Christmas has come early to Hong Kong. It's almost two weeks before holidays begin but people are in a festive mood. There is smiling in the streets. Taxi passengers are more generous with their tips. Some Hongkongers may have even popped a bottle of champagne.
Last Friday's surprise announcement from Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying that he would not seek a second term was delightful news to many. Despite being the most unpopular leader the city has had since handover in 1997, many expected another five years of Leung’s tough rule with plenty of interference from Beijing. Expected outcomes included a city even more divided, with freedom further dented and the rule of law more eroded; Hong Kong could have hit rock bottom, as portrayed in the dystopian film Ten Years, becoming just one more Chinese city.
But Leung’s unexpected withdrawal (citing family reasons) lifted the hopes of many caught up in the political turmoil that has worsened since Leung took office on 1 July 2012.
The political landscape of Hong Kong is more complex than that of most other prominent global cities. The former British colony isn’t just a place where China meets the world; or the scene of an ongoing battle between pro-democracy and pro-Beijing camp; or a site of Chinese meddling. It's also a battlefield where opposing forces square off in an internal power struggle at China's very top level. How this plays out once Leung exits the stage will have a significant impact on the state of Hong Kong.
The central narrative of political debates here has long revolved around democratic development. There are heated exchanges between the pro-democracy and pro-establishment camps but this is an ongoing, almost stable feature of Hong Kong; it's been part of the landscape for more than 30 years.
Leung ascended to power in 2012 with the support from the Liaison Office of the Central People’s Government in Hong Kong, which has its own agenda against Beijing’s control over Hong Kong. Four and a half years later, Leung’s rule has completely disrupted the balance of city’s political power, as evident in the escalating scale and intensity of public protests. These can be traced from 2012, when Leung backed an anti-national education curriculum, through the 2013 protests against the government’s rejection of the free TV licence application from HKTV (owned by Leung’s enemy Ricky Wong), to the failure of the electoral reform and Beijing’s interference, which prompted the 79-day Umbrella Movement in 2014. This year talk of Hong Kong's independence from China gained currency from the 'fishball' violent clash during the Lunar New Year.
What many outside of Hong Kong may not realise is that independence has not been a long-nursed dream of the majority here. In fact, independence has not been a popular cause; most have favoured peace, prosperity and an easy life over political struggle. Ongoing economic conflicts between Hong Kong and mainland Chinese migrants and travellers - as well as the culture clash - has fanned the flame of localism but this did not develop into a yearning for independence until January 2015, when Leung blasted a book entitled Hong Kong Nationalism, published by Hong Kong University student magazine Undergrad. This speech put independence on the front burner and Leung responded by vowing to stamp it out.
The next iteration of this political drama was the oath-taking controversy brought by the two, pro-independence elected lawmakers Sixtus 'Baggio' Leung Chun-hang and Yau Wai-ching.
Some have speculated the pair were moles from Leung’s side, as their reference to China as 'Chee-na' (widely considered an offensive term during Japan’s invasion of China) in the oaths they made was more than low-level student drama. It gave Leung and his supporters an excuse to wage war against Hong Kong independence by lodging a judicial review. This led to an invitation to Beijing to interpret Article 104 of Hong Kong’s mini-constitution Basic Law at the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress meeting, so that the two could be removed from Hong Kong's Legislative Council.
On the surface, it appears Leung won that battle, with Beijing’s backing. But it has also prompted more interference. Hong Kong independence is unconscionable for the Chinese Communist Party, ever mindful of how pro-independence spawned separatism in Tibet and Taiwan.
On 2 December, the Leung Chun-ying government filed another judicial review seeking to take down four other pro-democracy lawmakers over the oaths they took, despite the fact that they did not cross the line of Hong Kong independence.
Perhaps it was then the truth dawned on Beijing. It wasn't the independence debate per se that was the root of the problem but the actions of Leung that amplified that message. But the Hong Kong independence genie won't go back in the bottle. Lord Chris Patten, the beloved last British governor of Hong Kong and a much hated figure of Beijing, recently became an unexpected target of the city’s younger generation. During his November visit to Hong Kong, while the oath-taking row was unfolding, Patten told the city’s youth that if they continued to pursue independence they would lose the moral high ground they had gained from fighting for democracy during the Umbrella Movement. This message was not received well.
So perhaps Leung’s announcement that he would no longer pursue a second term (a decision most likely backed, if not ordered, by Beijing) will provide a release valve. Beijing is no doubt keen to take down the independence agenda completely and restore the old balance between pro-democracy and pro-establishment camps, at least for the time being, while it considers whether it wants more control over Hong Kong.
In the just-concluded poll of the 1200-member election committee, which will choose the city’s leader in the March chief executive election, the pro-democracy camp took 326 seat, 205 more than four years ago. However, there is still one more act to come in this year's political drama with the candidates for the chief executive race expected to be finalised by the end of the month. Perhaps Hongkongers should delay the champagne.