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

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 17 June, 2014, 12:43pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 18 June, 2014, 1:31am

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. Follow him on Twitter: @FrankChing1