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Listening should be first job for Beijing's new man in Hong Kong

Moves to deepen control over the city instead bound to backfire

| Hong Kong, Macao

Beijing's replacement of its chief representative in Hong Kong with a relatively senior mainland official with no local experience could offer an opportunity to improve the central government's policy toward the city after seven months of massive protests. All signs, however, point in the opposite direction.

Troubling signals out of October's high-level Chinese Communist Party meeting, the Fourth Plenum of the 19th Party Congress, indicate that Beijing wants to increase control over Hong Kong by cultivating a "correct" view of the country among local officials and youth to strengthen national security.

But the central government’s interference in Hong Kong has been wrongheaded from the start. In the years before Britain’s 1997 handover, Beijing began appointing mostly loyalists to its transition advisory committees.

After 1997, the policy of only speaking to and rewarding loyalists expanded to eventually create a government leadership cadre of Beijing supporters under a new ministerial system designed to reward such loyalty.

With this influence, Beijing developed the habit of treating the Liaison Office, its official representative agency in the city, as a second Hong Kong government and using it to designate which local people should be empowered to rule. Located in the Western District of Hong Kong, this bastion of mainland control is somewhat disdainfully referred to in the city by the neighborhood's Cantonese name, Sai Wan.

Luo Huining, the office's new director, is a known party disciplinarian, apparently coming to enforce the Fourth Plenum's directives despite his lack of Hong Kong experience.

The last thing Hong Kong people want from Sai Wan is more control, though it should be noted that protesters have made no demands regarding the office's leadership. From their perspective, that is Beijing's business. What the protesters want is for Beijing to keep its fingers out of local matters, as is promised by the Basic Law, the city's mini-constitution.

Anti-government protesters march on New Year's Day: what they want is for Beijing to keep its fingers out of local matters.   © Reuters

The protesters have made five demands: full withdrawal of a controversial bill to facilitate the extradition of criminal suspects, establishment of a commission of inquiry into allegations of police brutality, amnesty for arrested protesters, retraction of the classification of protesters as rioters and democratic elections for the city's chief executive and entire Legislative Council. While the first was eventually accepted, the latter four demands have so far been ignored.

There is a need for increased Communist Party discipline, though not in the direction suggested by the Fourth Plenum. Rather, China needs to recover the spirit of the Basic Law and the Sino-British Joint Declaration, both of which direct Beijing officials and their subordinates in Hong Kong to avoid interference in local affairs.

Both documents provided for Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong. This was to be achieved in the context of democratic reform, with the promise of "universal suffrage."

Though not mentioned in the Basic Law, the Liaison Office, as its name suggests, was supposed to improve communications between Hong Kong and Beijing. What has happened instead, helping to spark last year's massive protests, has been increasing interference in local affairs.

It seems that despite the enlightened promises the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping made in the 1980s, it is simply not in the political DNA of Communist Party officials to leave local matters alone. But promises of autonomy for an open society like Hong Kong requires that Deng's "one country, two systems" model succeed.

To achieve this, Luo will have to assert less control and do more consultation.

He needs to listen to a broad cross-section of Hong Kong people and convey back to Beijing a more coherent explanation of important Hong Kong concerns. It appears that both Beijing officials and local loyalists have been reluctant to convey the chief concerns of Hong Kong people honestly.

As the protesters have made clear, their main hope is to maintain Hong Kong's promised high degree of autonomy so that the rule of law and basic freedoms are secure. Exercising less control over Hong Kong may be a big ask but that is exactly what is required if order is to be restored in a way that preserves and enhances Hong Kong's prosperity and stability. A crackdown aimed at expanding Beijing's control will backfire, inspiring further resistance and instability.

Luo and the Liaison Office are only a thread within Beijing's tightening web over Hong Kong. The practice of using proxies to exert power is facilitated by an official Hong Kong leadership structure largely controlled by Beijing.

Under the Basic Law, the chief executive is chosen by an election committee mostly made up of Beijing loyalists. Half of the Legislative Council is reserved for sectoral representatives who are largely under Beijing's influence. Even for those directly elected, the Liaison Office is known to work vigorously to get "Sai Wan" candidates elected. These loyalists, who depend on the office's support, are unlikely to tell Beijing anything it may not want to hear.

This has meant that Beijing knows little about the concerns of the majority of Hong Kong people and is invariably taken by surprise when they take to the streets en masse. Luo might be well advised to listen more and talk less. The five demands of the protesters should be the first thing he directs his attention to.

Michael C. Davis, previously a law professor at the University of Hong Kong, is a Global Fellow at the Wilson Center in Washington and a senior research scholar at the Weatherhead East Asia Institute at Columbia University.

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