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Opinion

Beijing won't allow Hong Kong to sing from a different song sheet

Xi runs risks of provoking backlash but cannot allow protests which might stir mainland instability

Hong Kong football fans hold boo signs during the Chinese national anthem in Nov. 2015.   © Reuters

How do you convince several million Hong Kongers who fear Beijing's growing influence to learn to stop worrying and love the Chinese Communist Party?

Threatening them with three years in jail for disrespecting the national anthem, as the semi-autonomous Hong Kong government is proposing in a new law, is not likely to win many hearts and minds.

The draconian measure may succeed in its initial aim of stopping Hong Kong football fans booing the Chinese anthem when it is played before matches, and dissuading some local comedians from satirizing the "March of the Volunteers."

But even the most ardent ideologues in Beijing cannot believe that this latest curb on freedom of speech, which was supposedly guaranteed to Hong Kong after it was handed back to China by the U.K. in 1997, will kindle the fires of Chinese patriotism.

Rather, the national anthem law, which is being implemented at Beijing's behest, is best understood as part of a wider drive to restrict the avenues for criticism, dissent and opposition.

In recent years, Hong Kong has prosecuted political protesters, ousted elected lawmakers who were considered disloyal and blocked young democracy activists from running for office if they are deemed to hold views anathema to Beijing. The government has also outlawed a political party -- the fringe Hong Kong National Party -- for the first time since the handover. And, in another unprecedented move, it expelled a foreign journalist, former Financial Times Asia news editor Victor Mallet, after he hosted a talk by the leader of that party.

Democracy activists argue that Beijing is frogmarching Hong Kong down China's authoritarian path.

Their analysis may well be correct. But it is important to realize that Beijing is acting less out of ideological fervor and more out of self-preservation.

The Chinese Communist Party has maintained a long obsession -- not unhealthy from its perspective -- with the causes of the collapse of the Soviet Union. It, quite reasonably, wants to avoid a similar fate. Under President Xi Jinping, the school that argues that the Soviet regime fell apart because it reformed too quickly, rather than too slowly, is in the ascendancy.

Xi himself has reversed previous reforms, from abolishing the presidential term limit to elevating the Party's role in state and society, amassing more personal power than any Chinese leader since Mao Zedong.

So long as Xi tightens control across China, he cannot allow opposition to flourish in Hong Kong.

The Basic Law, the mini-constitution under which Hong Kong was promised a "high degree of autonomy" by China, was always ridden with contradictions between its support for democratic rights in the city and its acceptance of the ultimate authority of a one-party state.

When China was hiding its strength and biding its time under previous leaders, these cracks were easier to paper over. Some liberals in China and Hong Kong even hoped that the city might be the spark for the eventual democratization of the entire nation.

It is precisely this hope that Xi is keen to extinguish. When he made a rare visit to Hong Kong in 2017 to mark the 20th anniversary of the handover, he warned Hong Kongers not to cross a red line by challenging "the power of the central government" or using the city to "carry out infiltration and sabotage activities against the mainland."

The several hundred fans of Hong Kong's national football team who have taken to booing the "March of the Volunteers" since the pro-democracy Occupy protests in 2014 do not look like a threat to national security.

But the heckling in the stadium is an expression of a deeper anger toward China among young Hong Kongers in particular, who have a much stronger sense of a separate Hong Kong identity than their parents and grandparents.

At one football match I attended, a young fan suggested that Hong Kong should be allowed its own anthem for sporting events, along the lines of Scotland and Wales, fellow subnational territories with their own international sports teams and their own dislike of the national government.

To the untrained ear, it sounds like a reasonable compromise to let all sides save face.

But, as one pro-Beijing politician in Hong Kong explained to me, the Communist Party fears that giving more space for the Hong Kong identity will only promote separatism and further threaten national security, at a time when the party is already struggling to maintain control over Tibet and Xinjiang.

So we should expect Beijing, and the government it appointed in Hong Kong, to intensify the crackdown.

This toughening stance has risks.

Firstly, although democracy activists have been dispirited by the attacks on their movement, the increased pressure could, at some point, spark another Occupy-style backlash. Young activists like ousted lawmaker Nathan Law say that they were driven into politics by previous, heavy-handed attempts to instill a love of China.

Secondly, Beijing's harder line on Hong Kong will further alienate Taiwan, where few of the 24 million people put much store by Xi's recent widely-reported promise to respect their democratic way of life if they agree to unite with China under a Hong Kong-style "One Country, Two Systems" arrangement.

Lastly, in the longer term, the growing encroachments on Hong Kong's autonomy, which are being monitored closely by the U.S. and European governments, could endanger the recognition of the city's status as a separate economic entity from China and, therefore, its preferential access to global markets.

But the bigger danger, from the perspective of the Communist Party, comes from the opposite direction -- allowing democratic ideals to grow in Hong Kong and filter back into the mainland.

Although it mandates education about the March of the Volunteers in all schools, the national anthem law cannot force Hong Kongers to become patriotic about China.

However, it will, alongside other measures, help to silence dissenting voices and push those who would rather just keep their heads down to make a show of standing up with the nation.

If Beijing cannot secure full-throated loyalty from Hong Kongers, it will require acquiescence at the minimum. The Communist Party cannot afford to let them sing from a different song sheet.

Ben Bland is a research fellow at the Lowy Institute and the author of Generation HK: Seeking Identity in China's Shadow

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