The true nature of Hong Kong autonomy

Regina Ip says we can't deny the political and historical realities that, no matter how stoutly we defend our separate identity and culture, we are still a part of the family that is China

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 March, 2014, 4:55am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 March, 2014, 4:55am

Every year, during the annual sessions of the National People's Congress and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference in Beijing, journalists from all over the world congregate in the Chinese capital, combing the texts of statements made by the Chinese leaders for clues to new policy directions or revisions of established policies.

This year, the leaders did not disappoint. At a meeting with Hong Kong and Macau members of the CPPCC on March 5, Zhang Dejiang, the chairman of the NPC Standing Committee and the highest-ranking official responsible for Hong Kong affairs, stressed that the "high degree of autonomy" enjoyed by the two special administrative regions was not "complete autonomy". It was authorised by the central authorities in accordance with the law, Zhang explained. The central authorities possessed complete sovereignty over Hong Kong, including the power to supervise the exercise of the "high degree of autonomy" by the two SARs, he added.

Zhang's explanations did not come as a surprise to the clear-headed, as "a high degree of autonomy" is, by definition, a qualified form of autonomy. Principal officials who have worked closely with the central authorities understood this from day one. But, for those who have been fantasising about Hong Kong's autonomy, Zhang's pronouncements came as a slap in the face.

In delivering his work report, Premier Li Keqiang dropped a further bombshell by omitting from his statement on Hong Kong and Macau words regarded by Hong Kong pundits as sacrosanct and central to the concept of "one country, two systems", namely, "Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong" and "a high degree of autonomy".

Although Zhang Xiaoming, Beijing's head representative in Hong Kong, elaborated afterwards that "one country, two systems" embraced the elements of both, questions linger as to whether their absence from an official speech reflects a subtle shift of emphasis in Beijing's policy on Hong Kong.

The question of whether Hong Kong's high degree of autonomy is intact really depends on the extent to which one wishes to stretch or overstretch Hong Kong's autonomy. If one is content with our separate systems and way of life, including the rule of law, capitalist system, the feisty media, rowdy daily protests and free and fair district and Legislative Council elections, then "one country, two systems" has worked extremely well, beyond the expectations of many who planned to emigrate before 1997.

But if one is going after political autonomy such as befits an independent political entity in defiance of the constitutional and historical reality of Hong Kong, one risks putting Hong Kong on a collision course with its motherland, and, in the process, undermining the vitality and harmony of this city.

The reality is that, historically, Hong Kong has always been part of China. As one Post reader pointed out in his letter published last Tuesday, Hong Kong benefited tremendously from British rule during the colonial days. Chinese in Hong Kong learned to live under the rule of law, probably Britain's greatest gift to mankind. Hong Kong's status as a British colony sheltered it from the turmoil of China for more than 100 years. Yet there is no denying that the China factor always loomed large in Hong Kong's development.

After the establishment of the People's Republic, China ensured a plentiful supply of food and water to Hong Kong, even at the height of its famine. Following the reform and opening up of China, Hong Kong's manufacturers and service providers benefited enormously from the abundant supply of cheap land and labour on the mainland, and the enormous market of 1.3 billion people. Yes, China kept up the supplies and opened its market out of self-interest, for good developmental reasons. But, both before and after 1997, Hong Kong people have always been given a special status and special consideration, well above that China would normally accord the mainland's teeming humanity.

With increasing movements of people across our artificial, northern boundary, new stress lines have inevitably emerged in our tiny city, already bursting at the seams with people and vehicles. More worrying to some is the rising influence of mainland culture, values and habits of mind on Hong Kong, with questions beginning to rise about whether "one country, two systems" will continue to thrive and survive after 2047.

Perhaps the Oxford English Dictionary, which recently added the terms "Hongkonger" and "Hong Kongese" to describe people from Hong Kong who consider Hong Kong their hometown, provides some useful pointers on how Hongkongers should resolve their identity issues. Hongkongers, like Chiu Chow folk and Fukienese, justifiably have a strong sense of their own heritage and identity. But, like their mainland brethren from other proud regions of China, we are part of the family.

Whether Hong Kong culture and values will endure beyond 2047 ultimately depends on ourselves - provided we don't allow bigotry, narrow-mindedness and complacency to get the better of our good sense, tolerance and compassion for those less fortunate than ourselves.

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