Beijing White Paper 2014

White paper doesn't signal a shift in Beijing's policy on Hong Kong

Bernard Chan says firmly worded white paper is aimed at global audience

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 10 July, 2014, 12:14pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 September, 2016, 8:46am

The "one country, two systems" white paper released recently has prompted a major debate. While it is still on our minds, I think two particular points should receive some attention.

The first is that the "one country, two systems" formula is a two-way process. This is something we often overlook. The second is the importance of international observers as target audiences of the white paper.

The white paper was a very detailed statement of how "one country, two systems" works. It seems to be addressing an audience that maybe did not fully realise how remarkable and unprecedented that arrangement is. Back in the 1980s, many people were sceptical that a British colony could transfer to full Chinese sovereignty while successfully retaining its many differences. Today, we take it for granted.

Some people disliked the paper's clear message that Hong Kong's autonomy is granted by the central government and is not "inherent". This is a constitutional fact. China is not like the United States, where the constitution grants only specific powers to the federal government and leaves others to states that have their own degree of sovereignty. However, we do enjoy a high degree of autonomy under this framework, and the white paper emphasised that.

Some commentators interpreted the white paper as a threat to this autonomy. It did not do that, but the second half of the document did stress that Hong Kong's autonomy exists in the context of the "one country". It did this, for example, by mentioning that Hong Kong leaders must be patriotic, above all.

To me, this is a reminder that Hong Kong's autonomy is subject to the condition that the city is not a threat to the power centre in Beijing. In effect, the deal is that Beijing does not interfere in Hong Kong - and Hong Kong does not interfere in the mainland. Political movements in Hong Kong that oppose Communist Party rule raise the possibility of breaking that arrangement. It follows that such people would not be seen as acceptable to lead the city. As we saw, local pro-democrats voiced alarm at the white paper. But it also seems to have shocked some of the overseas press to see the constitutional order presented in such a firm manner. Some of the international media reported this almost as some sort of shift in Chinese government policy.

It was not a change in policy and did not contain any broad points that we had not heard before. Perhaps some readers found the tone assertive. That is not surprising, as the paper was intended to firmly lay down the party line rather than stimulate debate or discussion. Indeed, I think it was aimed at ensuring that there would be no misunderstandings as Hong Kong continues its process of constitutional reform.

In particular, the paper stressed that the system of universal suffrage for 2017 has to be in accordance with the Basic Law and the other conditions we have heard so much about. I think this was aimed not simply at Occupy Central and others demanding a different system, but at parts of the overseas media.

To me, the white paper is aimed at setting the record straight to the international audience: civil nomination of chief executive candidates is simply not an option. That way, as constitutional reform hopefully continues, the overseas media will be less likely to report the outcome as some sort of broken promise.

A recent opinion poll showed some classic Hong Kong common sense and pragmatism: while a majority of people favour public nomination, they see any "one man, one vote" election as better than the status quo. The fact that Beijing is so firm on the details suggests that this reform will be a real change. For that reason, it will deserve the support of Hong Kong people, and the attention of the international press.

Bernard Chan is a member of the Executive Council