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Beijing has stern words for Hong Kong and Taiwan

Pushback against notions of independence could be taken as message to Trump

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Hong Kong activist Joshua Wong holds a sign that reads "defend judicial independence" at a Feb. 27 news conference held by chief executive candidate Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor.   © Reuters

BEIJING The work report delivered by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang on March 5 stressed, in unusually strong terms, the government's opposition to any independence moves in Hong Kong and Taiwan. This underscores President Xi Jinping's hard-line approach to diplomacy and can also be taken as a message to new U.S. President Donald Trump.

"We will resolutely oppose and contain separatist activities for Taiwan independence," Li said in his opening address to the National People's Congress. The previous year's report did not use the word "contain." The addition was likely prompted by a remark by Trump, prior to his inauguration, that the U.S. might not be "bound by a 'One China' policy" -- the notion that Taiwan is part of China.

This year's report also included a new sentence saying there is no future for the Hong Kong independence movement. This declaration came just ahead of the special administrative region's quinquennial chief executive election, scheduled for March 26.

ZERO TOLERANCE 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 a controversial agreement between Beijing and Taipei that there is only one China, and that each side can interpret the consensus in its own way.

Taiwan's former Nationalist Party administration supported the 1992 Consensus, but the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party of current President Tsai Ing-wen has not acknowledged the existence of the deal.

Making Beijing's position crystal clear, Li said, "We will never tolerate any activity, in any form or name, which attempts to separate Taiwan from the motherland."

Taiwan's government, for its part, remains committed to the development of peaceful cross-strait ties, according to local media reports citing the island's Mainland Affairs Council. The council did call on Beijing to respect Taiwan's democracy.

Meanwhile, the Chinese government sent a warning to Hong Kong and its next chief executive.

"The notion of Hong Kong independence will lead nowhere," Li said in his state-of-the-nation speech.

Beijing's stance is reminiscent of a policy address delivered two years ago by outgoing Hong Kong chief executive Leung Chun-ying, in which he criticized the University of Hong Kong Student Union magazine, Undergrad. Associating the magazine's advocacy of "self-reliance and self-determination" with promoting "Hong Kong independence," Leung said the publication was peddling a "fallacy."

This came on the heels of the city's pro-democracy Umbrella Movement in late 2014. The civil disobedience, which paralyzed Hong Kong's main artery for 79 days, was a protest against a heavy-handed decision by the National People's Congress Standing Committee on reforming the chief executive election process.

The measure essentially legitimized central vetting of candidates for the job -- one that increasingly entails striking a balance between the iron-fisted Communist Party and growing calls for democracy.

The day before Li's speech, Zhang Dejiang, chairman of the National People's Congress and third in Beijing's political hierarchy, told the Hong Kong and Macau members of the Political Consultative Conference that the central government would not simply "rubber-stamp" picks by local election committees.

He also reiterated that the successful candidate must love the country and the territory, be trusted by the central government, be competent and have the support of the people of Hong Kong. Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, one of the three chief executive contenders, is the only candidate that the government would support, Zhang reportedly said last month.

Perhaps surmising the will of their master, 580 election committee members backed Lam's nomination as of the March 1 deadline. All were from the pro-Beijing camp of the 1,200 member committee.

"Hong Kong's chief executive election is totally controlled by Beijing, from the system to the process," said Johnny Lau Yui-siu, an independent political commentator in Hong Kong. "Beijing has destroyed the principle of 'one country, two systems.'"

In a separate interview, Lau said Beijing appears to have concluded that the Hong Kong independence movement poses a "threat" that needs to be managed. "Beijing is worried," he said, explaining why the topic ended up in Li's address.

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