Hong Kong must find its place in a family of 1.3 billion

Regina Ip says the only way the city can live up to its historic mission of reconciling 'one country' with 'two systems' is to consider how its unique traits may both benefit itself and serve the nation

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 December, 2012, 10:23am

Shortly after the 18th Communist Party congress, Beijing officials responsible for Hong Kong and Macau lost no time to reiterate the central authorities' policies on the two special administrative regions. Of the pronouncements made, a 6,000-word article by Zhang Xiaoming, a deputy director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, deserves special attention.

The article represents the latest attempt by the central authorities to deal with the problems arising from the implementation of "one country, two systems", a bold concept designed to resolve the conflicts inherent in accommodating two radically different systems within one country. A key message from Zhang is that in the process of implementing this unprecedented arrangement, Hong Kong or Macau must deal with "three sets of relationships". They are, in effect, the three key contradictions that have dogged the Hong Kong SAR since its creation 15 years ago.

The first deals with the relationship between "one country" and "two systems". Since 1997, pundits have debated which comes first. The central authorities acknowledge that Hong Kong's separate systems - like the tea stains on the fabled zisha (purple clay) teapot from the city of Yixing, Jiangsu - are the city's hallmark. But while they agree that these characteristics should be treasured rather than erased, they stress that "decision by referendum" or "self-rule by Hong Kong as a city-state" does not sit well with the "one country" principle.

The mainland needs to respect and tolerate the consequences of Hong Kong's free-market, capitalist system, and it stands to benefit from some of the city's advanced management systems and experience. Conversely, Hong Kong should also respect the socialist system practised on the mainland, especially its administrative and judicial systems. Hong Kong's challenge lies in successfully implementing the "great divergence" of Hong Kong within the "great commonality" of the Chinese nation.

This relationship obliges Hong Kong to safeguard the "sovereignty, security and developmental interests" of the nation, including implementing Article 23, the national security provisions of the Basic Law, "at an appropriate time". There is no strident call to rush into legislation, but a solemn reminder that Hong Kong has yet to fulfil its constitutional obligation.

The second relationship, which follows on from the first, concerns upholding the central government's authority while maintaining Hong Kong's high degree of autonomy. Zhang found it necessary to elaborate that the central government's authority goes beyond its widely publicised responsibilities for foreign affairs and defence, but also covers a wide range of administrative powers, including the pivotal powers of appointment of the chief executive and principal officials, and reviewing and remitting legislation enacted by Hong Kong's legislature.

Objections to the interpretations of the Basic Law by the National People's Congress Standing Committee - on the grounds that they undermined Hong Kong's judicial independence - were cited as assaults on the NPC's authority, in defiance of express provisions of the Basic Law. Hong Kong was reminded that a high degree of autonomy is not complete autonomy, and that its autonomy stems from authorisation by the central authorities, not from innate powers of its own.

Finally, less readily picked up by Hong Kong's chattering classes but no less important is the third relationship, which falls within the economic sphere. Building on the strong advantages afforded by mainland China's vast hinterland, Hong Kong needs to enhance its competitiveness and integrate it with the mainland's advantages. After listing a string of policy measures tailor-made to boost Hong Kong's economy, Zhang acknowledged that the continuous opening up of the mainland and development of adjacent regions have dented some of the competitive advantages of Hong Kong and Macau.

The key to the two SARs' ability to thrive lies in adopting pragmatic and effective measures to raise their own competitiveness. This entails enhancing established advantages, while creating new, bright spots of growth that mesh well with global trends in economic development and restructuring.

Hong Kong is reminded that, as the housing problem and the widening wealth gap become more acute, it must continue to grow and develop to secure the wherewithal to resolve these problems. The Hong Kong community is asked to show more tolerance, more care for the underprivileged, more consideration of the national interest, and more willingness to consult and compromise in order to build a more harmonious society.

In sum, as a member of the family of over 1.3 billion Chinese, Hong Kong needs to embrace diversity in unity, and divergence in harmony.

Zhang articulates a vision of Hong Kong which, if successfully realised, could spell peace and prosperity across the straits for generations to come. The "Second Coming" of the Basic Law, 15 years after its birth, carries high hopes and vast challenges for a city still treading an uncertain path as it struggles with its historic mission.

Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee is a legislator and chair of the New People's Party