Beijing and Hong Kong must increase trust to dispel governance rumours
There was much speculation when two guiding principles of Hong Kong governance were omitted from Premier Li Keqiang's first work report. Unlike his predecessors, who usually acknowledged the policy of "Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong" and the city's "high degree of autonomy", Li said the central government would firmly adhere to the "one country, two systems" concept and implement the Basic Law in a "comprehensive and accurate manner". Given the sensitivity of the issue, this raised concerns about whether it signals a policy change on the city.
The significance has been played down by mainland and local officials, though. Zhang Xiaoming, director of the central government's liaison office in Hong Kong, said the words were omitted to keep the report concise. Some argued that the two principles are already embedded in "one country, two systems". Others warned against reading too much into the omission, saying the Basic Law has clear safeguards already.
The speculation is understandable. In the context of Chinese politics, a slight change of protocol or rhetoric can unleash wild interpretations. There is no shortage of examples of the media playing up the presence, and in some cases the absence, of some key political figures or messages.
This is not the first time the key words have been omitted. They were not mentioned every year during Zhu Rongji's tenure as premier. But Li's omission fuelled disquiet because it came a day after another top official stressed the city does not enjoy full autonomy. Of course, Beijing has a legitimate interest in the city's affairs, be it foreign affairs or those vested within our autonomy.
The two principles, along with "one country, two systems", are promises enshrined in the Basic Law and the Sino-British Joint Declaration. They are often cited as a sign of unity to show we can preserve our way of life under Chinese rule. They are the reasons why the reunification is hailed as a success. They are as much safeguards for Hong Kong as obligations for Beijing.
Hong Kong's future lies in its remaining an international city with a high degree of autonomy. It is in the interests of Beijing and Hong Kong to reinforce confidence in its success. The unease sparked by the change in rhetoric shows there is a need for the two sides to increase trust. Otherwise, there might be a vicious cycle, with Beijing accused of interfering whenever it sees the need to reiterate the principles of governance.