One foot in China, one in the world

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 June, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 June, 2011, 12:00am


Rita Fan Hsu Lai-tai, the former president of the Legislative Council and now a member of the National People's Congress Standing Committee, dropped a bombshell recently by suggesting that enacting local legislation to implement Article 23 of the Basic Law should be a priority task of the next administration. Although she changed tack quickly afterwards, her remarks reignited interest in issues that should merit priority treatment by the next administration.

A quick scan of the recurrent topics that come up for debate in Legco or the editorials of leading Hong Kong newspapers would easily produce an ample litany of woes uppermost in the minds of Hong Kong people - runaway home prices, soaring commercial rentals, the widening wealth gap, the inadequacy of services for the elderly, the decline in governance standards; the list could go on. Legislators, representing the 'will of the people', as the system was designed to provide, and our media watchdogs, being one of the closest to popular opinion, have been tirelessly telling the administration what the people would want to see done. The issues raised are almost a no-brainer. Any chief executive candidate would have no problem stringing together a list without recourse to help from a campaign team.

Yet I would argue that the most important insight the next chief executive should have is a strategic vision of how to implement 'one country, two systems', not just to Hong Kong's advantage, but also as a win-win proposition for the nation as a whole.

'One country, two systems' lies at the core of Hong Kong's reincarnation as a special administrative region after 1997. Originally designed by Deng Xiaoping to bring renegade province Taiwan back into the fold, this bold and creative concept is intended to resolve conflict arising from a historical problem - the different systems which Taiwan and former colonies Hong Kong and Macau had practised after centuries of foreign rule. The very fact of the espousal of this concept by Chinese leaders attests to their tacit acceptance that there is much worth preserving in the systems built by the 'foreign devils', whether it be the free markets, or the 'formal-rational' legal system built on logical reasoning, involving consistent application of abstract legal propositions, as opposed to the patrimonial and particularistic Chinese systems.

'One country, two systems' is a work in progress. Given the yawning disparity between the two systems, it is small wonder that, 14 years after the handover, there is much in the implementation of the provisions of the Basic Law enshrining the concept that remains unresolved and conflicted. A prime example is the implementation of the Basic Law provisions governing Hong Kong's constitutional set-up. Does ultimate selection of the chief executive by universal suffrage mean Hong Kong's eventual transformation into a Western-style democracy where the highest ruler is elected by the people via universal suffrage, thereby precluding any role of the state in the process? What sort of timescale does 'gradual and orderly progress' envision? Does the ultimate aim of electing all members of Legco by universal suffrage permit the retention of functional constituency representatives? Hong Kong people have been arguing about these thorny issues for years and you can be sure they will come back to haunt the next administration.

Likewise, in the economic arena, questions are being asked about whether arrangements written into the Basic Law to protect Hong Kong's immigration and customs autonomy remain an asset or are a liability. Hong Kong's ability to apply immigration controls on people entering the city, including those from the mainland, has shielded it from a possible massive influx of mainland immigrants, and ensured the international acceptability of the SAR passport. But Hong Kong's status as a separate travel area from the mainland, and the need for immigration controls, could pose a real hurdle to greater integration through the movement of people, especially after the completion of the high-speed rail link.

Our status as a separate customs territory helped Hong Kong secure accession to the World Trade Organisation ahead of mainland China, Taiwan and Macau. But now some businessmen hell-bent on cracking the fast-growing mainland market are half regretting our separate status, and are clamouring to be treated on a par as 'domestic' investors.

The quandaries facing Hong Kong are not simply a matter of a stark choice between embracing China's market and that of the rest of the world. It would indeed be a misapplication of 'one country, two systems' if Hong Kong were ever to see it as such. The whole concept was intended to give Hong Kong a unique advantage in the nation, enjoying the support and abundant resources available from our vast hinterland, while remaining plugged into the rest of the world, as Hong Kong has always been, and capable of lever- aging the latest trends in global developments.

In executing this concept, Hong Kong would have to be Janus-faced, and try, as the Qing rulers succeeded in doing in the course of building their large empire of Eurasia, to integrate disparate political and cultural traditions into a distinctive style of governance. That's no easy task, but undoubtedly it is the key to Hong Kong's success as China's first special administrative region.

Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee is a legislator and chair of the New People's Party