• Wed
  • Dec 24, 2014
  • Updated: 3:06am
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 17 June, 2014, 12:43pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 18 June, 2014, 1:31am

Does Beijing intend to weaken powers of the Hong Kong government?

Frank Ching says a close reading of the white paper hints at Beijing's wish to take back the executive power it granted to the SAR


Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s bureau in Beijing in 1979 when the U.S. and China established diplomatic relations. Before that, he was with The New York Times in New York for 10 years. After Beijing, he wrote the book Ancestors and later joined the Far Eastern Economic Review.

In the late 1970s, Britain presented China with a problem: what to do about Hong Kong since the British lease on the New Territories, which accounted for more than 90 per cent of the colony, would expire in 1997.

At the time, Hong Kong was of great value to China. It was a major earner of foreign exchange when Beijing was close to bankruptcy following the Cultural Revolution. It was also a Chinese base for obtaining international intelligence and for the support of revolutionary movements in Southeast Asia. Small wonder, then, that Deng Xiaoping decided on a policy of "one country, two systems" with "a high degree of autonomy" for Hong Kong after 1997 - a policy later enshrined in the Basic Law.

Now, decades later, Hong Kong's value to China has plummeted. Beijing is flush with money. World revolution is no longer a goal and, as for intelligence, China has eyes and ears around the world with little need for Hong Kong. Little surprise, then, that the new white paper on Hong Kong emphasises not autonomy but Beijing's control over Hong Kong. It traces the history of how China brought about the return of Hong Kong. Significantly, it recalls that, in 1983, Beijing formulated "12 basic policies regarding the question of Hong Kong", known as the 12 principles. Those basic policies are enshrined in the 1984 Joint Declaration - but with one key difference.

The Joint Declaration says: "The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region will be vested with executive, legislative and independent judicial power…" However, the relevant point of the 12 principles said: "The HKSAR would be vested with legislative and independent judicial power…" There was no mention of executive power in 1983.

Thus, China's original plan did not include an SAR government with executive power. Evidently, in the wake of the Sino-British talks, Beijing decided to vest executive power in the Hong Kong government. This is affirmed in Article 2 of the Basic Law, which says: "The National People's Congress authorises the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region to exercise a high degree of autonomy and enjoy executive, legislative and independent judicial power…"

The white paper is a reminder that China's original principles did not include executive power for Hong Kong. Instead, the white paper loudly affirms the powers of the central government.

Is Beijing thinking of going back to its original model before it reached the agreement with London? That would be a serious mistake. Concentrating power in the central government inevitably means weakening the Hong Kong government. A weak local government would be unable to cope with the growing complexities of running Hong Kong. It would mean frequent confrontation between Beijing and the many unhappy people in Hong Kong, with no buffer in between.

Once Chinese troops, rather than Hong Kong police, are sent in to break up demonstrations, Hong Kong will become ungovernable. Money and people will flee, never to return. China's image will drop to levels not seen since 1989. Is that what Beijing wants?

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator. frank.ching@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter: @FrankChing1


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This article is now closed to comments

Mr. Ching makes a good case that the white paper supercedes Basic Law, and in fact renders it obsolete and irrelevant. Beijing is the new boss in town. There will be no law except that which is determined by the CCP. And in the great CCP tradition, any law will simply be an evolving process driven by the CCP's needs of the moment. The judiciary becomes the battering arm of the CCP political machine, whereby it no longer interprets the law but merely does what the CCP tells it to. And Hkers can go pound sand. This is the new HK, and the old one will progressively fade away like dodo birds.
I'm especially curious as to how CCP stooges like Carrie Lam and Rimsky Yuen will proceed. For months, they parroted Basic Law as though Sir isaac wrote it himself. All of a sudden, they just learned that for every force there may not be an equal and opposite force. Talk about getting your world rocked. But ultimately, i think they'll manage ok. As well trained CCP stooges, they're well equipped to go with whatever the CCP throws them. Basic Law? Great, they can run with that. Now state council white paper instead? I imagine, after taking a minute to reorient themselves and recalibrate their rhetoric, they won't miss a beat.
I guess Frank has a point, but it's hard to imagine the "executive-led" HK government getting weaker than it already is. Leung Chun-ying is already afraid to go out in public, where he'll either be yelled or laughed at. And are there any ministers whose reputations are not already shredded?
So it remains for we Hongkongers to face down the CCP and protect our freedoms.
To even ask that question, one must be dumb enough to believe the HK government has power to be weakened. It is just smoke and noise. Even the "opposition" are a part of this charade. It looks too rubber stamped if there was no "opposition" arguing about this and throwing buns at that. For all you know, they pay the opposition to do what they do, as paid actors. Ever notice, after months of debate and public contention, the decisions in the end are always the same as if there was no debate back in day 1? That is the power of the undiminished HK Govt. Just a bunch of well paid people pretending to make decisions when all decisions are made up already in Beijing. Its not bad work if you can get it. Ride in cars, A/C offices, nice salary. All one would need is to be able to talk in circles and make points emphatically, knowing in the end, there will be no consequences no matter how extreme the points are. Nothing will change, like this talk about where the 30% electric power will come from. Mainland. Done. It is necessary to control HK like how Russia controls Ukraine and Western Europe today. If HK builds gas fired power stations, where will the gas come from? South China Sea, Chinese pipes.
Mr Juicy
I think it more likely that the 12 principles are quoted in full because they form part of the historical context which is summarized in that part of the White Paper. Elsewhere, the White Paper repeatedly emphasizes the central government’s commitment to fully and faithfully implementing “One Country Two Systems” and the Basic Law (Article 2 of which refers to executive power). Inherent in the concept of “One Country Two Systems” is the idea that the powers that are vested in the SAR can be taken back, at least in theory. But such powers could not be taken back without inflicting huge damage on the “One Country Two Systems” concept, which central government is committed to fully and faithfully implement. As I see it, this paradox is the mirror image of the one faced by Hong Kong, that while enjoying a high degree of autonomy, it is directly subject to the authority of the central government, with all that implies. Thus under “One Country Two Systems” it cannot enjoy the former, without accepting the latter.


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