How to interpret China's promises

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 June, 1996, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 June, 1996, 12:00am

Will China keep its promises? People have never stopped asking this question since the conclusion of the Sino-British Joint Declaration.

China's promises about the future of Hong Kong are all contained in the Joint Declaration and the Basic Law. These include a high degree of autonomy, protection of rights and freedoms, independent judicial power, a legislature constituted by elections, and retention of the current social and economic systems and way of life.

Yet people keep asking Chinese officials: will the Special Administrative Region government be controlled by Beijing? Will there be elections in Hong Kong after 1997? Will there be freedom of the press? These are all supposed to have answers already provided in the Joint Declaration and the Basic Law.

One may wonder, for those who do not believe in the promises enshrined in these two documents, what good is it asking Chinese officials to repeat the same promises? But the questions may not be as futile as they seem. Perhaps the real question is not whether China will keep its promises, but: what has China promised? Vast disparities exist between Hong Kong and the rest of China in social and economic systems and in the way of life. It is precisely because of these disparities and recognition that they are to persist for a long time after Hong Kong's return to China, that the principle of 'one country, two systems' has been conceived, and has been adopted as the fundamental policy of the Chinese Government for bringing about the country's reunification.

One important way these disparities manifest themselves is in expressions such as 'democracy', 'election', 'rule of law' and 'press freedom'. They may mean very different things to Hong Kong people and the Chinese Government.

Thus, when people asked Lu Ping , director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, whether there would be press freedom in the Hong Kong SAR, they were not asking what the Basic Law says, but what China means by what is said in the Basic Law.

The reaction of both the local and foreign media to Mr Lu's answer showed they thought Mr Lu's interpretation of 'press freedom' was very different from what they believed Hong Kong should enjoy, despite Mr Lu's efforts to clarify his initial remarks.

Deliberations over the distinction between 'reporting' and 'advocating' were of little consequence. To many it is an indisputable fact that China does not hold similar standards for press freedom as are now held in Hong Kong. Mr Lu's statements convinced them that the Chinese Government is going to impose its standards on press freedom in the SAR.

Similar conflicts in interpretation are bound to arise in the implementation of the Basic Law. The Chinese Government realised the problem when drafting the constitutional document, for it did not keep the power of interpreting the Basic Law entirely in its own hands.

The Basic Law declares, in article 158, that the power of its interpretation is vested in the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress. Immediately after that, however, the article says the Standing Committee authorises the courts of the Hong Kong SAR to 'interpret on their own, in adjudicating cases, the provisions of this law which are within the limits of the autonomy of the region'.

Even when a provision at issue involves the central government and requires an interpretation from the Standing Committee, the committee for the Basic Law, half of whose members will be Hong Kong residents, is to have a say before the committee's interpretation is made.

This is more promising than relying on the authority of individual Chinese officials.