Author: Baogang He, Deakin University
Millions of people have recently marched through the streets of Hong Kong in protest against proposed amendments to the city’s Extradition Law. The upheaval has attracted significant analysis, but Hong Kong–mainland relations could perhaps be better understood from the perspective of ‘Gaituguiliu’.
Gaituguiliu refers to the traditional Chinese policy where the central government replaces the local rulers’ inheritance system with a central direct appointment system — a Chinese model of integration and grand union. This was facilitated through the use of Confucian culture and education. Gaituguiliu was practiced across many dynasties — in particular during the Ming and Qing eras — and can be seen as a ‘gene’ of Chinese civilisation. Variants of the policy can be seen today in Hong Kong, Tibet, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia.
Hong Kong is theoretically governed under the ‘one country, two systems’ principle. But Beijing has adopted the ‘Grand Union’ policy and has asserted its ‘overall jurisdiction’ — comprehensive power to manage and rule Hong Kong as per the official White Paper of June 2014. For over 22 years, Gaituguiliu has eroded the ideal of ‘one country, two systems’.
From the perspective of Gaituguiliu, Beijing’s resistance and opposition to direct elections is understandable. Gaituguiliu believers are sceptical about democratic autonomy and believe that China needs a new version of Gaituguiliu to accelerate the process of integration towards a single administrative system where the central government appoints local governors. Conversely, many Hong Kongers demand universal suffrage and believe in the value of democratic autonomy.
Gaituguiliu’s influence can be seen in numerous areas. For example, Beijing has set up various government institutions and agencies in Hong Kong and has increasing power and influence. The Liaison Office of the Central People’s Government in Hong Kong is heavily involved in the management of Hong Kong affairs. Even the Chinese Communist Party has established party branches and recruits members there.
China promotes patriotic education and Mandarin Chinese as requirements of Gaituguiliu. The five interpretations of the ‘Hong Kong Basic Law’ issued by the National People’s Congress Standing Committee have ensured unity within a diversified legal system. China’s military garrison in Hong Kong also guarantees a military base enforcing Gaituguiliu. The rise of China’s economy, especially following the recent construction of the Greater Bay Area region, integrates Hong Kong into the mainland economy.
At the social level, Beijing controls the entry quota of 150 mainland settlers into Hong Kong on a daily basis, with the number of mainland immigrants over the past 20 years having reached one million people — resulting in so-called ‘mainlandisation’.
Many Hong Kongers are disappointed and frustrated in the face of a continued intensification of Gaituguiliu and are defending their way of life and demanding democratic autonomy. In 2014, the 79-day Occupy Central Movement demanded the direct election of the chief executive. The election in September 2016 saw six young people without political experience elected as members of the Legislative Council.
Some of the younger generation that grew up in the period following Hong Kong’s return to China even advocate independence. From the democratic perspective, some Hong Kong youths do not see any hope of democracy under China’s authoritarianism.
The emergence and development of the Hong Kong independence movement is further accelerating the pace of China’s Gaituguiliu policy. Beijing is tightening its control over Hong Kong’s independence movement by elevating the ‘Grand Union’ as a core national interest and national security issue. The central government also intensified its Gaituguiliu process in response. The 2019 revision of the Extradition Law represents the legal process of expediting Gaituguiliu that inspired large-scale local protests.
The 2019 marches opposing amendments to the Extradition Law reflects the determination of the local movement to defend the autonomy of Hong Kong’s legal system and prevent Hong Kong from becoming another mainland city. One special characteristic of the demonstrations is the protest against symbols of China — the China–Hong Kong High Speed railway station and the Liaison Office of the Central People’s Government.
Among the Hong Kong local movement, there is a belief that new immigrants from the mainland will be assimilated and integrated into Hong Kong society. But Beijing expects Hong Kongers to become fully integrated into Chinese society, become part of China’s political civilisation, and to incorporate themselves into China’s national fabric. Clearly, these two different expectations have developed in differing directions and given rise to an intensified degree of conflict.
The continuing large-scale protests in Hong Kong can be seen as a clash of civilizations between Chinese traditional Gaituguiliu and the more modern idea of democratic self-governing and autonomy. To solve or manage Hong Kong’s protests, Beijing needs to reconsider its traditional civilisation-based policy toward Hong Kong. Gaituguiliu is infeasible under contemporary conditions. The implementation of an appointment system for the chief executive in Hong Kong appears impossible. The traditional success of Gaituguiliu lies within Confucianism and the imperial examination system — these conditions do not exist now.
Some Hong Kongers believe that Hong Kong’s colonial history and political system has formed a unique political civilisation — a unique ‘nationality’. The people of Hong Kong — including new immigrants from the mainland — believe that Hong Kong culture represents a mixture of Chinese and Western cultures. Hong Kong universities generally have advantages over mainland universities and mainland students prefer to go to Hong Kong for further studies.
These modern conditions undermine Gaituguiliu’s presupposition that Confucian culture is the highest-order of civilisation, rendering it difficult to achieve in today’s Hong Kong.
An alternative is the building of a modern constitutional system in which the Hong Kong people have the capacity to elect their leaders, while the central government possesses veto power over elected leaders and to disband local councils, as India’s Constitution allows. This provides a mechanism for achieving a balance of power between the central government and locals. Perhaps it is this type of power-balancing mechanism, grounded in political compromise, which would help solve Hong Kong’s integration dilemma.
Baogang He is Professor and Chair of International Relations at Deakin University, Melbourne.