Leung Chun-ying's sobering reminder of limits of autonomy
Regina Ip says the chief executive's keynote address to Legco was a reminder that the Basic Law's definition of 'high degree of autonomy' is not the same thing as full autonomy
On the first day of business of the Legislative Council, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying took the unusual step of making a policy statement without taking any questions from the lawmakers. The howls of protest from a number of lawmakers diverted attention from the messages in his statement, constructed to send strong signals to the people of Hong Kong regarding their place in the nation.
Indeed, the chief executive devoted nearly half of his speech to elaborating his positions on various macro and constitutional issues before speaking on local concerns about poverty, housing and the ageing population.
It was no accident that the chief executive began his speech by drawing attention to the "big picture" of the global political and financial uncertainty that has taken a toll on China's economic development and, by extension, Hong Kong's economic well-being.
It was a subtle reminder that Hong Kong and its motherland share a common economic destiny, and that we would not be able to solve our domestic problems if the mainland's economic strength was sapped.
The chief executive went on to remind Hong Kong people that they enjoy, among other advantages, the benefits of the enormous hinterland provided by the mainland, which had opened up unprecedented business, career and study opportunities for Hong Kong people.
The mainland continues to offer Hong Kong people preferential market access through its "liberalisation measures". But, Leung noted, a viewer survey by a mainland television station found that "the majority of mainland residents felt that the central authorities were too generous in giving Hong Kong privileges, such as those under the Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement (Cepa), without asking for similar arrangements in return."
Leung cautioned that "we should not assume that people in the mainland have no views about the preferential treatment that Hong Kong enjoys". It was a sobering reminder that we Hongkongers, so ready to criticise the mainland's inferior social justice system, should pause to consider how our mainland compatriots look upon us. In the eyes of many, we are an overly dependent and ungrateful bunch.
The chief executive also took pains to elaborate on another vital constitutional issue that lies at the core of controversies surrounding the relationship between the central government and Hong Kong. Much as some of us might champ and chafe at the frictions brought about by the overly rapid and imbalanced economic integration with the mainland in some areas - giving rise to calls to "defend Hong Kong" during the recent Legco electoral campaigns and the unfurling of the colonial Hong Kong flag in recent protest marches - Leung stated firmly that "the 'autonomy' enjoyed by Hong Kong under 'one country, two systems' is a high degree of autonomy as defined in the Basic Law, not autonomy of a different form or content".
As some mainland jurists have argued, a "high degree of autonomy" offers a lower degree of autonomy than "autonomy". Thus, if Hongkongers harbour any notions of autonomy beyond what is allowable under the Basic Law, they are well advised to dismiss from their minds such fallacious fancies.
Another important constitutional issue that Leung dealt with in his address was the relationship between the government and the legislature. Mindful of the rapidly approaching showdown between the executive branch and lawmakers over funding approval for an old-age living allowance of HK$2,200 per month, Leung warned that "both sides would shoulder the responsibility if a policy that benefits our people does not come to fruition".
The public would judge the performance of officials as well as legislators, he said.
The relationship between the executive branch and the legislature is "not a zero-sum game", he added. Leung was, in effect, warning off political parties who wanted to score political points from the government. Although the two branches "have their respective roles and powers", he said, both sides take credit if people's overall welfare is improved. This message may sound unpalatable to those wedded to the doctrine of the separation of powers, but is a reminder of the responsibility of the executive and legislative branches of government in working for the greater good of Hong Kong.
That is not to say that Leung's opening speech to Legco wasn't missing some links, which undermined his vision for Hong Kong. In talking about the people's "core values", Leung could have done better than parroting the usual canonisation of "liberty, human rights, democracy and the rule of law".
Strictly speaking, democracy and the rule of law are institutions of a modern, free society rather than the values that underpin such a society. Leung gave no sign that he had grasped the question of the future of large numbers of Hong Kong people who do not want to build their future by living on the mainland.
Be that as it may, his opening salvo to Hong Kong people is a subtle reminder that you can complain but don't try to change what cannot be changed - you are part of China.
Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee is a legislator and chair of the New People's Party