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China's Premier Li Keqiang delivers a government work report during the opening session of the National People's Congress in Beijing on March 5. (Photo by Akira Kodaka)

'Hong Kong independence' will lead nowhere: China's Li

Chinese premier's congress speech underlines Beijing's threat perceptions

JOYCE HO, Nikkei staff writer | China

BEIJING -- Hong Kong's pro-independence movement has evidently got on Beijing's nerves, after China's premier Li Keqiang explicitly dismissed it for the first time in his state-of-the-nation address Sunday.

"The notion of Hong Kong independence will lead nowhere," Li said during his opening speech to the the National People's Congress, China's rubber-stamp legislature, which runs in parallel with the advisory Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference.

Li also said the central government will lend "full support" to the city's government in "promoting social harmony", among other stock phrases regularly employed by China's leaders and state-owned media outlets.

The overt disapproval resembles outgoing chief executive Leung Chun-ying's criticism of the University of Hong Kong Student Union magazine Undergrad in his policy address two years ago. He first coined the phrase "Hong Kong independence," when calling the magazine's advocacy for the territory's "self-reliance and self-determination" a "fallacy."

Leung's remarks came after the 2014 pro-democracy sit-in protests that blocked the city's artery for 79 days. Widely known as the "Umbrella Movement," the civil disobedience was fueled by a heavy-handed decision handed down by the National People's Congress standing committee on Hong Kong's electoral reform. The measure essentially allowed the central authority to vet candidates running for chief executive, the city's top government post.

On Saturday, Zhang Dejiang, chairman of the Congress and third in Beijing's political hierarchy, told the Hong Kong and Macau members of the Political Consultative Conference that the central government has "constitutional rights" over Hong Kong, as opposed to being a "rubber-stamp" for the appointment of whoever is named eligible for the chief executive position by the 1,200-member election committee.

At the meeting Zhang did not openly back Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, one of three chief executive candidates presumed to be backed by Beijing, but reiterated that the successful candidate needed to love the country and the territory, be trusted by the central government, be competent and have the affection of the people of Hong Kong.

A recent poll by the University of Hong Kong found that 32.3% of voters supported Lam, 6.9 percentage points lower than her rival John Tsang Chun-wah. Both Lam and Tsang are civil servants with careers dating back to before the 1997 British handover of the territory, and were respectively the second and third most senior officials in Leung's administration.

Leung, who was recently appointed as a delegate to the Political Consultative Conference, was on Saturday seated on a congress platform with both Zhang and Tung Chee-hwa, Hong Kong's first chief executive and a long-term ally of Leung.

Leung made history by being the first incumbent Hong Kong top leader to simultaneously hold a crucial position in the mainland government. Leung quit his standing committee membership in the Political Consultative Conference before assuming office as Hong Kong's chief executive in 2012.

Leung is widely speculated to follow Tung's footsteps to become vice-chairman of the Political Consultative Conference, which ends on March 13. He previously cited family reasons for not seeking a second term as Hong Kong's top leader.

Some standing committee members of the conference opposed Leung's appointment as vice-chairman on concern over his alleged corruption scandal involving a 50 million Hong Kong dollar ($6.44 million) deal with Australian engineering firm UGL.

"I believe if the UGL incident develops [negatively], the central government would take due legal actions," said Henry Tang Ying-yen, a deputy to the Political Consultative Conference, after a closed-door meeting on Sunday. Tang, who reportedly frowns upon Leung's appointment as the vice chairman, lost to Leung during the 2012 chief executive election after a slew of scandals fed by Leung.

Carrot and stick

Leung's slated gain of a seat in the mainland body has raised renewed concern over the dilution of the "one country, two systems" principle that is supposed to guarantee Hong Kong and Macau a "high degree of autonomy" from Beijing. Meanwhile, Li used his congress address to lay bare plans to accelerate the integration of the two special administrative regions into the mainland.

"We will draw up a plan for the development of a city cluster in the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macau Greater Bay Area," said Li, seemingly adopting a proposal put forward by Pony Ma Huateng, the founding chairman of internet giant Tencent Holdings.

Ma, a deputy of the National People's Congress, told reporters on Friday his proposal to create a "Bay Area" that would link innovative technology in Shenzhen, financial services in Hong Kong, and manufacturing capability in Guangdong. The initiative, Ma suggests, should be overlooked by a single supervisory unit to unify the tech-driven economic strategies of the three administrative regions.

Johnny Lau Yui-siu, an independent political commentator in Hong Kong told the Nikkei Asian Review that the move could be understood as a means of "suppressing Hong Kong independence sentiment or for luring youths to the mainland."

Lau added that that Beijing appears to have concluded that the Hong Kong independence movement was an actual "threat" that needed to be managed. "Beijing is worried," said Lau, explaining why the notion made its way into China's national policy.

"The authority will likely step up control [over Hong Kong] through both hard and soft tactics," said Lau, referring to legal reforms and economic incentives. "The authority would also create more opportunities for Hong Kong and Taiwan youths to develop their careers in the mainland, to make them feel that there is a future [there]."

In his speech, spanning nearly two hours, Li stressed that Beijing "always had full confidence about ensuring lasting prosperity and stability in Hong Kong and Macau."

On Taiwan, Li emphasized that the so-called "1992 Consensus" is the "common political foundation" between China and the self-ruled, democratic island.

His comments referred to the controversial agreement between Beijing and Taipei that there is only one China, while leaving the exact meaning open to interpretation. The former Nationalist Party administration supported this consensus, but it is not acknowledged by the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, which regained the presidency last May.

Taiwan and China split in 1949 at the conclusion of a long-running civil war. China continues to claim Taiwan as part of its own territory and has not renounced the use of force to achieve eventual unification with the island.

"We will resolutely oppose and contain separatist activities for Taiwan independence," Li said in his address. "We will never tolerate any activity, in any form or name, which attempts to separate Taiwan from the motherland."

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