City Beat

Debate over white paper both necessary and natural

There are many questions to be answered in Beijing's policy adjustment over Hong Kong

PUBLISHED : Monday, 23 June, 2014, 4:57am
UPDATED : Friday, 04 March, 2016, 1:02pm

The day Beijing released the unprecedented white paper on "one country, two systems" proclaiming its "comprehensive jurisdiction" over Hong Kong, it also decided that two senior officials would head to the city to promote the paper and give a better understanding of what it entails.

But the visit was postponed suddenly, two days before their scheduled arrival date of June 19. The official reason was the pair's busy schedule. The speculation is that amid the "Occupy Legislative Council" drama and Occupy Central's unofficial referendum, Beijing didn't want to add fuel to the political fire.

The two officials - Zhou Bo, deputy director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, and Zhang Rongshun, deputy director of the Basic Law Committee - are no strangers to Hongkongers. Neither was this the first time Beijing had decided to send its people to Hong Kong to convince the public of an important decision or policy.

But there were seldom delays in the past. It later emerged that the "busy schedule" holding up the pair was the preparation of more supplementary materials on the white paper, as Beijing realised it could cause controversy and confusion.

Throughout the white paper, one message is clear: national interests and security prevail even under Hong Kong's two systems. Thus a key issue Zhou and Zhang would have to address is the relationship between the country's constitution and Hong Kong's Basic Law.

"In accordance with the Basic Law (on Hong Kong matters)" has been Beijing's standard phrase since the 1997 handover. But the white paper uses a new expression, stressing that it is both the constitution and the Basic Law that give the fundamental basis for Hong Kong's system. A whole chapter highlights how Beijing's various powers over Hong Kong are prescribed by both of these, not just the Basic Law.

This could be a signal from Beijing that it can no longer tolerate an interpretation that sees Hong Kong's Basic Law as being cut off from the country's constitution.

But if Beijing believes that the city lacks a sense of national interest and that Hongkongers need to understand and respect the constitution's authority on top of the Basic Law, then why has Beijing rarely touched on the matter? That is why some Hongkongers are wondering if Beijing is now tightening its definition of "two systems".

The white paper posed a riddle for all Hongkongers, regardless of their political stance. As a citizen of the country, a Hongkonger has to respect the constitution, which protects the mainland's socialist system; but under "one country, two systems", the Basic Law ensures Hong Kong's capitalist system, which is in conflict with the socialist system. Confusion is inevitable.

Can Zhou and Zhang properly answer all these questions in only a few days? Surely not. In the meantime, the white paper could be a driving force prompting more people to take to the streets and join the Occupy Central civil-disobedience movement.

But Beijing seems to have a greater concern - national interest. The drafting of the white paper began a year ago. It signals a comprehensive policy adjustment over Hong Kong in the long run; it isn't simply targeting Occupy Central and the 2017 electoral reform. Given this, prolonged debate over the paper would be both necessary and natural.