Beijing has published dozens of white papers over the years, but few as sensitive in their timing as the one this week on Hong Kong. It is the first in the 17 years since the handover and seeks to set the tone for political debate. It came 10 days before an unofficial so-called referendum on options for the 2017 chief executive election organised by Occupy Central activists, and also ahead of the movement's plan to block the business district unless the government adopts a plan for universal suffrage it finds acceptable. The white paper echoes sentiments previously expressed by officials. But it says there is confusion still over the "one country, two systems" concept, and some lopsided views on Hong Kong's political development. It makes it clear that while the city may enjoy a high degree of autonomy, this is only at Beijing's discretion. In other words, if Beijing can give Hong Kong power, it can also take it away.
The reason for compiling a comprehensive document seems to be Beijing's perception that the civil disobedience plan and the campaign to allow public nomination of candidates for chief executive amount to a challenge to its legal authority. These concerns are articulated by Lau Siu-kai, vice-president of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies, who said Beijing felt it had to set the record straight because "the pan-democrats tried to reject the central government's power during the debate on political reform".
They were dramatised last week when retired senior official Zhou Nan, a former Xinhua director in Hong Kong, accused "anti-China forces" of trying to seize control and warned that the PLA would step in if riots were to occur here. Secretary for Justice Rimsky Yuen Kwok-keung rightly said Hong Kong police could handle any threat to law and order on their own.
Clearly, in both cases, Beijing is trying to avoid a challenge to its legitimate authority by dissuading people from taking part in the referendum or the civil disobedience protest, which is more likely to damage the city's image and business reputation than to advance universal suffrage. We trust that most Hong Kong people are rational in their yearning for political development and recognise that Beijing has a legitimate say in the pace of it. The mainland, after all, has a vested interest in the city's success. Indeed, the white paper says the mainland should respect Hong Kong's capitalist way of life and draw on its successful experience in economic development and social management.