Do Lu Ping's comments reveal Beijing's hidden bottom line?
Former top official says patriotism requires respecting, if not loving, the socialist system
The "carrot and stick" approach is common in negotiating and bargaining. It would not be exceptional for Beijing to use this tactic in its talks with Hong Kong's pan-democrats on who may be eligible to run as the city's leader in 2017, hopefully through universal suffrage.
Thus, the latest from a retired yet widely recognised Hong Kong affairs authority on the long-debated definition of "loving the country" cannot be ignored.
Lu Ping, former director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office and a key decision maker during the drafting of the Basic Law, in a rare yet high profile interview with the China News Agency, stated that "loving the country" meant upholding the China's constitution, and that therefore one must be loyal to the People's Republic of China and its socialist system even though Hong Kong has a capitalist system.
The interview came soon after Beijing invited all 70 lawmakers to visit Shanghai. This could be seen as calculated timing. The pan-democrats are still facing the "to go or not to go" dilemma, while Beijing has yet to confirm whether it will accept various pre-conditions from the pan-democrats.
One might ask whether Lu could still represent Beijing, given that he has been retired since 1997. That is the kind of do not come directly from the current top leaders. But from a ministerial level official like Lu, even after retirement, the political culture on the mainland is such that he would not make careless comments openly.
Lu made it crystal clear that "patriotism" was by no means something abstract, and he rebutted the long-time argument of the pan-democrats that one does not need to love the Chinese government, or the ruling Communist Party, but needs only to love the great culture and history of the country.
Lu challenged that "a foreign passport holder can also love the history and culture of China", thus that could not be the criteria for judging a patriot.
Whether one agrees or not could spark debate, but an important hidden question here is: was Lu taking a tougher stand on judging a "patriot" than the late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping ? Was Lu giving his own views or that of the current leadership, and, if so, to what extent?
Deng's definition of a "patriot" has been widely quoted - especially by the pan-democrats - to prove it is not necessary to love the Beijing government nor the Communist Party. Deng said a patriot must "love the motherland, love Hong Kong, sincerely support the transfer of sovereignty of Hong Kong to the motherland", yet need not agree with the socialist system. Lu did not ask that a "patriot" agree with or support the socialist system, but stressed that whoever intended to run for the top job must respect and not harm the mainland's socialist system.
Lu noted that the Basic Law was put into operation under China's constitution, and that it requires the Chief Executive of Hong Kong to "be accountable" to both the central government and Hong Kong's government and not to have any right of abode overseas. He concluded that, from a legal perspective, a "patriot" must safeguard the socialist system of the country stipulated in the constitution, even though one may not like it, because that's the responsibility of all China's citizens, including those in Hong Kong.
Will this be the bottom line for Beijing on the Shanghai trip, if the pan-democrats decide to go?
That is an open question now, but considering Wang Guangya , the current director of Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office - a post Lu held in the run-up to the handover - together with Li Fei , chairman of the Basic Law Committee, will meet the lawmakers in Shanghai, it could be a good reference to better understand Beijing's position.
The pan-democrats surely would not agree with Lu's logic, but they need to adjust their negotiation tactics. To keep the negotiations going forward is in the interests of our city.