By Julian Marioulas (the author is a German currently living in Hong Kong)
Remember the days when the SAR Government was still trying to keep up appearances for the global community and maintain a pretense of downwards accountability? That wasn't too long ago. In September 2019, a besieged Carrie Lam hosted a one-off town hall meeting in which she endured a barrage of criticism. There, she admitted that trust in her administration had plummeted, yet stuck to her talking points and resisted making concrete commitments beyond continuing holding more meetings and listening to the people. The former never materialized. And as for the latter? The District Council elections offered a clear and undeniable expression of the people's will. A “silent majority” –to which Lam had wanted to appeal –didn't exist. Instead, the injustices and broken promises that Hongkongers had long endured manifested themselves in a powerful show of force against a failed government. Denying that reality was no longer possible. Or was it?
In fact, denial is exactly what followed. Instead of trying to solve the crisis she herself had created, or muster up the courage to resign, Carrie Lam just put her fate, and that of the whole city, into the hands of the CCP. And with that, the governance of Hong Kong began to be aligned with the parallel reality that exists within the Great Firewall of China.
During the course of 2020, Hongkongers observed how the Government just gave up on its agency. Whatever the Liaison Office said became the truth, and Beijing's decisions an unquestionable edict. Now Carrie Lam and her political allies operate in this space where international treaties are historical relics, one in which Hong Kong never had separation of powers or political autonomy, and in which the Chinese Constitution always ruled supreme, no matter what the government itself had stated a few years or even just a few months earlier. The protests themselves have been subject to historical revisionism, digestible for future consumption within the one country.
In order to preserve their already diminishing privileges against Mainlander-dominated newcomers like the Bauhinia Party, the old political and economic elites will inevitably become indistinguishable from those who are in charge of the ever-expanding Chinese state apparatus in Hong Kong. And the CCP overlords are just too happy to let the local government show disdain for those under their authoritarian rule. Some seem to relish this opportunity as payback. After all, it was the people, unruly and rebellious, that exposed the deception of a “high degree of autonomy” and made Carrie Lam go from hosting Dim Sum parties for global leaders in Davos to talking about Hainan Chicken at its discount version, the Boao Forum.
Towing the party line is the only game left for the government, since it doesn't have much else to offer. Instead of mastering statecraft, they opted to take extra classes on double-speak. Whether it is parroting unimpressive directives on “restoring the people's trust in One Country, Two Systems” or “improving the media and education”, they certainly know how to sound like soul-dead apparatchiks. The ones who are able to actually put on a good show of performative nationalism will be generously rewarded and rise through the ranks, mirroring the path of officials in Mainland China.
And it won't stop at the highest level of government. Now that the CCP have smelled blood and their international reputation is in shambles anyway, they will demand ever more outrageous displays of loyalty from every sector of society. The new, "improved" LegCo isn't going to be a depoliticized platform eager to solve livelihood issues, but a stage for power plays and petty intrigues among appointed, mediocre political talent. Like Junius Ho, who was recently praised by the Office of the Chinese Foreign Ministry in Hong Kong, they too want to be noticed by Xi Senpai and produce soundbites that will play well with Wen Wei Po, Ta Kung Pao and the Mainland media. Without any viable opposition, problems that have haunted Hong Kong for decades will just persist, because loving the country means not being too vocal about its problems and rather questionable direction, whether here or in the Mainland. When all fails, just lay some ridiculous charges against those who speak up, and if that is not enough, blame some undefined, yet distinctly American, black hands.
The result will be the Mainlandization of the mind: living fake lives, retreating into the private, a society governed by fear, from the silent dissenters on the streets all the way up to the Chief Executive, whose fate is in the hands of an opaque and oppressive state. As China moves further away from the world, ever more tightening control towards its subjects, so will Hong Kong be forced to share that harmony. One should rather not remember the truth of what happened, but those awkward patriotic videos that Jackie Chan and Allan Zeman used to be ridiculed for. Because they show the future of this wonderful parallel reality into which Hong Kong has descended.