Beijing's white paper sounds death knell for Hong Kong as we know it

Albert Cheng says by reneging on its pledge of a high degree of autonomy for 50 years, Beijing seeks to turn the SAR into just another Chinese city

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 19 June, 2014, 11:56am
UPDATED : Friday, 20 June, 2014, 2:07am

The State Council's white paper on the "one country, two systems" policy in Hong Kong is tantamount to a death certificate for China's promise of a "high degree of autonomy" in the special administrative region.

The paper was published in Chinese and English and has also been translated into French, Russian, German, Spanish, Arabic and Japanese.

It is obviously meant to be an international announcement of Beijing's latest policy on Hong Kong, almost 30 years after the signing of the Sino-British Joint Declaration spelling out the conditions of Hong Kong's return to Chinese rule.

Much of this wordy document is typical propaganda.

Take the section on "Supporting Hong Kong in the fight against Sars", for example. It reads: "To ensure the safety of life of the Hong Kong people and help the Hong Kong economy climb out of recession, the central government promptly lent a helping hand. Although the mainland also needed medical supplies in the fight against Sars, the central government provided a large quantity of free medical supplies to Hong Kong."

What it does not say is that the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus that was spread to the world via Hong Kong came from the mainland. Hong Kong was caught unprepared because of the Chinese authorities' cover-up of the health crisis despite media reports of growing panic.

If the central government had warned Hong Kong and the World Health Organisation of the hazard, our frontline medical staff might have had the first Sars patient in the city quarantined in time after he was admitted to Kwong Wah Hospital.

Propaganda aside, the white paper also signals a drastic change of Beijing's attitude to how Hong Kong is to be run.

It declares that "the high degree of autonomy of the HKSAR is not full autonomy, nor a decentralised power. It is the power to run local affairs as authorised by the central leadership. The high degree of autonomy of HKSAR is subject to the level of the central leadership's authorisation. There is no such thing called 'residual power'."

That is to say, Beijing can dictate what can or cannot be done in Hong Kong, as it sees fit. This, of course, includes the plan for the next chief executive to be elected on a "one-person, one-vote" basis in 2017.

This is a far cry from what Hong Kong people and the world were given to understand. China is supposed to exercise control only over the SAR's defence and diplomatic affairs. Apart from that, Hong Kong should have a free hand in administering its domestic affairs.

The paper also introduces "patriotism" as a selection criterion for officials of the SAR government, including judges at all levels. The notion of "Hong Kong people running Hong Kong" has now been twisted into "Hong Kong patriots running Hong Kong".

Top officials, of course, have to take an oath of allegiance before they take office. Yet, patriotism is not a legal concept. In practice, it will be up to Beijing to define who is patriotic.

Even a former communist high official closely involved in the Sino-British negotiations in the 1980s has found the white paper unpalatable.

Bao Tong, the former policy secretary of Zhao Ziyang , who signed the Joint Declaration as Chinese premier, has urged the Chinese authorities to retract the white paper so as to salvage its international reputation.

Bao denounced the paper as a short-sighted attempt to suppress the Occupy Central movement.

His views, expressed through the international media, resonate with mainstream public opinion in Hong Kong.

In June 1995, Fortune magazine screamed in its cover story, "The Death of Hong Kong", saying that under Chinese rule Hong Kong would lose its role as an international commercial and financial hub. Twelve years later, the magazine back-tracked and conceded, "Well, we were wrong … reports of Hong Kong's death have been greatly exaggerated."

Another seven years have gone by. Fortune's original prediction now does not seem that far off the mark, after all. The promise of Hong Kong's high degree of autonomy is meant to be valid for at least 50 years. The white paper, however, has ended that 33 years too early.

Critics have taken the white paper as a renunciation of "one country, two systems" as we know it.

We can hardly depend on Leung Chun-ying's administration to defend our rights. Instead, top local officials have been lobbying community leaders to rally behind the white paper.

It is now up to Hongkongers to speak up in the critical months ahead to fight for what we deserve.

The legal fraternity will launch a protest march from the High Court to the Court of Final Appeal next week.

Lawyers are, for the most part, not accustomed to street action. This may as well mark the beginning of a new campaign to prevent Hong Kong from degenerating into just another Chinese city under communist rule.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator.