Beijing’s interventions remind Hong Kong of the importance of national interests
Tian Feilong says the central government’s more hands-on approach does not mean ‘one country, two systems’ should be allowed to fail. Rather, it’s a reminder that Hong Kong should reconsider the role it plays in the nation’s development
Hong Kong has not been calm after the chief executive election. Beijing has become more proactive, even tougher, in governing the city, and “one country” has grown in importance in the formula blending it with “two systems”.
This change did not come about only recently. In the past few years, conflicts have erupted between Beijing and Hong Kong. Against this backdrop, the central government is gradually shedding its habit of self-restraint under the principle of “one country, two systems” and has become less amenable to arguments touting the rule of law and its governance system.
Hong Kong society has felt the change. Many are wary, some are disgusted, but no one can do anything about it.
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Several recent incidents related to this shift towards “one country” have drawn much attention. They arguably signal an intention by Beijing and the SAR government to set the rules and spell out the bottom line for Hong Kong people, particularly those who oppose Beijing.
In terms of rule setting, we see it in the spate of legal action against political activists following the chief executive election. Among those arrested, charged or convicted were those involved in the Mong Kok riot last year, protest leaders of the 2014 Occupy movement, the two disqualified pro-independence lawmakers, and those involved in protests over the oath-taking saga.
Such actions were an attempt not only to build a relevant new case law framework through the rule of law, but also to reverse a tendency in the Hong Kong judiciary wherein the protection of “one country” accorded by the Basic Law has been ignored, as seen in the jailing of seven police officers for beating up an Occupy activist. A consensus has been reached that using the rule of law to suppress the promotion of Hong Kong independence is a way to govern Hong Kong.
As for spelling out the bottom line, Wang Zhenmin (王振民), the legal chief of Beijing’s liaison office here, made it clear recently at an academic seminar. He said the permanent return of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty is a constitutional fact that cannot be changed, and that if the “one country, two systems” formula failed, Hong Kong would lose everything.
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I recall Zhang Xiaoming ( 張曉明 ), director of the liaison office, espousing similar views while speaking in August 2014 on Hong Kong’s political reform, to the effect that Beijing would not be affected by the success or failure of Hong Kong.
Much earlier, in the 1980s, when Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) was formulating the “one country, two systems” concept, he said that while Hong Kong was needed to help the country modernise, the country could not entirely depend on, or be bound by, Hong Kong. Times have changed. The reform and development on the mainland today have further lessened China’s dependence on both Hong Kong and the success of the “one country, two systems” principle.
Having said that, we should not allow “one country, two systems” to fail. This is because it is not simply a transitional constitutional arrangement designed to benefit Hong Kong, nor just a measure to spur the modernisation of China’s economy. In the larger context, it is no less than an experiment on the nation’s governance system that will have implications for the modernisation and internationalisation of China. Thus, its success or failure affects not only Hong Kong, but the entire nation.
Hong Kong must protect its high degree of autonomy to ensure ‘one country, two systems’ remains effective
“One country, two systems” should continue to thrive in Hong Kong for the following reasons.
First, it is entering its second phase. The Basic Law and Hong Kong’s experience as a special administrative region still play an exemplary and guiding role in the modernisation of the nation’s governance system. Hong Kong’s constitutional value as a “special governance zone” is surpassing its value as some kind of a special economic zone.
Second, Hong Kong’s knowledge of the international system and experience in engaging with the rest of the world are invaluable to the roll-out of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a project crucial to the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation and the remaking of a global order for the 21st century.
Third, a driving force is needed for the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macau Greater Bay Area project. If not Hong Kong alone, Hong Kong and Shenzhen should team up to spearhead the development. Thus, Hong Kong’s confidence and participation in the project is key.
Fourth, Hong Kong’s efforts at democratisation and constitutional reform are an integral part of China’s overall journey towards constitutional democracy. No reform in any of the major cities on the mainland can take its place.
Fifth, there are signs that the independence and separatism movement in Hong Kong is subsiding following Beijing’s intervention, the exercise of the rule of law of Hong Kong and rejection by Hongkongers themselves. There are also signs of hope for political reconciliation. Now is the time to unleash the vitality and creativity of the “one country, two systems” concept so that it can continue to benefit both Hong Kong and the whole country.
Hong Kong became a wonder of the world living on “borrowed time”, all thanks to the “one country, two systems” framework. The radicalisation of Hong Kong society and emergence of an independence movement in recent years runs counter to the purpose and goals of “one country, two systems” and has harmed Hong Kong’s future and the national interest. This is a problem that both Beijing and Hong Kong must jointly tackle.
The constitutional responsibility of making “one country, two systems” a success does not rest on Hong Kong alone. Whether out of a need to uphold the Basic Law, or from the perspective of the country’s political, economic and strategic needs, “one country, two systems” is a national experiment. Thus, the country must assume the biggest and first responsibility.
By setting the rules and spelling out the bottom line, Beijing is not making a sly attempt to impose mainland rules on Hong Kong, nor is it shirking its responsibility towards the city. Rather, it is a way of calling on Hongkongers to make good use of the “historical time” made available under the “one country, two systems” framework and start afresh, with a positive attitude and a can-do spirit, and with the nation’s interests in mind.
Tian Feilong is an associate professor at Beihang University’s Law School in Beijing, and a member of the One Country Two Systems Youth Forum Ltd. This is translated from Chinese