Of my 45 years in Hong Kong, 34 have been spent in the public service and most of the rest with one foot in the media. It follows that I take a close interest in public affairs. All of us who love this city passionately feel let down by the deterioration in the content and style of public discourse in recent years. People on all sides of the political spectrum seem no longer able to have a civilised conversation on issues of the day, tending rather to hurl personal insults at each other and cast doubt on the integrity of opponents at every opportunity.
One area I would like to examine concerns what I consider to be a complete misreading of the significance of 2047. The pan-democrats seem to regard it as the end of the road, so we must cram into our laws and electoral system all the safeguards we can because, after that date, the gloves will be off and we will be at the mercy of the central government.
In the interim, we must oppose pretty much every move the Hong Kong government tries to make. For their part, pro-administration forces seem to see the year as bringing safety at last from the ravages of the barbarians. We just need to hold out another 30 years without meaningful political reform and we’ll be rescued.
Both sides are wrong because both have subscribed to the great myth that 2047 is the year the Basic Law expires. I have news for them: it does not. The Basic Law is permanent legislation enacted by the National People’s Congress. It will endure unless and until it is repealed. That does not mean it cannot change either by amendment or interpretation, but there is no sunset clause in the legislation itself.
It is true that one clause – Article 5 – gives a promise that the capitalist system and way of life will remain unchanged for 50 years (from 1997). But it is silent about what will happen after that time. In whose interest is it that there should be an abrupt change? There is more likely to be a series of gentle manageable changes as both Hong Kong and the mainland evolve.
An example of the small adjustments that will arise is the co-location arrangement at the West Kowloon terminus of the high-speed rail. Nobody could foresee at the time the Basic Law was being finalised that such a situation might arise. But when it did, the obvious thing to do was devise a pragmatic solution, which is what the two governments have done.
Some of the opposition has been hysterical. One candidate for Bar Association chairman said he was standing for election to stop the exercise of mainland law on “Hong Kong soil”. I have news for him: all the soil in Hong Kong is Chinese. Responsibility for management (only) has been delegated by the central government to the local government under Article 7.
A columnist in this newspaper even talked of an exchange of sovereignty and of the mainland acquiring a bridge of sovereign territory within Hong Kong. I have news for him too: there is only one sovereign power in all of China, including Hong Kong, and that is China. That has been the case arguably since time immemorial and certainly since July 1, 1997.
But if I have been hard on the opposition, that does not mean the pro-administration people or the two governments can be complacent. Do they really think frustrating the overwhelming public desire for greater democratisation and a faster introduction of universal suffrage can be maintained indefinitely? Did none of them study science in school? What happens if you clamp the lid of the kettle tight and light the gas?
I would urge both sides to try to see merit in the other’s point of view and seek common ground. Rather than viewing co-location as implementing mainland laws in Hong Kong, see it as a small adjustment to the border so that the basement is no longer part of the delegated management area.
Rather than seeing abolition of functional constituencies and universal suffrage as imports of wicked Western ways in a plot to subvert China, see them as the next stage in the full liberation of the Chinese people (and a lot less wicked than that other famous import, Marxist-Leninism).
Above all, start showing some respect for each other and indirectly to all of us. The future does not come to a halt in 2047, it stretches endlessly before us and what we will get is what we build together, starting from now.