Posted: June 12, 2014
Beijing has just issued an unprecedented comprehensive reiteration of its “one-country, two-systems” governing design for Hong Kong. The message is the same as always … repeated at every official opportunity since being enshrined in Hong Kong’s Basic Law constitution almost three decades ago. Everyone who has been listening can repeat it by heart.
What’s new is that Beijing felt the need to say it again, this time in the first ever formal government White Paper on the subject … and with translations in seven languages just to make sure the outside world gets the point as well. But stern warnings against “foreign force” political meddling here seem pro forma, issued only in passing.*
The main message is directed at Hong Kongers who stubbornly focus on the Basic Law’s promises about local “two-systems” autonomy. Such people have yet to grasp the full import of “one country” and Beijing’s unitary “holistic” one-size-fits-all system of governance. Such people must be set right and the White Paper tries its best.
Also worth noting is that the statement has been issued just ahead of the formal decisions soon to be announced on Hong Kong’s big political reform project … and just ahead of two potentially big manifestations of public dissent. Within a month the threat of a civil disobedience campaign will take shape, depending how many people turn out for Occupy Central’s June 20-22 effort to sample public opinion and what they say. After that comes the anniversary of Hong Kong’s biggest ever protest demonstration: the July First march held every year since 2003 when half-a-million people unexpectedly turned out against the Hong Kong government’s attempt to impose Article 23 national political security legislation.
ADRIFT IN A SEA OF UNCERTAINTY
Beijing obviously feels it is losing control of the argument and the White Paper is an attempt to steer everyone back onto the correct path. Some people are not yet comfortable with post-1997 Hong Kong, says the document and “some are even confused or lopsided in their understanding of ‘one country, two systems’ and the Basic Law.” Hence “many wrong views” are currently adrift in the community about many things including the development of Hong Kong’s “political structure.”
Issued by the central government’s State Council on June 10, the White Paper comes with an uninspiring title: “The Practice of the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ Policy in the Hong Kong Special Administration Region.” ** Specific details of the political reform proposals currently being debated are not discussed, but the message is clear: it’s for Beijing to decide regardless of what local people want or protesters might demand. Yet is that really what Beijing means to say? The narrative is so sweeping that it’s difficult to tell whether the threat is for real or meant only as a rhetorical stab in the dark … an all-points blast issued with hopeful intimidating effect.
The bland bureaucratic style contributes to the uncertainty as does the content, which is devoted mostly to past history, reminding everyone of all that the one-country, two-systems formula has accomplished: Hong Kong’s smooth return to China in 1997, the creation of an SAR, progress since then, and efforts made by the central government to ensure prosperity with all its many cross-border integration projects, and so on. The clincher comes only in the final section with its demands for a “full and accurate understanding” of the way the central government wants things to work here … which has been said many times before in many speeches and documents.
As a unitary state, says the White Paper, China’s central government has comprehensive jurisdiction over all local administrative regions including the HKSAR. Hence the high degree of autonomy is not an inherent power but one that derives solely from the authority of the central government. A high degree of autonomy is therefore not full autonomy or decentralization and there is no such thing as residual power enjoyed by the SAR government … points emphasized repeatedly since the days when the Basic Law was being drafted back in the 1980s. The Basic Law is a holistic document so local law experts must not try to stress one aspect out of context while ignoring others. Which means further that, as the Basic Law says, power to interpret and amend is vested in the National People Congress and its Standing Committee.
Nothing new in any of this, nor in the reiteration of procedures for introducing political reforms here … except that it completely disregards all the proposals that the local community has been busy at work designing during the past year. Says the White Paper innocently … as if such proposals do not exist and had never been discussed … the ultimate aim is to select the chief executive by universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures. The central government is sincere about moving forward with Hong Kong’s democratic development … but it must be done in a way that serves the country’s sovereignty and security. And toward that end, “the chief executive to be elected by universal suffrage must be a person who loves the country and Hong Kong.”
In fact, everyone in the Hong Kong’s governing and judicial establishments must “love the country and love Hong Kong,” says the While Paper. The statement is general and categorical, so again it’s unclear whether the demand for love refers to a strict vow of obedience such as that followed by loyalist partisans here … or whether Beijing just means the usual pledge of allegiance to the national government.
WHO TO BLAME?
The response was instantaneous. Protesters were out on the streets within hours proclaiming “the death of one-country, two-systems.” So maybe the White Paper is a blessing in disguise. One-country, two-systems is exactly what it has always been and the sooner everyone grasps that reality the better, if it’s not already too late.
Had they understood that the creative design was never meant to be permanent but only to ease the gradual transition to Beijing’s one-country, one-system unitary form of governance, pro-democracy partisans might have behaved differently. They might have taken stands more deliberately and in good time to demand some long-term guarantees. As it is, they have wasted years in fratricidal feuding … while their loyalist opponents built unhindered and unrecognized take-over-from-below majorities in all 18 of Hong Kong’s District Councils and are close to doing the same in the Legislative Council as well.
On the other hand, Beijing has no one but itself to blame for the “confused and lopsided” views it finds here … and everywhere … about one-country, two-systems. Beijing knows very well about the double meanings attached to political words and has exploited them to the full … as with the promise of local autonomy. This has been advertised since the 1980s as the reason for Hong Kong’s smooth transition from British to Chinese rule. Beijing likes to boast, as it does in the White Paper, that the one-country, two-systems concept is well regarded by the international community. Of course it is. Because everyone here and elsewhere has been allowed to carry on believing that local autonomy for Hong Kong meant something like the real thing rather than a Beijing-style “unitary state” version.
Beijing is also to blame for never having clarified what it means by a “socialist” system. The White Paper now says there is no excuse for not understanding Hong Kong enjoys only limited autonomy because China’s constitution states clearly that the country follows socialism. But in mainland terms, a socialist system means one governed in all dimensions by the communist party alone. Beijing script-writers must surely know that the more common understanding of socialism relates to economics not government and politics.
For that reason, in any case, the business community’s fears were soothed by the Basic Law’s promise that Hong Kong could follow capitalism. They were allowed to think the term referred to the capitalist way of doing business and running the economy … which it does. But in the Basic Law and the White Paper, capitalist system also refers to the fact that Hong Kong is not yet under “one-system” communist party or socialist rule.
Moreover, “capitalism”, says the White Paper, “is allowed to stay on a long-term basis” … during which time Hong Kong must “fully respect” the socialist system practiced on the mainland … and in particular its “political system.” The mainland’s socialist system, unlike Hong Kong’s capitalist system, is guaranteed “never” to change. Hong Kong’s system will be “allowed” only on a “long-term basis.” No wonder people are confused.
And Beijing is to blame for playing fast and loose with its Basic Law interpretations. Article 45 does not mandate that the existing Election Committee should undergo a simple name-change and become the Nominating Committee for a universal suffrage election. Beijing points to its 2007 National People’s Congress Standing Committee decision as the authority that reinforces the Basic Law, Article 45 mandate. But the 2007 decision only says the new committee “may be formed with reference to” the old committee. And the phrase “with reference to” may be binding in mainland law but the Basic Law itself (Article 18) says that mainland laws shall not be enforced here, and the phrase has no precedent for use in Hong Kong.
It’s almost possible to feel sorry for Beijing officials since the White Paper conveys the distinct impression of decision-makers grasping at straws. They’ve never had to oversee a real election before and they seem nervous, lost for solutions, but locked in the Basic Law’s promise to grant universal suffrage to Hong Kong and unable to renege for appearances sake.
Across the border, officials would know exactly what to do. Hard power control mechanisms are all in place to manage such situations. But here there are still “two-systems” constraints. So Beijing is doing the next best thing by resorting to rhetorical bombast and invoking its sovereign right to place all election reform decisions under its firm command.
The main problem with such an approach is that in practical terms it directly contradicts Hong Kong’s time-honored consultation procedures. The community has just spent the past year designing all kinds of political reform proposals, offered up for consideration in good faith, on the assumption that it’s everyone’s duty to do their part for democratic reform. Now Beijing officials have stepped forward with an ultimatum saying, sorry folks, but the sovereign right to decide belongs to us not you and none of your proposals will do. Whether the ultimatum has the desired effect remains to be seen. It may in the long run. But for now, Beijing’s timing is off. If past experience is any guide, pro-democracy partisans have just received a gift of the best possible call-to-action for June 20-22 and July First.
* In a 27-page printout of the official English translation, only three sentences refer to foreign force meddling … despite the media hype surrounding the issue (China Daily, June 11, p. 1; Ming Pao Daily, June 11, p. 3; Wen Wei Po, June 13, pp. 2, 6, 19.
** Chinese: http://www.locpg.hk/jsdt/2014-06/10/c_126601135.