This July 1 marks 20 years since Britain handed Hong Kong back to China, under special arrangements to protect the city’s distinctiveness and autonomy. In 30 more years, Hong Kong will fully revert to the mainland.
Much could happen between now and 2047, and the tea leaves are already out there waiting to be read: There are many old — even ancient — historical precedents showing how the Chinese central authorities first manage rebellious peoples on the periphery before eventually subjugating them.
After pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong in 2014 and the election of several separatists to the local legislature, the authorities in Beijing have become increasingly assertive. Zhang Dejiang, chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress in Beijing, has called Hong Kongers who advocate self-determination — a political right sanctioned by a 1966 United Nations convention — “treasonous,” and said they must be “resolutely attacked” and “struggled against.” He also asked the city’s new administration to implement a controversial security provision from its constitutional document, the Basic Law. Hong Kong’s new leader, Carrie Lam — who is to be sworn into office on July 1 — has said that “patriotic education” should be taught as early as nursery school.
Running through these provocative political messages is the notion, fairly novel, that Hong Kongers have been misinterpreting the “one country, two systems” principle that governs the city’s relationship with mainland China. To set them straight, in June 2014 China’s State Council Information Office issued a news release pointing out that, in fact, Beijing had “full rights to rule over all aspects of Hong Kong.”
The concept of sovereignty and national boundaries in imperial China was never as cut and dried as the norm established in the West with the 1648 Peace of Westphalia.
The roughly 2,500-year-old “Book of Documents,” one of Confucianism’s defining texts, describes a sovereignty system with the emperor’s compound in the middle and around it, five concentric rings. The further from the center, the less the center’s control and one’s obligations to it.
The model was fluid, though. The empire’s outer boundaries expanded and contracted with the ability of China’s dynasties to project military might and exercise effective rule from the center to the periphery, and beyond.
The implications are rich for understanding China’s intentions today — in the South China Sea, with its massive “One Belt, One Road” regional infrastructure initiative and, above all, in Hong Kong.
Lingnan, the southern region that includes the city today, was brought into China’s sphere of control by the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty, in the third century B.C., after a series of brutal military campaigns. But barbarians aren’t easy to rule. So from the seventh century through the 10th century, emperors of the Tang Dynasty thought it best to administer these lands by relying on a somewhat informal quid pro quo: The elders of minority tribes, in exchange for bowing to the authority of the Chinese, would get the Chinese’s support to play local rulers. Jimi, this was called, or the tethering of livestock.
The arrangement was formalized during the 14th century, under the Yuan Dynasty. In the southwestern part of modern China, tribal elders were granted the new title of tusi — literally, earth lords — an official and heritable status recognized by the Chinese bureaucracy. It came with the obligation to obey the emperor and pay him tribute. But localities where tusi ruled were allowed to retain their distinct, traditional sociopolitical structures.
This, in effect, was the prototype for Deng Xiaoping’s “one country, two systems” principle. Aside from the fact that the title of chief executive, the highest office in Hong Kong today, is not heritable, Leung Chun-ying, the city’s outgoing leader, is a modern-day tusi.
Over the centuries, as the imperial center grew more powerful and expanded its direct rule, it started replacing local tusi with its own officials, known as liuguan, or movable officers. The replacement process often was protracted, and many tusi wound up sharing power with liuguan, playing first fiddle for a time, and then second. The formal tusi system ended in the early 18th century, after a bloody campaign of subjugation under Emperor Yongzheng. Yet vestiges of the practice long remained, and some still remain today.
Tung Chee-hwa, Hong Kong’s first chief executive after the 1997 handover, was a tusi who acted like a liuguan. In a bid to please Beijing, in 2002 he attempted to pass draconian legislation that would have curtailed freedom of speech and association, among other things. But he was forced to back down when half a million Hong Kongers — out of a population of about seven million then — marched against the proposal.
Seeing this, the Chinese government concluded that “Hong Kongers’ hearts had not yet returned to the motherland,” and then set out to help them along. By 2008, the Central Liaison Office, Beijing’s outpost in Hong Kong, established what it called a “second governing team,” comprising party cadres from the mainland. Pro-Beijing candidates have since been spotted heading for the Central Liaison Office after winning elections in Hong Kong, presumably to say thank you. Tusi playing second fiddle to liuguan.
Hong Kong has become inundated with Chinese money in recent years, and many powerful officials in Beijing have family members who live, work, invest and accumulate wealth here. These factors mitigate against the probability of a blood bath occurring, even as 2047, the year that Hong Kong reverts to China, draws near. There are unmistakable signs that, instead, more power will simply be transferred from the Hong Kong government to the Central Liaison Office.
A recent political P.R. event in Beijing offered some clues. On June 26, Mr. Leung, the outgoing chief executive, and his successor, Ms. Lam, attended an exhibit highlighting Hong Kong’s achievements since the handover. President Xi Jinping of China was present and, of course, the center of attention.
The footage from China’s main state television broadcaster, CCTV, reveals an event obviously staged. It shows Mr. Xi conversing at length with Mr. Leung, and Mr. Leung basking in the Great Leader’s attention.
Considering that Mr. Leung was unceremoniously denied a second term because he could not maintain in Hong Kong even the modicum of social harmony that Beijing demands, there was only one possible interpretation for the cordial, if stilted, exchange between the two men. The expression for this in Hong Kong Cantonese slang is: “One gulp of sugar, one gulp of shit.” Placate the punished, or the punished may become vengeful.
Meanwhile, Mr. Xi gave Ms. Lam the cold shoulder. He appears not even to have made eye contact or spoken with her — this, even though Beijing endorsed her to be Hong Kong’s next leader, including over another far more popular candidate.
The message to Ms. Lam was crude, crass and clear: See who is the boss? To the people of Hong Kong, it was ominous: Soon, there will be no tusianymore.