What more does China want from Hong Kong 20 years on from handover?

Beijing’s point man on Hong Kong affairs, Zhang Dejiang, appears to be signalling a harder line on how the city should be governed

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 30 May, 2017, 6:00pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 30 May, 2017, 9:36pm

When Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor takes the oath as Hong Kong’s next chief executive presumably before President Xi Jinping on July 1, the city she governs will face a sovereign state that has signalled it wants a firmer say in how it is run.

That was the conclusion many came to when they heard Zhang Dejiang, the third highest-ranking state leader and head of the Communist Party’s coordination group on Hong Kong affairs, giving a tough prescription last week for the way forward. It was immediately read as Beijing’s sternest directive to Hong Kong, telling its political leaders, opposition camp and residents at large what more the central government could, and should, do in order to keep a tighter rein on the city’s affairs.

State leader Zhang Dejiang declares Beijing’s power to ‘supervise’ Hong Kong civil servants’ allegiance

Zhang’s case for doing so looks like this. As Hongkongers have been deemed to be growing increasingly localist and opposed to Beijing’s rule, as shown during the pro-democracy Occupy campaign in 2014, it is time for Beijing to make clear that China’s sovereignty over the city is “comprehensive”.

More significantly, the “high degree of autonomy” enjoyed by the city came as a result of power delegation from Beijing, not power sharing.

The solution to minimising such wayward thinking in the geographically peripheral but financially vital city, he seems to suggest, is to strengthen the central government’s sovereign powers with reference to Hong Kong’s mini-constitution.

“In the face of all kinds of challenges and problems,” he said during a 50-minute speech at the Soviet-style Great Hall of the People on Saturday, “there have been forces, internal and external, that spare no effort in smearing the central and the special administrative region (SAR) governments, in smearing ‘one country two systems’ and the Basic Law.”

I do not think there is any new element to support the view that Beijing is tightening its grip on Hong Kong
Albert Chen, Basic Law Committee member

The words sound ominous but few in Hong Kong know exactly what will follow. Asked about Zhang’s call for Hong Kong to fulfil the constitutional obligation of protecting national security – which some fear would see an accelerated move to relaunch the highly contentious Article 23 legislation – Lam’s chief executive-elect office gave a cautious reply. She repeated what is in her election manifesto – that the issue had been controversial in the past, while reiterating it was a constitutional duty to enact the legislation.

Beijing loyalists have tried to suggest that it was not an entirely groundbreaking manifesto.

“I do not think there is any new element to support the view that Beijing is tightening its grip on Hong Kong,” said Professor Albert Chen Hung-yee, a member of the Basic Law Committee under the National People’s Congress Standing Committee.

Beijing’s Basic Law adviser gives speech for top leaders (and ditches parts about Hong Kong’s freedoms)

Chen, one of the 170 guests invited to listen to Zhang’s speech, added that it was “more about a systematic summary of the views of central government officials and mainland academics raised in recent years”.

That summary, if it is one, is asymmetrically focused on Beijing’s powers and Hong Kong’s duties, with little mention of Hong Kong’s rights and Beijing’s obligation to preserve them, countered Nathan Law Kwun-chung, an Occupy student leader turned lawmaker.

He argued that Zhang’s speech marked a further departure from the original intent of the Basic Law. “The central government’s thirst for power [over Hong Kong] is all but apparent. ‘One country, two systems’ will only decline further than it ought to,” he said.

The Saturday morning seminar was attended not only by mainland officials in charge of Hong Kong affairs and politicians from the city, but also other central government officials who typically have less to do with Hong Kong, such as the transport minister and the vice-minister of foreign affairs.

Hong Kong’s Bar Association chief warns against making Basic Law interpretations by Beijing ‘standard practice’

Others call to attention a number of new points in Zhang’s speech that will probably form the basis for Beijing’s policy direction after the celebratory mood under the Victoria Harbour fireworks display on July 1 is over.

While the communist party has always insisted that the chief executive has to be a patriot – which pan-democrats read as effectively a ban on them vying for the city’s top job by conflating loyalty with docility – Zhang’s most recent remarks extended that to the level of the governing team, which “shall be made up of patriots”.

The term “governing team”, in the context of Hong Kong’s political rhetoric, usually refers to executive positions appointed by the chief executive, such as the secretaries and undersecretaries.

The central government, he added, “bears the responsibility to supervise” whether “statutory public officers” in Hong Kong pledge allegiance to China and Hong Kong. That may add more uncertainty to Carrie Lam, who is still in the midst of forming her cabinet. It is understood that she wants to include at least one pan-democrat in her governing team.

To clear any doubt about the reach of the country’s power over Hong Kong, Zhang said that it extended well beyond diplomacy and national defence. According to the head of China’s national legislature, the list is a lengthy – but not exhaustive – one: the power to assess laws passed by the city’s legislature, the power to appoint the city’s chief executive and key officials, the power to interpret and amend the Basic Law, the power to determine Hong Kong’s constitutional development and the power to instruct the chief executive.

Tian Feilong, a Beijing-based Basic Law academic with Beihang University and another guest on Saturday, called it the “new normal” for Beijing to further “institutionalise” its powers over Hong Kong.

“These powers will become an important subject for Beijing to study Hong Kong policies,” he said. “When it matures, Beijing’s supervisory power will be incorporated into Hong Kong’s laws by way of the NPC Standing Committee interpreting the Basic Law, issuing decisions or drafting laws that will be added to Annex 3 of the Basic Law.”

Also for the first time – in a way that alludes to how Xi has come to be known within the Communist Party – Zhang defined the chief executive as the “core” of an executive-led political system that characterises Hong Kong. In other words, there can be no challenge to the authority of the chief executive.

Beijing’s version of the true meaning of the Basic Law is what the central government interprets it to be
Johannes Chan, legal scholar

More worrying to some of Hong Kong’s legal professionals, Zhang went on to dismiss the assertion that the common law jurisdiction practised separation of powers, a constitutional principle that Hong Kong’s chief justice, Geoffrey Ma Tao-li, has said on at least one occasion applies to Hong Kong.

“Increasingly Beijing is telling us that what the Basic Law means is what the central government says it means,” said Johannes Chan Man-mun, a former law dean at the University of Hong Kong.

“Beijing’s version of the true meaning of the Basic Law is what the central government interprets it to be. This is a classical reflection of the communist understanding of the law – that it is an instrument to serve political needs and therefore its interpretation depends on political needs,” Chan added.

With barely a month to go before a new five-year administration starts, all eyes are on how much sway the new chief executive has in the face of an apparently increasingly assertive central government.

Xi may not have attended the seminar and read out the speech himself, but Zhang’s repeated reference to the man considered the most powerful Chinese leader since Deng Xiaoping made plain where the message was coming from. If anything, it offered enough hints on how fraught the road ahead will be for the central government, Lam’s administration and pan-democrats and localists alike as they come to terms with the evolution of “one country, two systems”.

On July 1, the 20th anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong from British colonial rule to the mainland will be a moment for reflection, but all attention – hopes and fears – will be on what actions will come afterwards.