Xi Jinping has little emotional attachment to the “return” of Hong Kong from colonial hands.
Shirley Yam
Shirley Yam

Beijing's 'take it or leave it' attitude on Hong Kong autonomy a far cry from 2003

Under Xi Jinping, the central government no longer cares what Hong Kong or the world thinks about 'one country, two systems'

To understand the significance of Beijing’s white paper on the “one country, two systems” principle, an episode in 2003 may help.

The then Hong Kong stock exchange was licking its wounds from the penny stock crisis, when a proposal to delist stocks trading below 50 HK cents led to a panic sale and public apology by a minister.

The government was eager to replace the bourse’s chief executive, Kwong Ki-chi, for mismanaging the incident.

Top government officials set their eyes on Gao Xiqing, a mainland-born, US-educated lawyer who had just left his job as a deputy director of the China Securities Regulatory Commission.

They saw Gao as an ideal candidate to push for further mainland business for the exchange given his Beijing connections and his brief stint as an investment banker in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong is no longer the priceless China vase that one should not touch without gloves

That happened at a time when the then premier, Zhu Rongji, had hired several Hong Kong regulators to work for their mainland counterparts.

Our officials sounded out the idea to the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office. The answer was a flat no. The reason: it would reflect badly on the one country, two systems principle.

Believe it or not, Beijing did care back then about the perceptions of people in Hong Kong and the international community.

The significance of the publication of the white paper is that Beijing couldn’t care less now. It is not about the content, most of which had already been laid out by Zhang Xiaoming in his report to the 18th Communist Party Congress weeks before he arrived in town as the head of the Central Government Liaison Office in 2012.

The report, widely believed to have been masterminded by state leader Xi Jinping, said: “High autonomy is not full autonomy. Hong Kong and Macau do not inherit their autonomy. Its roots are in the authorisation of the central government.”

The significance is in the fact that the policies have now been spelt out in an unprecedented white paper issued by the State Council Information Office in six languages.

What used to be kept within closed-door meetings out of concerns for local sentiment is now shouted out officially.

Do state leaders know that the white paper will push more Hongkongers into fear, anger and even migration? Of course. 

However, unlike his predecessor, Xi has little emotional attachment to the “return” of Hong Kong from colonial hands. He sees little chance of regaining Taiwan with the one country, two systems principle and thus recognises the falling value of Hong Kong as a showcase.

He does recognise Hong Kong’s economic contribution to the country, although its significance has been declining dramatically.

At the same time, he sees increasing evidence of a plot in Hong Kong to unsettle the country amid the American “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific region. The pushing and shoving in the South China Sea has only got him more convinced that Hong Kong is a political time bomb.

To Xi, Hong Kong is no longer the priceless China vase that one should not touch without gloves. His view is shared by many among China’s new generation of administrators. So, to Hong Kong people, they said: “Take it or leave it.”

Some may believe the straitjacket is only meant for the city’s political reform or, to be more specific, the Occupy Central movement.

Beijing is only angry about the political debate and will leave the rest alone for its own good, some have said wishfully.

Unfortunately, this is not how the country works.

The life of most mainland cadres is about doing whatever you can for personal gain until you get told off or arrested.

Time after time our officials have asked for help from Beijing to stop unreasonable requests from their mainland counterparts under the protection of the “one country, two systems” policy.

Now, there is a document from the top that basically says “autonomy at our mercy” and “take it or leave it”. 

What to expect from the many mainland cadres? What to expect from our officials?

Flashback back to the HKEx. From 2004 onwards, the Central Government Liaison Office in Hong Kong began to invite senior exchange officials to join its spring reception.

In 2009, within days of the announcement of the appointment of mainland-born, US-educated lawyer Charles Li Xiaojia as its chief executive, the liaison office invited him over for a cup of tea.

What next?

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This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: 'Take it or leave it' autonomy a far cry from 2003 episode