China will maintain “a firm grasp” on Hong Kong, and exercise full powers of governance in the former British colony, President Xi Jinping told delegates at the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s 19th National Congress in Beijing on Wednesday.
Xi told delegates that Beijing’s jurisdiction over the city, and the former Portuguese enclave of Macau, should not be shaken, amid concerns that the “one country, two systems” principle has already been diluted by repeated interventions in Hong Kong.
“We will develop and strengthen the ranks of patriots who love both our country and their regions,” he said, adding that “patriots will be playing the principal role” in governing the city.
However, he stopped short of mentioning recent calls for independence in the city, focusing instead on the pro-independence movement in democratic Taiwan, which has never been ruled by his party.
“We will never allow anyone, any organization, or any political party, at any time or in any form, to separate any part of Chinese territory from China,” he said.
Taiwan’s mainland affairs council called the Communist Party congress’ comments “regrettable”, saying Beijing wouldn’t win over the island’s 23 million people” with this approach.
Pan-democratic politicians and rights activists in the Hong Kong, where courts recently sent three student leaders of the 2014 pro-democracy movement to jail, said Xi’s comments don’t bode well for the promises of “a high degree of autonomy” made to Hong Kong ahead of the 1997 handover.
And a series of high-profile interventions by China’s parliament have cast doubts over Beijing’s growing political influence in the city, which extended to stripping pro-democracy lawmakers of their seats in the Legislative Council, after their oaths of allegiance were ruled invalid.
Democratic Party chairman Wu Chi-wai said Xi’s words on Hong Kong suggest the central government’s use of high-level interventions in the city’s political life will only get more frequent in future.
“I think that Beijing is now thinking that it gets to define what ‘one country, two systems’ means, that it wants to distort the definition as understood by the people of Hong Kong and the international community,” Wu told RFA.
“This is very, very dangerous, and it will send Hong Kong into a vicious circle, worsening tensions between Hong Kong and the central government, and giving the [city’s] government even less room for maneuver,” he said.
The erosion of Hong Kong’s traditional freedoms of speech, publication, and judicial independence in recent years and a stalled timetable for full democracy in spite of the 2014 protest has coincided with growing talk of independence, and a renewed backlash from Beijing.
Some 40 percent of young people support the idea, compared with around 70 percent who oppose it across all age groups, according to recent opinion polls.
Wang Guangya, who until recently headed the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office of China’s cabinet, the State Council, said the idea of independence for Hong Kong is anathema to Beijing.
“The central government and the rest of mainland China are definitely behind Hong Kong and Macau’s development … but President Xi made it clear in today‘s speech that the central government is drawing a red line,” Wang said.
“That red line is, don’t do anything that harms national sovereignty, security or economic development.”
But Regina Ip, who chairs the pro-Beijing New People’s Party, said Beijing would be happy to leave the Hong Kong government to manage the issue, however.
“Provided that Hong Kong is able to keep these separatists sentiments at bay and help our young people understand that we are an integral part of the country … I see no reason why the central government will tighten up its policy on Hong Kong,” she said.
But Civic Party leader Alvin Yeung dismissed such claims.
“There has been a gradual tightening of control over Hong Kong, whether by the central government or by its liaison office [in Hong Kong],” Yeung said. “So [Xi’s] words make me feel that we are unlikely to see any loosening of restrictions in future.”
Yeung blamed former chief executive Leung Chun-ying for exacerbating calls for independence during his tenure in the city’s top job.
“I think that the person who created the situation should be the one to resolve it,” he said. “This issue won’t be resolved while the central and the Hong Kong governments …persist in using hardline tactics [to deal with it].”
Under the terms of the 1997 handover, Hong Kong was promised a high degree of autonomy and the maintenance of judicial independence, progress towards universal suffrage and traditional freedoms of speech, publication and association.
Democratic Party lawmaker Helena Wong called on Beijing to clarify what Xi meant by “full powers of governance,” saying that the city’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law, was designed to allow Hong Kong people to rule the city by themselves.
“According to the Basic Law, we are currently implementing one country, two systems, and Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong,” Wong said. “That means that Hong Kong affairs should be managed by our own administration.”
“But is there any limit to these ‘full powers of governance’? If China interferes with Hong Kong’s internal affairs, with its elections, then this is a serious breach of our jurisdiction.”
And political affairs commentator Liu Ruishao warned that the space for public freedom of expression in the once-freewheeling city is also rapidly shrinking.
“If Beijing doesn’t change its approach, the obstacles will remain, the red line will keep moving, and all the conflicts will still be there.”
A recent report by the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China found that “the long-term viability of the ‘one country, two systems’ model … is increasingly uncertain given central government interference.”
The oaths row “was the first time the [National People’s Congress] standing committee] had preemptively ruled on a case under consideration by a local court, raising further concerns about Hong Kong’s autonomy,” the report said.
Reported by Lam Kwok-lap for RFA’s Cantonese Service, and by Gao Feng for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.