'We hope young people can raise their understanding of the rule of law, and make themselves the vanguard of preserving Hong Kong's prosperity and stability', thundered Li Yunchao, China's powerful vice president.
China is alarmed by the mobilisation of the Hong Kong public in recent weeks, including a large rally for democracy in 1 July. Beijing's earlier publication of a White Paper had goaded the local democratic Occupy Central movement and surely boosted turnout in its informal online referendum last week: 88% of the 787,767 respondents demanded direct voting in the 2017 chief executive election, citing 'international standards' of democracy.
Visibly irate, Beijing has denounced the referendum as 'illegal', 'ridiculous' and a 'farce…of mincing ludicrousness'. Hardline voices mutter darkly about 'the PLA coming out of their barracks'. A sophisticated hacking campaign took place while banks and accounting firms have strained to distance themselves from the rabble rousers. Hong Kong has even been warned about losing its RMB currency trading business. The city thus faces a barrage of intimidation, which may backfire on Beijing.
Yet China's stance is not only predictable, it is perfectly understandable. In the White Paper, the State Council claims absolute sovereignty over the territory and holds that Hong Kong enjoys no 'residual power' or rights of ultimate autonomy. While its formulation seems draconian, and grates with many, Beijing is acting no differently than Washington would if (say) Manhattan borough agitated to secede from the Union. Loyalists hold real fears about a 'colour revolution' fueled by foreign interference, a reasonable assumption given the presence of 600,000 expatriates here. The White Paper was, as the international press observes, a reminder that Beijing possesses 'total control'.
The essence of Hong Kong's governance is 'one country, two systems' but while Hong Kong's democrats emphasise the city's unique identity, Beijing unsurprisingly emphasises the first part of the formula.
If there is one aspect of the White Paper that rankles, it is the requirement for a patriotic judiciary. Vice President Li commands Hong Kong's youth to understand the 'correct' system of law. But this audience understands full well that, in the lexicon of the Chinese state, 'patriotic' is code for fealty to the Communist Party as surely as 'nationalism' means xenophobia. Indeed in recent days the Party has unapologetically reasserted its grip on the mainland's judiciary. Loyalists in Hong Kong have defended the 'patriotism' concept but barristers have raised an uproar. The erosion of Hong Kong's judicial independence would be far more damaging than any failings in its electoral process, something even Chinese officials appear to understand.
For years, Hong Kongers reassured themselves that 'one country, two systems' would be applied generously, with Taiwan's peaceful reunification in mind. Now there is a sense of a fiercer, more defiant administration in Beijing that cares less about what the world thinks. Its 'take it or leave it' approach invites resistance, resentment, or (for those who have the option) emigration. And it raises a question: will Hong Kong become 'JACC' (just another Chinese city)?
The broader risk is the escalation of mutual distrust between the pan-democrats on the one hand and Beijing and its loyalists on the other, with the consequence that the territory becomes ungovernable.
The 'battle for Hong Kong's soul' has been joined with underground instruments of cold war, Leninist-style organisational fronts and ever-bolder mainstream media activity. The 'silent majority' of Hong Kongers is trapped in the middle. It is notable that 'negotiation' wasn't one of the options presented on Occupy Central's referendum menu. Young people are disproportionately represented among the protesters and they seem to be the most angry and uncompromising. Worryingly, Li's appeal is falling on deaf ears.