At the end of March
of this year, a representative from Beijing invited
pro-Beijing lawmakers for a closed-door chat across the border in
Shenzhen, where he reiterated an oft-stated position: that only a patriot
can become chief executive. In the government's coded language, that means
someone loyal to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). In the upcoming 2017
chief executive election, which is expected to involve universal suffrage for
the first time, Beijing could potentially disqualify candidates who don't fit
that requirement -- a bit like the mullahs of Iran. Or perhaps it won't have to:
The more power Beijing has, the less it needs to use it. Everybody can read the
writing on the wall.
In fact, the signs of Beijing's influence are everywhere. Whether it's a patriotic education curriculum exalting the CCP -- that led to street protests last year -- or the occasional deportation of Falun Gong members, it's clear that Hong Kong is guided by Beijing's ethos if not directly taking orders. When revered Hong Kong democracy activist Szeto Wah died in 2011, for example, Hong Kong authorities denied two activists -- both of whom had been student leaders during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests -- entry to attend his funeral. Mainland authorities insisted Hong Kong has the right to handle its own entry requests, but as Albert Ho, leader of Hong Kong's Democratic Party noted at the time, "We have every reason to believe this decision was not made by the Hong Kong government alone."
Other reminders of the mainland's raw power are invisible. China's military, the People's Liberation Army, tasked by the Basic Law with keeping public order -- "when necessary" -- quietly maintains a barracks next door to City Hall. In tense political moments, meanwhile, Hongkongers are often reminded of where their water supply comes from -- across the border in mainland China -- a fact that was also used as leverage in negotiations with the British. But perhaps Beijing's greatest asset is the underground Communist Party in Hong Kong. Even 16 years after the handover, Party membership is still secret, meaning nobody knows who in the government may indeed be taking direct orders from Beijing. The president of the legislature himself, Jasper Tsang, has refused to disclose whether he's a Party member, although Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying has denied being one. As former legislator Christine Loh notes in her book Underground Front, the Party has tried to co-opt Hong Kong's elites the same way the British did. "The CCP essentially decided to retain the colonial system because it was a tried and tested way to maintain central control," she writes.
None of this has been lost on the people of Hong Kong -- especially those in the pro-democracy camp. In 2010, when a loose coalition of pro-democracy politicians known as the pan-democrats reached an impasse with Chief Executive Donald Tsang over political reforms, the largest coalition member, the Democratic Party, went over his head to Beijing. (The compromise barely advanced their cause, to the consternation of their allies.) "Everybody knows Beijing holds the key," said Allen Lee, a veteran pro-Beijing lawmaker, at the time. "Do you think pan-democrats still want to talk to Bowtie in the future when they need to negotiate for something?" he said, referring to Tsang by a nickname his fondness for flamboyant neckwear earned him. Similarly, in May, the local media reported that Beijing was preparing a "Plan B" to remove the current chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, whose short tenure has been mired in scandal. Even though mainland authorities denied the rumor, it would be entirely within their power to replace him, regardless of Hong Kong's supposed "high level of autonomy."
When it comes to Snowden's case, however, Beijing's behind-the-scenes power may have little relevance. Hong Kong has an extradition treaty with the United States, and it would damage bilateral relations between the United States and China if Beijing tried to invoke its right to block an extradition on national security grounds. Assuming Snowden really did act alone, and China was not involved in the leak, then the mainland government would be playing with fire if it tried to exploit him. Since Snowden has said he has no desire to sell out his country, the only guarantee would be a vociferous objection by the United States. A spat over Chen Guangcheng, the blind human rights activist who sought refuge in the U.S. embassy in Beijing and was eventually given permission to study in the United States, is one thing. A diplomatic war over a potential espionage case is another.
Already, however, the usual gang of local activists, including Long Hair, has begun organizing a march with the slogans "protect Snowden" and "no extradition." The government of Hong Kong might not be all that autonomous, but the people certainly are.