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  • Aug 27, 2014
  • Updated: 9:34pm
Beijing White Paper 2014
CommentInsight & Opinion

White paper doesn't signal a shift in Beijing's policy on Hong Kong

Bernard Chan says firmly worded white paper is aimed at global audience

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 10 July, 2014, 12:14pm
UPDATED : Friday, 11 July, 2014, 2:07am

The "one country, two systems" white paper released recently has prompted a major debate. While it is still on our minds, I think two particular points should receive some attention.

The first is that the "one country, two systems" formula is a two-way process. This is something we often overlook. The second is the importance of international observers as target audiences of the white paper.

The white paper was a very detailed statement of how "one country, two systems" works. It seems to be addressing an audience that maybe did not fully realise how remarkable and unprecedented that arrangement is. Back in the 1980s, many people were sceptical that a British colony could transfer to full Chinese sovereignty while successfully retaining its many differences. Today, we take it for granted.

Some people disliked the paper's clear message that Hong Kong's autonomy is granted by the central government and is not "inherent". This is a constitutional fact. China is not like the United States, where the constitution grants only specific powers to the federal government and leaves others to states that have their own degree of sovereignty. However, we do enjoy a high degree of autonomy under this framework, and the white paper emphasised that.

Some commentators interpreted the white paper as a threat to this autonomy. It did not do that, but the second half of the document did stress that Hong Kong's autonomy exists in the context of the "one country". It did this, for example, by mentioning that Hong Kong leaders must be patriotic, above all.

To me, this is a reminder that Hong Kong's autonomy is subject to the condition that the city is not a threat to the power centre in Beijing. In effect, the deal is that Beijing does not interfere in Hong Kong - and Hong Kong does not interfere in the mainland. Political movements in Hong Kong that oppose Communist Party rule raise the possibility of breaking that arrangement. It follows that such people would not be seen as acceptable to lead the city. As we saw, local pro-democrats voiced alarm at the white paper. But it also seems to have shocked some of the overseas press to see the constitutional order presented in such a firm manner. Some of the international media reported this almost as some sort of shift in Chinese government policy.

It was not a change in policy and did not contain any broad points that we had not heard before. Perhaps some readers found the tone assertive. That is not surprising, as the paper was intended to firmly lay down the party line rather than stimulate debate or discussion. Indeed, I think it was aimed at ensuring that there would be no misunderstandings as Hong Kong continues its process of constitutional reform.

In particular, the paper stressed that the system of universal suffrage for 2017 has to be in accordance with the Basic Law and the other conditions we have heard so much about. I think this was aimed not simply at Occupy Central and others demanding a different system, but at parts of the overseas media.

To me, the white paper is aimed at setting the record straight to the international audience: civil nomination of chief executive candidates is simply not an option. That way, as constitutional reform hopefully continues, the overseas media will be less likely to report the outcome as some sort of broken promise.

A recent opinion poll showed some classic Hong Kong common sense and pragmatism: while a majority of people favour public nomination, they see any "one man, one vote" election as better than the status quo. The fact that Beijing is so firm on the details suggests that this reform will be a real change. For that reason, it will deserve the support of Hong Kong people, and the attention of the international press.

Bernard Chan is a member of the Executive Council


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Bernard Chan's assessment is doubtless correct: the White Paper represents no shift in Beijing's commitment to the "one country two systems" policy. But I want to point out that his indication of China, largely a unitary state, as "not like" the United States is only partially correct. It is true that the US federal government and the individual states "share" sovereignty. But for over 150 years now the trend in the US has been one of centralization of power in the federal government and the shrinkage of state rights. The American Civil War was fought primarily for the assertion of federal power over the individual or even a collectivity of states (the Confederacy), which were denied the right to high degree self-rule or secession. Desegregation, for example, was often centrally enforced and imposed on the local people.
--Self-rule is always limited in such a context. The sovereignty of Hong Kong has never been and was not meant to be a local decision (otherwise there would have been a referendum); in that sense, the White Paper was merely stating a fact, that the degree of autonomy afforded Hong Kong is decided by Beijing (or London, before 1997).
" In effect, the deal is that Beijing does not interfere in Hong Kong - and Hong Kong does not interfere in the mainland."

Except that Beijing interferes in Hong Kong all the time. Objectively speaking, Beijing broke the deal. They can't even pretend to respect Article 22 of the Basic Law when it comes to their devolved departments like the Liaison Office.

There's also that rather awkward and misinformed statement in the white paper that all HK judges are administrators and therefore must be patriotic, except for the fact that there are many judges sitting on the bench that are not Chinese nationals. This severely affects the credibility of the white paper. It's like Beijing doesn't understand how HK works despite HK being a part of China for 17 years. Completely out of touch with reality.

The Cayman Islands and the British Virgin Islands also are part of a unitary state, but the UK never had to release a white paper about that. That's because the UK is confident, and not an insecure paranoid self serving dictatorship.

If Beijing wants to show the world what a total unsophisticated banana republic it is with all the idiotic mouth frothing and brain dead barking dogs, then this is the way to do it.
The UK can hardly be called a unitary state. But this is too minor a point. More important, both the Cayman Islands and the British Virgin Islands have been under British control since the 1600s, whereas China has just recently assumed sovereignty over Hong Kong after 150 years of UK rule. Give China another 70 years, and the craving for a white master in HK will subside (although like UK dominance in the past, political life is highly contingent).
----The UK has not released a white paper asserting sovereignty over Scotland either, not because it is confident, but because it no longer has the will and power to impose it on the Scots. And by the way, it is not far-fetched at all to see the judiciary as just one part of the 3-branched social administration so prevalent in western nations. In that sense, the judiciary is an administrative component, part of government anywhere on earth.
[That way, as constitutional reform hopefully continues, the overseas media will be less likely to report the outcome as some sort of broken promise.]

Whatever Beijing's intentions were, the problem is that some 800,000 Hong Kong voters have made it very clear that they will regard anything that falls short of real universal suffrage as a broken promise. Never mind foreign media, that is not the kind of number any government can or should just plainly ignore.

Furthermore, would Mr Chan please clarify the vague reference to the 'recent opinion poll' that supposedly shows that the majority of Hongkongers would find ANY 1m1v deal better than nothing?


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