Posted:  Dec. 30, 2014


Beijing officials are responding to Hong Kong’s September 28 – December 15 student-led street blockades with stern warnings about Hong Kong’s need for some serious reflection on its status as a Special Administration Region within the People’s Republic.  Ranking officials flew to the border town of Shenzhen to deliver the message in person on December 14, a day before the last of the protest blockades was cleared.  President Xi Jinping himself reiterated the message when he attended neighboring Macau’s 15th anniversary celebrations a few days later.  He urged young people to understand the “true meaning” of Macau’s status, which is similar to that of Hong Kong.  Formerly a Portuguese colony, Macau was returned to Chinese rule in 1999, two years after Hong Kong’s 1997 return and under the same one-country, two-systems design.

According to Beijing’s new story line on its problems with Hong Kong, they go back to the beginning, in the 1980s, when the terms of Hong Kong’s return were being negotiated.  Beijing is now blaming foreigners for misreading and misinterpreting the agreements made then, and for passing the misunderstanding on to Hong Kong’s pro-democracy partisans. 

 As a result, Hong Kongers do not yet identify with the Motherland, their understanding as regards the true meaning of one-country two-systems is off kilter, and it’s also too conservative.  They are always going on about preserving Hong Kong’s past pre-1997 way of political life under British rule when they should be looking toward a future they can share with all their mainland compatriots.  The Shenzhen speakers said these misunderstandings must be set right because there is room for only one understanding and one interpretation.  Hence the need for a period of reflection and re-enlightenment 【在啟蒙】 with a new story line and new vocabulary to replace the old (Dec. 22 post).


The rhetoric calls to mind something former U.S. President Bill Clinton said a few years ago when he was discussing American voters’ perpetual disaffection with their government in Washington and especially with Congress.  He proposed a little “joint ownership” of the problem.  American voters themselves should accept a share of the blame, he said, because they are the people responsible for electing, and re-electing, the Congressional representatives Americans so love to hate!

Beijing, in other words, should accept a fair share of the blame it is now heaping on “foreign forces” and Hong Kong democrats for misinterpreting the terms of Hong Kong’s reversion to Chinese rule.  Officials need to accept responsibility on two related counts.  The first is reflected in the simple matter of changing vocabulary and emphasis … a few words and phrases, added, subtracted, and tweaked here and there within the official political story line.  Who was responsible for the original versions that lent themselves to so much “misunderstanding”?

The second dimension is more serious because the changing vocabulary reflects changes in the understanding of promises made before 1997 that were written into formal agreements and laws.  These include the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration on the Question of Hong Kong, negotiated with equal participation by both parties to the agreement.  Hong Kong’s Basic Law constitution, spelling out how the territory was to be governed for 50 years from 1997, was drafted by Beijing in the late 1980s, and promulgated in 1990. 

Beijing is well within its sovereign rights on all counts, given the carefully constructed wording of these documents.  But officials are now subtly adjusting the terms of association with Hong Kong … knowing full well that Beijing allowed everyone to think one way in the beginning, no doubt for the sake of political expediency, and is now enjoining them to think another.


The change in emphasis aims to correct “misunderstandings” that resulted from the initially straightforward reassuring language.   This was all anyone heard before 1997 and for several years after.  Probably people who were around in the 1990s can still recite the key phrases and slogans in their sleep, so incessantly were they repeated. 

Everyone could set their minds at ease about the return to Chinese sovereignty because Beijing had pledged to grant Hong Kong a “high degree of autonomy” 【高度自治權】.  The government would be “composed of local inhabitants,” which meant “Hong Kongers ruling Hong Kong” 【港人治港】.   All rights and freedoms … the way of life … “will remain “unchanged for 50 years” 【五十年不變】.   So said the solemn promises in the Sino-British Joint Declaration, signed by both the Chinese and British governments in 1984, solemnized further and with much fanfare by registration as an international treaty at the United Nations.

Not so subtle changes are now appearing in the official narrative based on these promises.  They are not being negated and the changes are not really new.  They’re just being stated now more clearly for public consumption.  The Shenzhen lectures, for example, targeted the “50 years no change” promise without actually saying so but it has never been singled out before.  Up to now, this promise has helped Hong Kongers forget their fears about the political future.  Now locals and foreigners alike are told to stop thinking only in terms of preserving the British-ruled past.  Moving forward is the way to go  (Dec. 22 post).

On “Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong,” the new emphasis is on a shift from “ruling,” to “running,” to “administering.”  This change crept into the strongly-worded White Paper that caused much alarm here when it was issued by Beijing last June (June 12 post).*   In retrospect, the White Paper was a warm-up to prepare Hong Kong for Beijing’s strict August 31 decision on electoral reform that in turn provoked the two-month Umbrella/Occupy protest movement. 

Shenzhen speakers commended the White Paper for spelling out the correct way to understand Hong Kong’s status.  It had targeted “confused and lopsided” views on Hong Kong and reminded those who held them that the central government exercised  “comprehensive jurisdiction” 【全面管治權】over all local administrative regions including Hong Kong.   Its “high degree of autonomy” is therefore “not an inherent power, but one that comes solely from the authorization by the central leadership.”  That does not mean full autonomy, or decentralized power.  It just means “the power to run local affairs as authorized by the central leadership” (White Paper, V.1).

The White Paper … in its official English translation … referred to judges as being among Hong Kong’s “administrators” (V.3).  It also said they needed patriotic political credentials like everyone else responsible for running Hong Kong.  The legal community debated furiously and held a silent march in protest.  The head of the Law Society was voted out of office by irate lawyer colleagues who thought his White Paper endorsement was a betrayal of their commitment to an independent judiciary … widely seen as the last line of protection for inherited rights and freedoms.

Key to the “misunderstanding” was the imprecise Chinese word that can mean rule, govern, run … all the same word, .   The only exception in the White Paper was the phrase about running local affairs where the Chinese term did specify 管理 .  This is used somewhat more specifically to mean manage, administer, and supervise, as well as the vague “run.” 

So everyone was allowed for all those years to think the old pre-1997 slogan actually meant “Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong” with something like genuine autonomy and Hong Kongers in charge.  According to the 2014 clarification, the slogan only means that locals can manage local matters while Beijing rules.

Corporate watch-dog David Webb caught the shifting currents in a Hong Kong government fact sheet on the Basic Law.  Two days after the December 14 Shenzhen lectures, the wording in the website’s English translation explaining the Basic Law’s governing concepts was changed from ‘one country, two systems,’ ‘a high degree of autonomy,’ and ‘Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong.’   As of December 16, it reads ‘one country, two systems,’ ‘Hong Kong people administering Hong Kong,’ and a ‘high degree of autonomy ‘… in that rearranged order. **


TREATIES AND LAWS …  (to be cont’d.)   


*    White Paper: The Practice of the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ Policy in the Hong Kong Special Administration Region,” Beijing, State Council, June 10, 2014:



** Dec. 18th post,


Share This