Posted:  March 30, 2015


Deliberately saying one thing to one audience and something else to another might be regarded in some quarters as shameless opportunism.  But if the political stakes are high enough, talking two sides of the same issue is also likely to be based on a calculated cost-benefit analysis … as in the costs and benefits to be risked and gained from trying to appeal simultaneously to diverse constituencies.

In crisis situations the risks might seem worth the gamble … like when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was contemplating election defeat and jettisoned decades of international commitments in favor of a two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  Never on my watch, he declared, and it worked.  He mobilized the right wing parties, said what they wanted to hear, and won a handy victory on March 17.  

Whereupon he tried to have it both ways, backtracked and said after all, he didn’t really mean it.   So did he or didn’t he … say what he really meant the first time and what he really intends to do in the years to come?  Facts on the ground suggest the former.  So too do the conditions he attached to his qualified backtracking.  Time will tell.

As decision time approaches here for an up or down vote on Hong Kong’s 2017 Chief Executive election reform proposal, Beijing and some influential onlookers are engaged in the same sort of opportunistic risk-taking.  The prize is not a general election victory but rather winning the battle for public opinion and pressuring a handful of Hong Kong’s Legislative Councilors to swing the all-important vote for approval.  Beijing’s tactics might succeed or they might not.  But the fact that such verbal gymnastics now seem necessary suggests just how intense the political reform controversy has become … and how intent Beijing is on winning. 

At issue is Beijing’s August 31, 2014 ultimatum on the design of Hong Kong’s first universal suffrage Chief Executive election promised for 2017.  The design anticipates a Beijing-style election with Beijing vetting the candidates prior to the public vote.   All 27 pro-democracy legislators in Hong Kong’s 70-member Legislative Council have vowed to veto the proposal in its current unadulterated form and Beijing says it’s that or nothing.  If all 27 hold the line, they can kill the the reform bill that needs a two-thirds super-majority to pass (March 13 post).

BEIJING:  National People’s Congress Speeches 

The word games …  as opposed to steadily advancing  facts on the ground …  began almost a year ago, in June 2014, when Beijing issued the tough-talking White Paper.  Its subject was “one-country, two-systems,” the policy that Beijing designed for governing Hong Kong after the British left in 1997 ( June 12, Dec. 30 posts).  Provoking the controversy here was an apparent official change of emphasis, tone, and terminology.  This last focused in one case specifically on a simple Chinese word, that can be translated several ways.   

Before the official English translation of the June White Paper made its appearance, that word had always featured in the context of a key slogan used to advertise one-country, two-sysems:  “Hong Kong people running … or ruling, or governing … Hong Kong.”  But one White Paper sentence had been translated as “administer,” and with implications for the all-important independence of Hong Kong’s judiciary. 

Last December, days after police cleared the last of Occupy Central’s political protest barricades from Hong Kong city streets, the Hong Kong government went even further than the White Paper and changed the translation on its official fact sheet.  The long-proclaimed governing formula was no longer “Hong Kong people running Hong Kong” but only Hong Kongers administering Hong Kong (    

Had the policy changed?  Beijing insisted it had not.  But one thing followed another and Beijing’s public information campaign accelerated.  A lecture series, also in mid-December, placed the whole problem in perspective … as Beijing sees it and in a way that Beijing was only for the first time articulating in public.

Hong Kong, said the official speakers, had yet to identify with the Motherland.  One-country, two-systems had not changed; it was just that too many people stubbornly refused to understand it the way Beijing meant it to be understood.  And why did they persist in harking back to the good old days under British colonial rule … with reference to the political rights and freedoms that were then the norm?  The speakers prescribed a period of “re-enlightenment” to put Hong Kongers on the right track, looking forward not back, so as to properly understand that their prized one-country, two-systems autonomy did not mean they could make important political reform decisions for themselves (Dec. 22 post).

Fast forward to the annual sessions of the National People’s Congress (NPC) earlier this month and the message seemed to be there for all to hear … or not.    Keynote introductory speeches come during the convocation of the NPC’s companion honorary body, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) ahead of the main NPC sessions.  In his report, CPPCC chairman Yu Zhengsheng 【俞正聲】did affirm the one-country, two-systems governing policy.  But he had nothing at all to say about its two key slogan promises that have been used to put local hearts at ease since Deng Xiaoping’s day.   There was no mention of “Hong Kong people running Hong Kong” and no “high degree of autonomy” either (Ming Pao Daily, March 4).

What did it mean?  Were everyone’s worst fears coming to pass so soon?   Mild-mannered Ming Pao Daily, ever the voice of pro-democracy moderation, seemed positively indignant.  There must be a reason why those two slogans have been omitted from so important a national document, said the March 5 editorial.  If there is no difference between mentioning and not mentioning, then why not mention?    “We think the people of Hong Kong have a right to know what is happening with Hong Kong policy.  The authorities have a responsibility to explain clearly to the people of Hong Kong.”

No sooner said than done.  Like Benjamin Netanyahu the day after his election victory, the final report of this year’s NPC session reinserted the slogans.  This came in the form of  Premier Li Keqiang’s 【李克強】official government work report:    “We definitely will not waver in carrying out the policy of ‘one country, two systems,’ with ‘Hong Kong people running Hong Kong,’ and ‘Macau people running Macau,’ in accordance with a high degree of autonomy”  (Ming Pao, Mar. 6).  A revised final version of Yu Zhengsheng’s report also reinserted the two slogans.

Only there was a catch at the end of  Li Keqiang’s sentence.   The policy would be implemented “strictly in accordance with the constitution and the Basic Law.”  Beijing’s hard lines on everything as articulated during the past year have proclaimed them to be strictly in accord with the Chinese constitution and Hong Kong’s Basic Law … which is to say Beijing’s interpretation of what the Basic Law says!.  Like Netanyahu’s backtracking the day after his election victory, Premier Li’s use of the comforting slogans probably signals no change whatsoever in Beijing’s hardening lines on one-country, two systems and political reform.

LONDON:  Brave Hearts, Weak Wills

Never ones for simple straight talk when something circumspect will better serve contradictory purposes, British officials excel at carefully-crafted obfuscation. Only one thing seems clear:  London has taken Beijing’s point about just how much political capital Chinese leaders have invested in winning this reform showdown with Hong Kong’s democracy movement over the August 31 decision.  It is fundamental to the Chinese Communist Party’s unitary form of rule because the party knows no other way of governing and calculates that it has too much to lose by experimenting with something else.

For its part, London evidently calculated that challenging Beijing  over the small matter of  “genuine” universal suffrage for Hong Kong was not worth the risk. Better to suffer more mockery from the  pundits than risk more of Beijing’s wrath … and considering all the lucrative investment opportunities Beijing now controls.

The sequence unfolded like so.  Long ago, in September 2013, British Foreign Office minister Hugo Swire made headlines here with his signed opinion piece published simultaneously in English and Chinese (South China Morning Post, Ming Pao Daily, Sept. 14, 2013).  The important thing about the coming electoral reform, he wrote, is that “the people of Hong Kong have a genuine choice to enable them to feel they have a real stake in the outcome …  And of course, Britain stands ready to support in any way we can.“

Beijing’s media campaign went into overdrive and has remained there ever since on the theme of “foreign force” responsibility for all that pro-democracy campaigners are doing here.  Unphased, British parliamentarians went ahead and organized a select committee to look into the subject.  Parliament can monitor British government policies but recommendations are not binding. 

Beijing banned committee members from coming to Hong Kong as part of their inquiry, at which point it became clear that  Foreign Affairs Committee (FAC) lawmakers and their Foreign Office colleagues were no longer on the same page.  Parliamentarians expected at least a stern rebuke to Beijing from the Foreign Office on their behalf for the unprecedented insult since British citizens otherwise enjoy visa free access here.    Proof positive of just how far apart they had grown in the wake of new Beijing claims that London’s legal right to concern itself with Hong Kong had actually expired at midnight on June 30, 1997 (Jan. 5, 2015 post).  

More proof came in the person of Hugo Swire himself who had done a neat turn-about by the time he visited Hong Kong this year, on January 8.  He told pro-democracy Legislative Councilors, without qualification or explanation, that they should do what Beijing was demanding and accept its August 31 decision.  Nor was he alone in the testimony he gave to the FAC trying to reach its own conclusions on Beijing’s implementation of the one-country, two-systems policy in Hong Kong (Jan. 26 post). 

One after another, Foreign Office officials endorsed the idea of “genuine choice” as Swire had done in 2013.  But they seem not to have delved very deeply into the institutional underpinnings of Beijing’s August 31 decision or they would at least have noted that “genuine choice” and the election framework mandated by that decision are mutually exclusive.  Much like Netanyahu’s back-tracking on the two-state solution.  Beijing editorial writers commended London for finally seeing the light (China Daily, Jan. 21).

In due course, both the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee and the British government’s Foreign Office issued their Hong Kong reports.  These at least provide a nice contrast and suggest why Beijing is adamant in pursuing its strict definition of unitary government.  If only the National People’s Congress would contradict China’s Foreign Ministry in such terms!

When it was published, earlier this month, the committee’s report said the election reform proposals did not offer a genuine choice to the people of Hong Kong and the report cautioned against allowing political tensions here to remain unresolved.*  

The Foreign Office report, which is a bi-annual exercise, did push back against Beijing’s new line that London has no right to monitor developments here.  But Beijing’s main point had not been about London’s legal right to monitor Hong Kong’s post-1997 progress and Beijing’s effort was not in vain.  The Foreign Office report featured a vaguely argued gloss on the important issue of political reform:  too bad the August 31 decision is so restrictive …  still, something is better than nothing   …   and maybe something more will come later …  **


After bearing the brunt of the “foreign force” accusations for two years, Washington also took refuge in a “two-part” solution.  The British House of Commons was at least able to register its concern and expedite its reporting within less than a year.  The U.S. Congress chose a more circuitous route that must jump through several legislative and executive hoops before being implemented.  But last November, responding to Hong Kong’s Umbrella/Occupy street protests then still underway, a bipartisan bill was introduced in both the House of Representatives and the Senate.  

This will, if passed, revive the annual U.S. government reports on political developments here.  These reports were originally mandated by a 1992 law passed when concerns about Hong Kong’s post-1997 future were at their height, but the reports are no longer required.  The new bill seeks to revive the annual reporting mechanism “for 10 years or until the Secretary (of State) certifies that Hong Kong has held free and fair elections for 2 consecutive Chief Executive and 2 consecutive Legislative Council periods.” ***

Manning the fort here in Hong Kong, however, Consul General Clifford Hart told pan-democrats in late January that Washington preferred they ‘take something rather than nothing’ and accept Beijing’s terms for the 2017 Chief Executive election (South China Morning Post, Feb. 2).  Why he should make such a direct recommendation, one way or the other, is unclear since all the diplomats here always insist they do not interfere in local politics.

So the whole wide world seems to have rallied to Beijing’s side, against those 27 pan-democrats and their vow to veto.  The world seems not to appreciate that this is not an ordinary policy decision where compromise is the name of a successful game.  This one is about evolving from one system to the other. Beijing’s August 31 framework has coopted Hong Kong’s long-sought goal of universal suffrage.  In its place is a precedent-setting mainland-style design that can only lead to a mainland-style one-country, one-system conclusion.








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