Abbott should not forget Jakarta; Cambodia asylum-seeker option just adds to cruelty. By Hamish McDonald.

Beijing digs in as HK fights for democracy

Pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong hold up their mobile phones in a show of solidarity.
Pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong hold up their mobile phones in a show of solidarity.

The Cantonese people of Hong Kong, according to the old stereotype, are interested in making money, gambling at the mahjong tables or Happy Valley racecourse or Macau casinos, and putting virtually any form of animal or vegetable life into the wok. 

Not anymore. These supposedly hardworking “pragmatists” have put economics aside to fight for their democracy, and it has been wonderful − and fearful − to see.

Their normally career-focused young have come out from the universities and high schools to join the “Occupy Central” protests against Beijing’s shameful but predictable evasion of the promise of direct and free election of the special territory’s chief executive in 2017, which will be the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover from British rule. Despite massive turnouts in favour of free elections, China’s response was a fiat that voters must choose between three candidates that its local stooges have vetted for their “patriotism”. 

The present chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, has been given no room to manoeuvre by his masters in Beijing. On Sunday night he tried force of the non-lethal kind, setting the Hong Kong police riot squads onto the crowds with tear gas and batons. The students held firm, and the protest built into the two-day holiday that started on Wednesday to mark the foundation of the People’s Republic. In this 25th anniversary year of the massacre of the Tiananmen demonstrators in Beijing, the worry is that the People’s Liberation Army garrison will roll out its armoured vehicles and repeat the bloodshed. 

That there are elements urging this in Beijing was suggested in an article in the Global Times, the Communist Party’s tabloid answer to Rupert Murdoch. The PLA is restive: witness the border incursion it made into India’s Ladakh region recently, just as President Xi Jinping was visiting Delhi. On the other hand, Hong Kong is much more open than the Beijing of 1989, and China much more integrated into the global economy. For all the talk of Shanghai taking over as the financial portal to the mainland, Hong Kong and its political-legal system are still critical to China’s investment flows and its plans to make the yuan an international currency. 

But Xi has boxed himself into a corner on this one, too. It would take a massive turnaround for him to suddenly “show strength” by agreeing to “trust the people” in Hong Kong on this one. “It’s all part of Xi’s agenda of boosting nationalism and cracking down on dissidents wherever they are,” former Far Eastern Economic Review editor Philip Bowring told me from Hong Kong, “Meanwhile, telling the people to follow both the Mao spirit and Confucius, and Hong Kong people to obey the property and gambling multibillionaires.” Somewhat ominously, Leung declared on Tuesday the protests had gotten “out of control” by their organisers. How long Beijing was prepared to wait for the momentum to peter out became the question.

1 . Abbott should not forget Jakarta 

Remember “Jakarta, not Geneva”? Tony Abbott has been noticeably distracted from Australia’s immediate region in all the excitement about deploying fighter jets to strike at the Islamic State “death cult” in Iraq. 

One guesses by the time you read this Abbott might have actually told us a decision had been taken, as if deploying an air force wing and some 600 military personnel didn’t suggest it.

It will be interesting to see if Abbott dashes up to Jakarta to attend the inauguration of Joko Widodo (“Jokowi”) on October 20, just as his mentor, John Howard, did for a startled Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (known as SBY) at the start of his presidency in 2004. Indonesia is going to need a lot of attention. Jokowi’s competition with Prabowo Subianto, the loser in July’s presidential election, is not yet over.

The parties that backed Prabowo will control a majority of seats in the new Dewan Perwakilan Rakyat (DPR, the parliament) sworn in on Wednesday. Even before that they put through a bill in the outgoing parliament on Friday, changing the election laws to halt direct election of the 500 or so regional heads and city mayors. This has been a main feature of Indonesia’s devolved democracy since 2004, when direct elections for the presidency and provincial governors also started. Instead, under the new law, the selection of local executive chiefs will be left to factional brokering in the regional assemblies.

Direct elections have certainly raised the scale of money politics, with local chiefs needing some $500,000 or so for a successful campaign. On salaries of only $600 a month, many resort to corrupt practices to pay off campaign debt. But there are also stories of clean city mayors and bupati (regional heads), and direct elections are supported by the population, not the political class.

In the enthusiasm for demokrasi after the Suharto regime fell in 1998, Indonesia tipped the balance of power rather too much to the DPR, now regarded in public opinion surveys as the most corrupt institution in the country. The Indonesian president has no veto power over legislation, unlike the United States president. In this latest wind-back of direct democracy, SBY has typically dithered to the last moment. His party supported the idea last year, and staged a walkout on Monday when it still had enough numbers in the DPR to block it. Now SBY has proposed a presidential decree to veto the legislation, but this has to be ratified by the parliament anyway within three months. It is a dismal end to the SBY presidency. Already the DPR move is seen as forerunner of an effort to rescind direct presidential elections, and lessen the chances of political outsiders such as Jokowi breaking in.

Meanwhile, SBY led the new DPR members out to Lubang Buaya (the Crocodile Hole) on Wednesday. This is the place in Jakarta where the 1965 coup plotters took six abducted generals and dumped their bodies, providing the founding myth of communist treachery for subsequent military rule, and justification for the mass murder of perhaps a million communist supporters. Two years ago, SBY toyed with the idea of an apology for the mass killings, but backed off under pressure from his former army colleagues. The myth continues, an opportunity has passed by.

2 . Cambodia option just adds to cruelty

What a picture of seediness when Immigration Minister Scott Morrison raised a glass of cheap champers in Phnom Penh with a Cambodian counterpart to cement a deal to relocate “successful” asylum seekers from camps in Nauru and Manus Island to that land of hope and freedom.

 It can be expected the $40 million pledged to support the resettlement will quickly disappear into private pockets, and the hapless refugees will be left to look after themselves in Cambodia’s slums. The country ranks as the second most corrupt in Asia, after North Korea. No nonsense here about waiting for a shakedown: would-be foreign investors even have to pay a bribe to get the official forms to apply for government clearance. This is the sickest, most sadistic refinement in Morrison’s strategy of deterrence. No wonder it’s been followed by a wave of suicide attempts in Nauru.

Continued cruelty is the logic. And it’s not as if the flow of displaced people is likely to lessen much, given the renewed exodus from Syria. Closer to home is the uncertain future of Afghanistan, with the new president, Ashraf Ghani, finally installed in Kabul after a power-sharing agreement with losing election rival Abdullah Abdullah. The Taliban has stepped up attacks as American and NATO forces draw down. The roadside execution of Sayed Habib Musawi, a 56-year-old Australian citizen on a visit to the home he fled 14 years ago, shows the country’s Hazara minority remains at risk. What next for Morrison? It has to be the North Korean Solution − the disappearing Kim Jong-un is desperate for hard cash.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 4, 2014 as "Beijing digs in as HK fights for democracy".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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