What changes and what remains of the last 20 years of Hong Kong. The contribution of Christians
by Mary Mee-Yin Yuen (*)

The handover of the former British colony to China in 1997 did not come without pain. Still, Beijing respected Hong Kong’s way of life for several years. In recent times though, mainland meddling in Hong Kong's internal affairs has increased. This has sparked a strong reaction in favour of democracy as well as autonomy, especially among young people. The Catholic Church remains committed to the common good. Card Zen is considered a hero of democracy and the marginalised. It is still possible to build trust between rulers and ruled. What follows is an analysis by a researcher at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Hong Kong (AsiaNews) – On July 1, Carrie Lam, the fourth Chief Executive-designate of Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) will be sworn in by President Xi Jinping of People’s Republic of China on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the establishment of HKSAR and the handover of sovereignty from Britain to China.

Elected by a 1,194-member Election Committee with 777 votes, Lam, a Catholic, was neither elected nor supported by the majority of Hong Kong people. This can be seen in the public opinion polls before the election. However, many people still wish to see a more inclusive style of governance with a new leader after suffering from frustrations and divisiveness in the society and stern oppositions in the political arena under the C.Y. Leung administration in the past five years. Lam, the former chief secretary and deputy to the existing chief executive, also claimed that she would introduce a new ruling style and implement policies in a practical way.

Affirming “One Country, Two Systems” Policy

In the past twenty years, Hong Kong has experienced many ups and downs. Some people claimed that the “one country, two systems” policy and “high degree of autonomous rule” promise has been upheld successfully. In their opinion, Hong Kong people, in general, can keep the capitalistic living style inherited from the British colonial rule, affirming the principle of “fifty years unchanged” after the handover. At the time of the handover, not only did the central government give repeated orders prohibiting interference in Hong Kong's internal affairs, but also established mechanisms for such purposes. The Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office imposed restrictions on mainland officials' arrivals in Hong Kong, preventing the mainland from exerting its influence on Hong Kong. The Liaison Office of the Central People's Government kept a low profile at that time.

Moreover, the Central Government introduced measures to help Hong Kong recover from economic recession after the financial crisis soon after the handover in 1997 and the subsequent SARS epidemic in 2003. These measures include the Individual Visit Scheme and the Mainland and Hong Kong Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement (CEPA). They have been proved to be successful in bringing economic recovery. Thus, in the earlier years after the changeover, the Central Government, by helping Hong Kong during economic crisis but refraining itself from meddling with Hong Kong's internal affairs, won approval and acclaim by Hong Kong people.

Threatening High Degree of Autonomy

However, as time passed, especially after the proposal to enact Article 23 of the Basic Law, a mini-constitution of HKSAR, on subversion in 2003, Chinese intervention in Hong Kong became more and more obvious.

Some critics argue that the “one country, two systems” policy has been deteriorating since then, with emphasis more on one country than two systems. The Chief Executives, one after the other, have also shown stronger and stronger inclination towards the Beijing government, especially the outgoing leader C.Y. Leung, and the pro-Beijing camp in Hong Kong. This can be seen from a number of issues, such as the interpretation of the Basic Law of HKSAR by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (SCNPC), China’s parliament, on several issues which were considered to be infringing on the rule of law; proposal to introduce patriotic and national education curriculum; the criteria of Chief Executive as being a patriot; intervention in the Hong Kong Legislative Council election and the most recent Chief Executive election through the Liaison Office; and the apparent arrest of a bookstore owner in Hong Kong by the mainland police. Leung is even considered as toeing Beijing’s line too closely and holding a hostile attitude towards the pan-democrats.

Moreover, the publication of the white paper on the implementation of “one country, two systems” by the Information Office of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China in June 2014 shows explicitly the attitude of the Chinese government towards the autonomous rule of Hong Kong. In the white paper, it is stated that the two systems can only be subordinated to one country. It also emphasizes that the Central Government has full control over the HKSAR. It points out that the high degree of autonomy is derived from the central authority and is not inherent in Hong Kong itself. External forces should be wary of so that Hong Kong would not be used to intervene in China’s internal affairs.

Furthermore, the decision on Hong Kong’s electoral reform by the SCNPC on August 31, 2014 is considered by many people as an obvious intervention of the internal affairs of Hong Kong without respecting the strong wish of Hong Kong people in universal suffrage. It hindered the democratic development of Hong Kong and deprived the right of political participation of Hong Kong people. Such decision resulted in the worldwide well-known occupy movement or the Umbrella Revolution called by the western media. Since then, there is a rift between the Hong Kong government cum the Central Government and a large portion of Hong Kong people.  

Identity Shift

All these results in the increasing distrust between Hong Kong people and Beijing, and the soured relationship between Hong Kong people and the local Hong Kong administration. These in turn lead to the sense of “Chineseness” became weaker and weaker and the sense of being “Hongkongese” stronger and stronger, especially among the younger generations. It even gives rise to campaigns or movements such as self-rule, localism, and self-determination.

For example, cultural critic Chen Wen initiated the Hong Kong self-rule campaign, with emphasis on local interests, the objection against integration policy between China and Hong Kong, the stress on inheriting the traditional Chinese Confucian culture rather than the contemporary culture under communist rule, and self-rule by Hong Kong people.

Meanwhile, some young people organize themselves into various groups. Some claim themselves localists, inclining to employ more radical or even violent means to achieve their goals of self-rule and democratization. Whereas others claim themselves self-determinationists who incline to be leftists, stressing community-building and employing rational and non-violent means.

Representatives from these various groups gained a number of seats in the September 2016 Legislative Council election which indicated the support they gained from the public and the desire for change in the political scene.

Economic Inequality and Indecent Living Standard

In the various large-scale protest actions and the “Occupy Movement”, as well as the self-determinationist or self-rule campaigns, the deep-rooted cause is that Hong Kong people are dissatisfied with the long-term unjust political system and unequal distribution of wealth. The Hong Kong government has followed the liberal capitalistic market economy and remains unchanged after the handover. It contracts out a number of works and services to private companies, leaving many low-income workers unprotected and being exploited. It favours the property developers and allows the cartel-hegemony increases social and economic unfairness but ignores the phenomenon of aging poor and adverse living condition of the working poor. 

In spite of the prosperity and economic growth of Hong Kong in general, some people, especially the low-income class, are unable to benefit from the fruits of economic development. This can be seen in the enormous gap between the rich and the poor and the unreasonable high housing cost. Although the Leung administration had worked hard on tackling poverty and easing the hardship of the poor through spending more on social welfare, the Gini coefficient of Hong Kong that based on monthly household income in 2016 escalated to a record high of 0.539. It is ironic to see that Hong Kong has a large sum of reserve — the latest budget forecast total fiscal reserves to stand at HK2 billion (US2.52 billion) by the end of March 2018. With such large reserve, some social workers and community organizers point out that the Hong Kong government, in the past twenty years, has not set a long-term goal to reduce income inequality that has long been a source of conflict in society and affect the effectiveness of governance.

Responses of the Church

After striving for democracy and human rights for many years, in the face of the above scenario, many people feel frustrated or helpless. Some may want to distant themselves from politics and focus on earning money. Others feel disappointed and migrate to another place. Still some young people want to separate themselves from China, from the government to the lives of people and the social situation.

However, as Christians, we believe that God is the creator and ruler of history. We as God’s instrument and co-worker can do something and make lives meaningful, working together to expand the Kingdom of God. According to the social teachings of the Church, dignity of human persons must be affirmed and valued. People should be put first before economic interest. Every person is a moral agent and able to bring change. Therefore, integral human development, common good, basic rights of every person should be used to assess the law and policies of a society. Based on the principle of option for the poor and the marginalized, the Church pays attention especially to the needy and underprivileged.

Based on the above social teachings, since the handover of sovereignty until now, the leaders of the local Catholic Church have offered guidance to the Church community. Some church organizations have joined other non-governmental organizations to strive for democracy as well as a fair and just system. Since the handover of sovereignty, the leaders of the Catholic Church, specifically Cardinal Joseph Ze-kiun Zen, the Coadjutor Bishop since 1996, the Bishop of Hong Kong from 2002 to 2009 and named cardinal in 2005, have spoken more frequently through mass media and have acted as a moral force in society.

Cardinal Zen is famous for speaking out in defence of human rights and the rights of the marginalized, such as the right of residence for people whose parents are local residents and education for children regardless of immigration status. He supported universal suffrage in electing the Chief Executive and all members of the legislature. Many people saw him as a just, wise, courageous, and caring leader, who dare to denounce injustices and does not yield to those in power. In a city where Catholics are just seven four percent of the population, the popularity and visibility of the bishop is extraordinary.

In February 2012, fifteen years after the changeover of sovereignty and before the election of a new Chief Executive, the Catholic diocese issued a document entitled “Some Expectations about the Future SAR Government Envisioned by the Catholic Church in Hong Kong.” The document discusses political and social development, and reminds the government of the importance of people-oriented values and long-term policies. The statement seeks the protection of people’s livelihoods and dignity, as well as the creation of a society where people can freely express concern for each other. Three years later, in May 2015, Cardinal John Tong promulgated a pastoral letter on “Electoral Reform and the Well-being of Hong Kong Society.” It is stated that “The Diocese believes that there can be no true or sustainable peace and stability in society without justice. Thus, on the matter of electoral reform, the Diocese has made it clear that the “ultimate aim” of universal suffrage as mandated by the Basic Law of Hong Kong cannot be realised unless, among other things, the nominating committee is truly “broadly representative” and the procedures adopted are genuinely “democratic”.

Upholding Christian values

It is an undeniable fact that Hong Kong is part of China, thus, China can exercise sovereignty over Hong Kong. At the time of drafting the Basic Law, the Chinese government aware that Hong Kong should be allowed to maintain the existing system and lifestyle that is different from mainland China. That is why the principles of “one country, two systems,” “high degree of autonomy” and “Fifty Years Unchanged” were designed.

Over the past twenty years, some Chinese officials try to uphold such policies but some forgot this original goal. This is more obvious from the Liaison Office in recent years. They try to intervene more and more the internal affairs of Hong Kong in order to keep Hong Kong in control.

As Hong Kong people, we uphold not only a capitalistic lifestyle, but a lifestyle and culture that uphold human dignity and human rights, rule of law and inclusiveness. These are core values of Hong Kong at the time of handover that we want to maintain. For the unjust and unfair policies, there is no need to keep them. Rather, they should be changed so that people can lead a more decent life.

 We hope the new Chief Executive and pro-establishment lawmakers can resist the interference from mainland or persuade the Liaison Office or other mainland officials to keep a distance from Hong Kong internal affairs. As a commentator points out, if all sides no longer actively or passively interfere or invite interference, it will be possible to restore decency in Hong Kong politics gradually. Mutual trust will be rebuilt, and Hong Kong will be on a way out of its predicament. 

As Christians, we need to know the objectives of social and political life according to our Church’s social teachings. As Christians, we insist that human persons are the foundation and objective of political life (GS, #25). People of any political community have their responsibilities and beliefs. They are moral agent who should be respected and have their subjectivity. Any government should maintain a cordial and good relationship with its people, not suppressing their rights or oppressing them. To do this, government must defend and promote human rights, nurture social friendship and solidarity, and design policies and enact law according to common good (PT, GS#78). Based on these values, we hope our new government can value people’s opinions and participation, affirm human dignity and human rights of all people living in Hong Kong, improve the living standard of Hong Kong people in general, and the underprivileged in particular. If the political leaders really respect people and value their participation, people would also respect the leaders and contribute in building a society which value common good.

Mary Mee-Yin YUEN

* Researcher of the Centre for Catholic Studies, the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Social Ethics Professor of the Holy Spirit Seminary College of Theology and Philosophy (Diocese of Hong Kong).