technology, I don’t think the issue necessarily is technology, and to be frank, I’m not in a position to really give an answer on the technology side. The issue to me is how the technology is being used, if the HK government, and in many ways the story of the use of technology in HK highlights the problems that HK is facing. Now, if you want to install technology, what should happen is that, Charles Mok, who is the legislator representing the IT sector in HK should’ve been consulted, it should’ve gone through LegCo, it should’ve been all above board, so there could be public scrutiny, even if the public doesn’t officially have very much power, at least there’s public scrutiny on any decision made in regards to implementing this type of technology in HK. What happened in HK was the opposite, indeed, it wasn’t until protestors I think, I stand corrected, but I believe it was in July when protestors knocked down a smart lamp post and discovered that not only was it a smart lamp post, but the technology inside was not actually the technology that HK had been testing. HK had been testing technology that had been imported from Germany for two years previously, and then suddenly they found out the technology actually being put in the smart lamppost in HK was surprise, surprise coming from the same company that supplies tech in Xinjiang, and it’s all feeding into a hub in Shanghai. So if these sort of things, I hate to say it, but if these things happen in China, we know that is how China operates, but there should be alarm bell ringing when this happens in HK, so there’s process, there’s an issue. And the second, of course, is how it being used. It is totally against everything, Hong Kong values, against the spirit and content of the Sino-British Joint Declaration, that someone at Cathay should lose their job simply because a few other people in a huge company happen to be identified in a protest. And let me add, certainly at that stage those protests, but we’re talking about legal protests. We’re talking about protests that hadn’t devolved into increased violence that happened later on. We have two employees as individuals, who decide to go and march in a legal protest and a large company in HK like Cathay can be pressured in that manner, and again the question is should that be happening in HK, should that not be raising far more alarm bells than it is at the moment.
Question from member of the Society:
Thank you very much for that presentation, can I ask a question in two parts please. I’m struck that in China today, moving from a developing economy into a more mature economy, we’re seeing economic slowdown, obviously coronavirus is accentuating that. That suggests Hong Kong’s relative importance increases. so my first question is how do you balance the requirement to maintain HK importance to Beijing and in the short term, so as to affect Beijing’s thinking. And if there’s one thing we know about Beijing, it’s that they have a long term plan. Their long term plan is 2049, the centenary of the PRC, 2 years after the 50-year arrangement for One Country Two Systems ends. So what is your aspiration for 2047 in terms of where HK will be compared to where it is today, compared to China?
Dr. Brian C.H. Fong:
Perhaps I try to answer both of your questions by this PowerPoint slide. I think the issues for HK is probably we are facing the situation that we will not have full autonomy or no autonomy. Probably it is not a matter of black and white color. We are always in some form of grey, but whether we are moving closer to the ideal model of full autonomy, or we are moving much closer to another direction of a very low degree of autonomy. So the problem is, no matter 2047 or about Hong Kong’s importance to China, it depends on struggles. If HK people can maintain a very strong momentum for autonomy movement, if the free world also stands with us to fight for a higher degree of autonomy for HK, then perhaps we can move closer, or urge and force Beijing to move a bit closer to the ideal model of full autonomy. But probably I think, unless there will be a dramatic change in Chinese political system itself, we probably cannot reach the ideal model of autonomy. But if we work together, if HK people work hard, if international community stands together, at least we can move closer to it. But if we fail to do that, we will move to another direction. So it depends on the situation. It also probably applies to the ideas of the issues of 2047, still very long time until 2047, so we don’t know at that time how or whether China’s political system itself will evolve, but I think if HK people can stand together with the free world, we should be able to at least ask for the continuations of the present arrangements but if HK people will fail to organize itself, if we lose international support, if the free world no longer considers Hong Kong as important, then of course China can decide on its own, completely push forward its model of façade autonomy, there will still be One Country Two Systems, but the idea of all jurisdictions by the Chinese government will be fully imposed on Hong Kong. So I don’t have an answer what will happen, I can only say, it really depends on our struggle, not just the struggle of HK people, but whether the free world countries will struggle for HK’s autonomy together with us.
Question from Audience:
Alison Giles. I very much enjoyed your graphic looking at China’s need for control and the intention for a successful Hong Kong to sell and basically manage its debt and FDI, we were talking about the Western world pushing the nuclear button, pulling the plug on Hong Kong’s position as a financial center. If you flip it around and look at it from China’s perspective, and the potential for China to push the nuclear button, you’ve got Article 23 of basic law which quite legally in terms of their declaration and so forth, allows for China to impose security act on HK, and obviously the last time China tried to do that in 2003 I think it was, that resulted in widespread unrest and protests. And arguably Carrie Lam’s decision to push the extradition treaty last year was actually her attempt to avoid having to enact a security act. Yet in October last year, the 4th plenary session in Beijing, you had president Xi being quite clear about the need to tighten up controls and implementation of security legislation and I think most recently, we’ve also had the director of CGLO prefacing that, not in absolutely clear terms, but I think you could really peruse on that. So I just wondered what you thought about the likelihood of China, going back to that very powerful graphic, the solution to this might actually be to tighten control, whereas I suspect most people in this room would think that’s the equivalent of pouring a can of kerosene on the situation.
I think on Article 23, the sad fact is even before last year, that was very much on the agenda. I do agree that is does seem likely that Carrie Lam actually initiated the extradition bill to buy herself time, not wanting to take something that would’ve been even more controversial. I think the issue comes down to the point I was making about technology, with Article 23 I think it’s reasonable for China to wish to update its security legislation, which is woefully out of fate anyway, as we’ve seen there’s plenty of scope for existing security legislation to be in effect abused. It’s all about the process by which they do it, and secondly, how it’s actually used. So as it seems very likely that security legislation will be forthcoming sooner rather than later, and I do agree the new director at the liaison office has hinted that that is the approach he’s taken. Which of course is interesting because you’d say after a year of unprecedented protests in HK and deep divisions within society, taking this approach is not necessarily the way to resolve HK problems in the moment, but I don’t think Article 23 is going to be pushed through by international pressure. I don’t think Beijing is going to want to facilitate that, because they feel the west is deciding to monitor the situation a little bit more closely, if anything, I think it will serve the reverse. Article 23 will be passed, however, hopefully Beijing’s hand will be somewhat more reticent knowing that let’s say the rest of the world is watching what they do in Hong Kong.
In this regard, I think it will be very salutary to see what happens when people who have been arrested, and in some cases charged, with offenses in the course of the protest movements are actually bought to court. Because there’s no question that the way in which people have been arrested and charged or semi charged is quite political and so the sentencing, I’m afraid despite what we hope, the nature of the judicial procedure in HK will also be quite political. And account taken of each one of those roughly 10,000 people, how they’re treated as breakers of what law in what context, what leniency, what recognition of that context is shown or is not will be a very good bell, whether Beijing will use what’s there already, let alone what they might need hereafter. Bu nobody yet I think has actually been put through that process in the current batch as it were. It will be something to keep an eye out for. Brian, do you have any points?
Dr. Brian C.H. Fong:
I fully agree with the remarks made by Evan and Matthew, I just add one point. I think whether and how Article 23 will be introduced to Hong Kong, we should just treat it as part of the overall ethics of the Chinese government to push for its model of façade autonomy. Because if the Chinese government expects that if they introduce Article 23, or a very strict version of Article 23, they can overcome the local and international pressure they should have already done that. Over the past two decades, at least quite frequently, the Chinese government will also always talk about Article 23 legislation, but why, it hasn’t been introduced again since 2003, it is because Chinese government for me probably they are not confident enough they they can overcome the possible local and international backfire. So they try to still exercise a certain degree of self-restraint, pushing forward these methods. I would like to draw attention to the US role in this issue. If you read the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act in detail, there is actually a specific clause about national security legislation. The US actually has drawn a red line on this issue. If Beijing introduced Article 23 that the US considers at undermining Hong Kong’s autonomy, they can terminate their recognitions on Hong Kong’s autonomy. Beijing likes to talk about drawing red lines right, but this time it is the US government who draws the red line and sends a message to the Chinese government that you cannot cross this red line. I think this is something that probably we can watch over, whether and how, the US factor and the international factor in large will provide some form of check and balance, blocking the introduction of Article 23.
Question from audience (London School of Economics):
Can you tell me if the religions in Hong Kong play an important role as a part of civil society? And also, what role, if any, does Taiwan play?
Dr. Brian C.H. Fong:
Basically I think the anti-extradition movement is as I’ve mentioned, a cross-class, cross-generation, cross-sector movement, so some religious bodies, particularly pro-democracy ones, they have also mobilized and play a certain role of supporting the protestors, but they are not playing a fully key role I would argue in this way. But there are some religious leaders, they are actually doing lots of things, particularly local family and supporting the protestors. For Taiwan, I think we need to know that Hong Kong is a geo-political issue because the situation in HK will affect China’s campaign in the whole Indo-Pacific region. The anti-extradition protests in the past years have already undermined Taiwan people’s thought about the whole One Country Two Systems model. It basically put an end to Beijing’s original plan to sell One Country Two Systems model to Taiwan and effectively helped elect Tsai Ing-wen as president again. So I think Hong Kong is interesting in the sense that what is happening here may have lots of effects on nearby regions, because China has an overall campaign to incorporate its peripheries into its regime- not just Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and Macau, but also Taiwan, and South China Sea. So all these things happening will interact with each other. So that’s why, I didn’t have the time to mention this slide in my presentation, but I think we need to look into the Hong Kong issue in a geopolitical perspective, and what is happening is actually a larger issue for the free world when responding to China’s influence. China is expanding its influence to its surrounding regions, Hong Kong is actually the first layer of the surrounding regions that encounter the first wave of China’s expanding influence. The second layer is Taiwan, or other Indo-Pacific countries. So if the free world people consider all these things in this way, probably we may have different thoughts about whether and how we should support Hong Kong’s autonomy.
May I answer again, or raise the question again about religion. Beijing has this nationalism that we haven’t spoken about, Beijing has an anti-religious spirit, stronger now than anything we’ve seen since the Cultural Revolution, but actually consist with Communist Party Policy since 1949. And it’s no coincidence therefore that it’s very distinguished. Cardinal Joseph Zen spoke out in Hong Kong and he fully endorsed the protest and he would have joined very actively. But this merely highlights the difference that we have in between what makes Hong Kong Hong Kong, and what goes on the other side of the fence as it were because the current regime regards religion as very subversive and it regards Hong Kong as a subversive base. Now premier [name] said, I remember it well as I remember the scandal it created, “I really don’t care if Hong Kong is a subversive base as long as it goes on making money.” But I’m afraid now that that risk gain equation has been switched and the real concern now is that whatever happens in terms of “we demand freedom, we demand accountability” moves into the mainland, that that subversive base notion could become a reality, just as potential subversion in Xinjiang and so forth is now demonized in a very nationalistic way. Did you notice also how people were accused by Beijing supporters in Hong Kong of not being Chinese, you’re not Chinese, that was their crime, not to be Chinese because they were from Hong Kong. So yes, I think these issues are very important ones.
Just to add slightly on that, on the subject of religion, its important to realize that, I don’t think it’s religion that’s the issue, it’s civil society. Traditionally, religion has played an important part in the establishment and development of civil society, both in China and of course in Hong Kong. It is quite easy to look at the protest movements and say well there are quite a lot of Catholics who are involved, there’s quite a lot of religious associations and societies that seem to be tied into the protests. But that’s not because they’re religious, that’s because they’re essentially civil bodies. So there’s a historic element to that, much in the same way that of course religion in Hong Kong has played a very important role in the development of education. So I think it’s easy to sort of read into what’s happening, read into some sort of religious conspiracy which I don’t think is necessarily there. And just on Taiwan, I remember being told by a visiting Taiwanese official, and I think this sort of really encapsulates the relationship between Taiwan and Hong Kong, he said to me, “we in Taiwan and you in Hong Kong, we share one important thing, we can’t live our life making decisions based on our heart, we have to make all of our decisions based on our head. Now our heart may tell us we would like to see a certain future, perhaps independent of China, but our head says something different”. So I think the connection with Taiwan is so strong because it’s an instinctive understanding essentially of two Chinese communities, two communities who are very proud and who also take extreme offense at being told that they are “puppets of the west” or that they are as Matthew said, in some ways not Chinese, simply because let’s be clear, Hong Kong and Taiwan present an existential threat to the CCP. All they do is they challenge the regime, they challenge some of the core messages and the core values that the regime is making on behalf of the Chinese people, and I think it’s that intrinsic understanding of what they’re up against that links Hong Kong and Taiwan.
Question from Political Risk Analyst, born and raised in Hong Kong:
I wonder if Brian could comment more on the young generation of Hong Kong, those who have taken part in perhaps the protests more recently and have been very active on the streets, not going to school, and what their role is in all this in helping, with the free world, and being the next generation of workers, and there’s also underlying social issues in Hong Kong that are worrying their future, whether they’re going to get a job or if they can afford to buy a house, so what is their role in this?
Dr. Brian C.H. Fong:
To put it short, I have recently been doing research on student nationalist movements in Hong Kong, basically I have researched and interviewed most of the student leaders, secondary and university ones who found different loyalist groups. Because over the past few years, lots of local groups have been established in different secondary schools and also in university. I interviewed most of them to understand their thoughts and their stories. In short, basically, what motivates them to do all these things, and many of them have taken part in front line military protests, which sacrifices a lot. It’s basically Hong Kong identity. They feel that this is their homeland, they are going to do whatever they can, sacrifice their life and career to fight for Hong Kong. A very strong emotional attachment. You might sit there and rationally calculate interests, but they are not thinking in this way because they have very strong emotional attachments with Hong Kong. So they do a lot of things from organizing to protesting at the very very front line to confront the police. So that’s why I argue we need to revisit the importance of Hong Konger identity as the single important factor behind the mass mobilization over these few years. It is not really about class interest, it it’s not really about universal values, it is about Hong Konger identity. What they are fighting for is not just the universal rights of democracy or human rights, not really that. They want to have democracy in the lands of Hong Kong. That’s the message that I get after interviewing almost 100 student leaders. It is very interesting to know that. I ask this question: “when did you realize yourself as a Hong Konger?” Many of them respond in this way, “after going back to China.” For different reasons, for study tours, for visiting relative, they need to follow their teachers or family to go to china. Once they cross the border, they realize that this is not their home land, and they cross the border, they feel that they go back home. Almost all of them said that after visiting China, they realized themselves as distinctive Hong Kongers. So it’s a very interesting thing we need to know to understand the mobilizations of young people in Hong Kong this year.
Thank you all for your questions, thank you for your very close attention to what I think has been a very fascinating grassroots, but also very strategic account of the challenges Hong Kong faces. All I can say, and I’m sure that this will be shared by the audience, is that we wish Brian and the people of Hong Kong very well, and that we hope the good will come of it, the best good that can, in a set of circumstances that are perilous to say the very least. But the great thing is that knowledge of conditions on the ground, knowledge of what exists on the ground in the way of legislation, spirit, and leverage of one kind or another, we can all take part in something that must be more widely shared. And so far as Britain has a historical and moral commitment to the values that Britain stands for, so we as Britons should endeavor to energize that for the support of the people in Hong Kong. Thank you all very much.