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Is “Gaituguiliu” Still Feasible in Hong Kong?

Photo: ¡kuba!,

Professor Baogang He

Translation: Jonathan Lim

The original article was posted in Chinese on Lianhe Zaobao, a Singapore-based Chinese-language newspaper, on 21 June 2019.

Over recent days, over two-million people have marched through the streets of Hong Kong in protest over proposed amendments to the city’s Extradition Law. This gives rise to a singular significant question: how should we interpret the large-scale nature of protests this time? Could we renew our understanding of Hong Kong-mainland relations from the perspective of “Gaituguiliu” (改土归流) – a phrase representing a Chinese model of integration and Grand Union. Could we use Gaituguiliu as the basis for understanding changes in Hong Kong over the past 20 years, and to grasp future trends within Hong Kong’s development? Is Gaituguiliu still feasible in Hong Kong?

Of course, the mainstream official theory is that of “One Country, Two Systems” – while the theory held by Hong Kong Democrats and radical students is that of liberal democracy. Teaching and research in Hong Kong commonly uses mainstream Western theoretical concepts and categories. Many Hong Kong scholars and Hong Kong youth are unfamiliar with the meaning behind the word Gaituguiliu. It can be imagined that, under such circumstances, the use of the term Gaituguiliu will invite criticism from all sides.

Amongst this, some criticisms contain a certain truth. However, this does not obstruct us from adopting a wholly new perspective through a new interpretation of traditional category of Gaituguiliu – in further enhancing our mutual understanding of the dilemma surrounding the issue of Hong Kong. This mutual understanding is of the utmost importance, and is one of the key conditions for a political compromise. Only if the mainland and Hong Kong achieve an increase in mutual understanding, can both sides take further steps towards political compromise.

Perspectives surrounding “Gaituguiliu”

The notion of Gaituguiliu has occupied a key central position within the history of China’s political civilization. Gaituguiliu represents a practice, policy, and attempt by the central government to replace the local rulers’ inheritance system with a centralized direct-appointment system. Such a replacement has been facilitated through the use of Confucian culture and education to assimilate the local culture, strengthen core values, and increase contact with marginal areas. The historical development of Chinese civilization is through Gaituguiliu – a concentric expansion of history outward from the core. It is a political and cultural gene of Chinese civilization.

For over 20 years, this Chinese cultural model of integration has seriously changed the status quo between the mainland and Hong Kong. Gaituguiliu composes the background cultural operation of “One Country, Two Systems”. Amongst Hong Kong society, we can observe the varied characteristics of Gaituguiliu, which have existed as an important influence within Hong Kong’s development.

If we grasp the substantive meaning of Gaituguiliu, that being the integration of the national political, economic and cultural lives, we find that contemporary Hong Kong has many of the following new mechanisms in relation to Gaituguiliu:

  1. China’s military garrison in Hong Kong guarantees a military base for the purpose of Gaituguiliu;

  2. The five interpretations of the “Hong Kong Basic Law” issued by the National People’s Congress Standing Committee has ensured unity within a diversified legal system;

  3. The rise of China’s economy, especially following the recent construction of the Greater Bay Area region, mutually integrates Hong Kong into the mainland economy;

  4. At the social level, Beijing controls the entry quota of 150 people into Hong Kong on a daily basis, with the number of mainland immigrants over the past 20 years having reached 1-million people.

Mainland immigrants further accelerate so-called “mainlandization” – with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) developing party members and making local party members one of the elements of the political and cultural system in Hong Kong, playing a key role within political integration.

From the perspective of Gaituguiliuone can understand Beijing’s resistance and opposition to direct elections. “Direct elections” are fundamentally alien in the traditional category of Gaituguiliu. China promotes patriotic education and Mandarin Chinese, with both being able to be regarded as inherent requirements of Gaituguiliu. Gaituguiliu always emphasizes the integration of both political economy and culture. For those who believe in Gaituguiliu, they always harbour a sceptical attitude concerning democratic autonomy, and believe that China requires a new conception of Gaituguiliu to accelerate the process of integration.

The resistance of the localist movement to Gaituguiliu

In 2014, the 79-day Occupy Central Movement was declared as “over,” as Hong Kong’s leaders did not resort to the bloodshed evident in 1989, and the occupation movement was terminated. However, the election of September 4, 2016 brought forth a “miracle” when 6 young people without political experience were elected as members of the Legislative Council – including Luo Gauncong, Zhu Kaidi and so on. Following the 20-years since Hong Kong was returned to China, many students from major Hong Kong universities have posted slogans which demanded independence.

The younger generation which grew up in the period following Hong Kong’s return to the motherland still advocates for Hong Kong’s independence. These demands for independence following the city’s return to China represent the greatest irony. The political identity of many Hong Kong youths does not recognize the sovereignty of reunification with the political system of the mainland. Conversely, some Hong Kong people believe that Hong Kong’s colonial history and political system has formed a unique political civilization – to the extent of a unique “nationality” or “ethnicity” – and that this type of political civilization existent in Hong Kong has resulted in profound opposition and conflict.

Where the people of Hong Kong are unable to realize their hopes of an elected Chief Executive, many are disappointed and frustrated in the face of a continued intensification of Gaituguiliu particularly with the mainland. The presence of some youths shouting the slogan of “Hong Kong independence” represents a mentality of collective rebellion, to the extent of naïve political romanticism in the faces of Mainland’s harsh authoritarianism. This can also be understood as a manner of rebellion and resistance in the 20 years since “reunification” with China.

In the background of the “Hong Kong independence” movement lies the ardent desire of the Hong Kong peoples for political autonomy: not in establishing a sovereign state, but in opposing the mainlandization of Hong Kong and preserving Hong Kong’s culture and way of life. The June 2019 march opposing amendments to the Extradition Law reflected the deep motivations of the localist movement: to defend the autonomy of Hong Kong’s legal system, so as to prevent Hong Kong from becoming another mainland city.

The clash of values behind Gaituguiliu

Amongst the Hong Kong localist movement, there is the belief that new immigrants from the mainland will be assimilated and integrated into Hong Kong society, thus becoming a part of Hong Kong. Conversely, Beijing expects Hong Kong to become fully integrated into Chinese society, to become part of china’s political civilization, and to incorporate the Hong Kong peoples into China’s national fabric. Clearly, these two different expectations have developed in differing directions, and given rise to an intensified degree of conflict.

Gaituguiliu as a grand traditional unified political concept stands in conflict with the modern concept of democratic autonomy. Gaituguiliu believes in China’s single administrative system, where the central government appoints local governors. Conversely, many Hong Kong peoples demand for universal suffrage and believe in the value of democratic autonomy. This is the contradiction between the traditional unity of Chinese political civilization and its developmental model, versus that of contemporary democratic autonomy.

Following the “Hong Kong independence” movement, some Hong Kong youths believed in the need for independence, and the possibility of democracy. This is because they do not see any hope of democratization existing under China’s political framework. Conversely, Beijing’s leaders state that a country must first exist prior to any discussions over two systems. Therefore, under the concept of safeguarding sovereignty, China follows the historical law. Where sovereignty is threatened, China would prefer to sacrifice democracy in the name of defending sovereignty and unity. When some Hong Kong students advocate for Hong Kong independence, and use freedom of speech in defending their right to express their support for independence, they have forgotten China’s contemporary history: wherein China has repeatedly defended its sovereignty and unity at the expense of freedom and democracy.

Is Gaituguiliu still possible?

The emergence and development of the “Hong Kong independence” movement has further accelerated the pace of China’s Gaituguiliu policy. The year 2014 represented a turning point within Hong Kong’s history: State Council’s White Paper on One Country Two Systems declared that Beijing has a set of comprehensive powers in managing and ruling Hong Kong. Beijing’s opposition to Hong Kong’s independence was elevated as a core national interest and national security issue, placing sovereignty above the need for democracy. The central government has adopted a new tone and direction: one emphasizing national unity and opposing Hong Kong’s independence. Accordingly, the central government must intensify its Gaituguiliu process. The 2019 revision of the Extradition Law represents the legal process of expediting Gaituguiliu, which inspired large-scale local opposition movements against the Extradition Law.

Gaituguiliu provides a new perspective in understanding the current dilemma in Hong Kong. However, is Gaituguiliu still feasible under current conditions? The implementation of an appointment system for the Chief Executive in Hong Kong appears impossible. To date, the position of Chief Executive has been reserved for native Hong Kong people, and any changes would face great resistance if “outsiders” (i.e. an official from Mainland China) were to be appointed as Chief Executive.

The traditional success of Gaituguiliu lies within Confucianism and the imperial examination system. Confucianism represents a powerful glue through which politics, culture and the economy, and local communities are integrated through a common culture. The imperial examination system thus serves as the core measure of success for Gaituguiliu. However, these conditions do not exist in the modern age. Today, the people of Hong Kong – including new immigrants from the mainland – believe that Hong Kong culture represents a mixture of Chinese and Western cultures, which is superior to that of Mainland culture. Thus, it is impossible to transform such a culture with Mainland’s Marxist-Leninist ideology. Hong Kong universities generally have advantages over mainland universities, and mainland students prefer to go to Hong Kong for further studies. It is not like the scholars of the Ming and Qing dynasties whom went to Beijing to study and become government officials.

Additionally, even where some Hong Kong students decide to go study on the mainland, they are not allowed to obtain government positions on the mainland. Although Hong Kong represents the birthplace of neo-Confucianism, over the past decade neo-Confucianism has developed rapidly on the mainland whilst gradually declining in Hong Kong. Even if Mr. Joseph Chan of the University of Hong Kong represents the new successor to neo-Confucianism, Hong Kong scholars often use English writing to explain neo-Confucianism. The support and strength of this manner of English-style Confucianism cannot be culturally integrated into the mainland.

The biggest challenge facing this new conception of Gaituguiliu involves whether it is still possible to truly implement “One Country, Two Systems” while meeting the wishes of the Hong Kong people for direct elections. Under modern conditions, an adherence to autonomy, integrating the Legislative Council, and ensuring local autonomy within the design of China’s Constitution are things which must be considered under China’s new vision of Gaituguiliu.

Rather than framing the current crisis in Hong Kong as an act of espionage by foreign forces, China would benefit from using Hong Kong as a test site to solving the conflict of civilizational values. Perhaps we cannot eliminate the looming conflict between Chinese and Western political values. However, we can promote mutual understanding as a means of dissuading such conflicts, while meeting the desire for local democratic autonomy and the centralization of power – through the design of a constitutional system.

The design of India’s constitutional system provides us with an alternative: one where the local populace has the power to elect local leaders, but the central government possesses veto power over elected leaders and the power to disband local councils. This provides a mechanism for achieving the balance of power between the central government and locals. Perhaps it is this type of power-balancing mechanism, based upon political compromise, which exists as the solution to Hong Kong’s dilemma – so as to deepen the breadth and depth of integration between the politics of Hong Kong and the mainland.