In the relative blink of an eye, Hong Kong -- part of the “one country, two systems” construct -- is under attack.
Yesterday, November 15, Hong Kong’s once famously independent courts kowtowed to their new masters in Beijing by ruling Sixtus "Baggio" Leung Chung-hang and Yau Wai-ching, two democratically elected members of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council -- a mixed body of appointed and directly elected members -- as ineligible to take their seats, taking the city further into uncertain waters.
Their "crime"? To fluff, albeit deliberately, their swearing-in oaths to the Hong Kong nation, in protest -- democracy in action, in a decidedly undemocratic city that the communists in Beijing had teased with the promise of greater democracy. Fat chance. The pair promised to re-take the oath, but it was just the opportunity Beijing had been waiting for.
The government, after “reviewing" the Basic Law, which has set the city apart from Beijing for the past 20 years, decided they could not take them a second time, ensuring an uproar. It was the most overt, biggest interference in the city’s affairs by the mainland since 1997 (covertly, Beijing-creep has been happening for some time).
The pair were part of a growing independence movement in Hong Kong that Beijing has been trying to snuff out. That movement itself had grown out of the so-called Umbrella Revolution that was seeking direct election of popular candidates -- rather than those chosen by Beijing -- at Hong Kong’s next chief executive elections in 2017, as previously promised.
This ruling effectively aped the "decision” made in Beijing, promulgated by the government controlled and appointed by China under the city’s chief executive CY Leung. Hong Kong lawyers, concerned that the city’s judicial independence was under threat, staged their own silent march on November 8.
The pair are from the dreadfully but prosaically enough named Youngspiration Party, and their election was a shock.
Leung has already said he will appeal to a higher court, and Yau said: “If the court could strip us of our qualification, we all know what kind of society we live in now.”
There were anti-independence protests at the weekend, which only drew a few thousand people. Locals were dismissive, saying that the majority of people had their faces covered and might not have been Hong Kong citizens. It’s the sort of ham-fisted response that could be expected of Beijing.
Beijing has been tightening its grip on the city state with surprising alacrity, since Chinese President Xi Jinping secured his place at the head of the top table of the ruling Communist Party.
[Rising democracy burns brightly in Taiwan]
Hong Kong is a pretty big deal for Australia. For one thing, it's home to tens of thousand of Australian expatriates. They are hard to count officially, but many have been quietly packing up and leaving for Singapore -- as international companies shift their regional HQs -- as well as Thailand and back home in recent years.
Hong Kong has been a touchstone for Australian governments, too. In the two decades since the British handed Hong Kong back to China’s ruling Communist Party, the so-called "special administrative region" has been seen as China-lite, the place to go for Australian politicians and officials to land and find their bearings before taking the plunge to the mainland.
But, as often as not, they simply drop into Hong Kong, make a speech, press some flesh, talk up the China relationship and don’t even bother to head into the more difficult environs of Beijing, Shanghai or -- heaven forfend -- anywhere more confronting in the Middle Kingdom.
It is in Hong Kong, too, that ministers and their entourages have left their laptops, smartphones, tablets and what have you -- concerned that the Chinese will hack into them and steal Australia’s deepest, darkest secrets. As if they haven’t already.
But the real concern is whether Hong Kong’s legal system can still be trusted. It has long been seen as the ultimate key to the city's continued success despite Beijing's tightening grip.
It’s not over yet for Hong Kong -- Beijing could yet rein in its baser instincts. But the Chinese Communist Party, especially under Xi, and especially under pressure, does not have such good form in moderation. Its will, of course, stutter and start, but somehow this feels, in a way that 1997 didn’t, like the beginning of the end.