Posted:  Dec. 22, 2014


Now that Hong Kong’s streets have been cleared of their tent city encampments, everyone … we are told … is breathing a sigh of relief.  Everyone is also taking stock of what was and was not accomplished by the Yellow Umbrella-Occupy Central movement.  Protesters spent more than two months living out on the streets in an unprecedented demonstration of dissent.  They were protesting the mainland-style managed election for Hong Kong’s Chief Executive that Beijing had announced in its August 31 decision.  Scheduled for 2017, it would be Hong Kong’s first one-person, one-vote universal suffrage election for Chief Executive.

Commenting on the protesters’ achievement, one sympathetic observer wrote that, “Umbrella Square will surely live on in Hong Kong people’s hearts and serve as the litmus test for future political developments.”  Law professor, Michael Davis, wrote further that the authorities will ignore its aspirations “at their peril” because civil society has awakened.  He called on the Hong Kong government and loyalist supporters to speak up for Hong Kong’s autonomy and political way of life instead of continuously lecturing Hong Kong on Beijing’s requirements.  The Hong Kong government should admit its errors, he continued, by reporting more truthfully to Beijing on Hong Kong’s aspirations for genuine choice in 2017 (South China Morning Post, Dec. 16).  His views reflect those of pan-democrats, namely, that Beijing must now pay attention to what they are saying and treat them with more respect.


Unfortunately, the first official responses from Beijing and the Hong Kong government betray no concern whatsoever about ignoring Hong Kong’s democratic aspirations.  Assuming official words can be taken at face value, Beijing perceives no peril and positively relishes the opportunity to thumb its nose at Hong Kong protesters. 

Professor Davis writes from the perspective that until now has prevailed here, and everywhere else outside China, about Hong Kong’s status as a Special Administrative Region within the People’s Republic.  He still uses the old assumptions inherited from pre-1997 British days, based on the promises Beijing made about an autonomous city within the Chinese body politick, where Hong Kong people would be ruling Hong Kong, with no changes in its political way of life for 50 years, and so on.

Officials wasted no time.  The main encampment was cleared on December 11 and the next Sunday, December 14, a conference of receptive China, Hong Kong, and Macau scholars was convened across the border in Shenzhen.  Keynote speakers flew in from Beijing for the occasion and one new keyword made headlines in Hong Kong the next morning:  “re-enlighten.”   The collective memory awoke in an instant …  re-enlighten sounds too much like re-education …  the dreaded old-time mainland political study campaigns.

In any case, Hong Kong needs it, the better to understand “one-country, two-systems” including the formula’s relationship to national sovereignty, national security, and national identify, and especially to understand the need for change.  What does all this mean?  The Shenzhen conference speakers explained.

Hong Kongers’ basic problem is that they do not identify with the country and don’t seem to know where they belong.  But the most immediate problem is their misunderstanding of one-country, two-systems.  

Pan-democrats together with Western political forces 【西方政治勢力】are making mistakes because they are using their own interpretation of what the term means. Hence there is a basic need for re-enlightenment 【在啟蒙】, a reality check on what the one-country-two systems policy and the Basic Law deriving from it are really stipulating.

Also, in the past, the one-county, two-systems formula was about preservation (as in the promise that political life would remain unchanged here for 50 years after the British departure in 1997).  Henceforth, the focus should not be on staying the same but on dynamic change, how to evolve, and how move forward (Ming Pao Daily and all papers, Dec. 15).

Far from admitting errors and reporting truthfully to Beijing as Prof. Davis enjoined, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying came out a day after the Shenzhen lectures to repeat the official line for the umpteenth time:  the 2017 election must adhere to the relevant provisions of the Basic Law and the August 31 decision of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress!  He also blasted the Occupy movement saying the demands for democracy clashed with its actions.  Democracy without respect for the rule of law, he said, was a form of “anarchy” (Ming Pao Daily, Wen Wei Po, Dec. 16).


Naturally, if pan-democrats and foreigners have got it all wrong (about Hong Kong’s post-colonial status as an autonomous Special Administration Region under the one-country, two-systems formula), then we must go back to the beginning and try to sort out where everyone  went astray.  This exercise has now begun and it has produced some interesting variations on established themes going all the way back to the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration on the Question of Hong Kong.  The Joint Declaration is the formal document, registered as an international treaty, whereby London agreed to return Hong Kong to China in 1997 and Beijing did its part by including many promises and guarantees.

Beijing and Hong Kong officials are now arguing that Britain has no right to concern itself with whether or not the 50-year guarantee for a post-1997 continuation of Hong Kong’s pre-1997 way of life is being honored.  This is because phrases in the Joint Declaration clearly indicate that the 50-year guarantee was inserted by Beijing alone (article 3, point 12).   And besides, the Joint Declaration has no validity post-1997 anyway. 

Consequently, Britain has no sovereignty, no jurisdiction, and no right of supervision.  Chinese and Hong Kong officials everywhere … in Beijing, London, and here … have only just begun making a big issue of this point.   Meanwhile, a parliamentary committee in London is currently holding an inquiry into the implementation of the Joint Declaration.  Parliamentarians are doing so on the grounds that at the very least London has a continuing moral obligation to monitor, which has been the prevailing post-1997 assumption.

So a re-calibration of Hong Kong’s status is now underway.  Pan-democrats’ assumption that Beijing must now take them more seriously is correct.  Not the kind of respect they want perhaps, but in the perverse dialectical world of unintended consequences it can be another  blessing in disguise.

Until now the disconnect between the two interpretations of the same pre-1997 promises has been ignored everywhere … except in Beijing, where officials left it discreetly unarticulated.   But like fault lines in an earthquake zone, pressures moving in opposite directions along the line create friction. Disruptions follow.  If nothing else, Umbrella-Occupy has provoked Beijing to address the disconnect directly and explain why the ground now seems to be moving beneath people’s feet.

In fact, it’s been shifting all along.  But most everyone on this side of the Hong Kong-Shenzhen fault line has remained in denial.  As a result, valuable years were wasted that might have been used to devise better strategies for “earthquake protection.”  The one-country, two-systems formula was designed in the 1980s, to put Hong Kong minds at ease ahead of Britain’s departure.  But given the many caveats and escape clauses Beijing wrote into both the Joint Declaration and its Basic Law implementation document, Beijing never meant one-country, two-systems to be a permanent fix for Hong Kong’s fears.

At least now, finally, it will be much harder for pan-democrats to think and speak in their usual nebulous way about long-term idealistic struggles for democracy and compromises with Beijing on ill-defined promises that invariably recede mirage-like from one election cycle to the next.   At least now, people will understand why they have been receding and begin to think more realistically about how to protect their causes both rhetorically and at the ballot box.  Because by now, the one-country, two-systems promise is well on course to becoming what Beijing designed it to be from the start:  a carefully-crafted formula for evolving into one-country, one-system … on Beijing’s terms.


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