Xi’s melding of Beijing’s authority and Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy works well, top official says

Chinese president sets framework for how city and Macau should be governed in flexible and natural manner at 19th Communist Party congress

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 18 October, 2017, 7:46pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 19 October, 2017, 12:20pm

President Xi Jinping’s vision for Hong Kong of a blending of the concepts of central authority and a high degree of autonomy should work well and does not need to lead to confrontation or tension, said a Beijing top official.

Commenting on Xi’s spelling out of the relationship between the two at the 19th party congress’ opening, Zhang Xiaoming said: “A special administrative region’s power of high degree of autonomy was delegated by the central government, it branched out from Beijing’s sovereignty and comprehensive jurisdiction over it.”

Zhang, director of the State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, was speaking to People’s Daily after Xi’s speech.

The president had set the course for Hong Kong and Macau’s governance, calling for the melding of the two concepts of authority and autonomy to be achieved in a flexible and natural way.

In an unprecedented move, he also cited these two concepts as an integral part of the Communist Party’s governance ideology and fundamental strategies in his five-yearly work report.

Beijing’s position on having complete jurisdiction over the two special administrative regions and the “one country, two systems” model in which they enjoy a high degree of autonomy will now become part of the ideological canon of the party.

“The safeguarding of the central leadership’s comprehensive jurisdiction over Hong Kong and Macau, and that of the special administrative regions’ high degree of autonomy must be combined in an organic manner,” Xi said.

On this point, Zhang said that the key in handling the relationship between the two kinds of power was “to work in accordance with the constitution and Basic Law, and combine them organically – not to put them on confronting sides or reject each other”.

Zhang also said Xi’s speech showed the president “cares, supports and values” Hong Kong and Macau, and pointed out the direction for the two cities and the “one country, two systems” principle.

Xi also promised to support Hong Kong and Macau in integrating national strategies such as the “Greater Bay Area” development project, and roll out initiatives to help the city’s residents on the mainland.

“We will develop and strengthen the ranks of patriots who love both our country and their regions, and foster greater patriotism and a stronger sense of national identity among the people in Hong Kong and Macau,” he said. “With this, our compatriots in Hong Kong and Macau will share both the historic responsibility of national rejuvenation and the pride of a strong and prosperous China.”

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However, he warned against the promotion of separatism. In a veiled reference to regions such as Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan, Xi said: “We will never allow anyone, any organisation, or any political party, at any time or in any form, to separate any part of Chinese territory from China.”

His unequivocal stand against such separatist sentiments – which have emerged in Hong Kong in recent years – earned him the longest applause during a three-and-half-hour speech setting out his vision for the next phase of China’s development.

As commentators had expected, Xi mentioned Hong Kong in the first chapter of his report, on the theme of the party’s achievements in the past five years, and dedicated the 11th chapter of the 13-part document to Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan affairs.

On the party’s work, Xi said: “We have comprehensively and accurately implemented the ‘one country, two systems’ principle, and ensured that the central government exercises its comprehensive jurisdiction over Hong Kong and Macau, as mandated by China’s Constitution and the Basic Laws of the two [cities]. … The prosperity and stability of Hong Kong and Macau has been maintained.”

The phrase “comprehensive jurisdiction” was first mentioned when Beijing’s State Council, or cabinet, released a 15,500-word white paper spelling out what it called the “accurate” understanding of “one country, two systems” in June 2014.

Issued at a time when Hong Kong was debating political reform to achieve universal suffrage for the chief executive in 2017, it said Beijing enjoys comprehensive jurisdiction over Hong Kong, while the city was given “high degree of autonomy” to run its affairs only as authorised by Beijing.

Hong Kong opposition pan-democrats rejected the white paper for “redefining” the city’s relationship with Beijing.

What came as a surprise during his address on Wednesday was when Xi chose to cite Hong Kong in the third chapter of the report.

In that section, Xi listed out 14 principles of the basic strategy or “thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era”, and “upholding the principle of ‘one country two systems’ and promoting national reunification” was the 12th principle.

“We should ensure that the principle of ‘one country, two systems’ remains unchanged, is unwaveringly upheld and in practice is not bent or distorted,” Xi said, reiterating a series of phrases he first used in a meeting with then Hong Kong chief executive Leung Chun-ying in December 2015.

In the 11th chapter, dedicated to Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan, Xi made no mention of “comprehensive jurisdiction” nor directly addressed the issue of the nascent pro-independence sentiments in Hong Kong.

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Instead he reiterated that the “one country, two systems” model has proven to be the “best institutional guarantee for the long-term prosperity and stability of Hong Kong and Macau”.

Xi pledged to support the two cities’ governments and various sectors in developing their economies, fostering social harmony, improving people’s lives and “advancing democracy with well-ordered steps”.

Xi also said the “one country, two systems” principle must be comprehensively and accurately implemented.

Wang Guangya, former director of the State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, called the comprehensive jurisdiction as “a matter of obligation under the Chinese constitution and Hong Kong’s Basic Law”.

“It will not weaken the high degree of autonomy,” he said. “People will get used to it as they gradually become familiar with a correct understanding of ‘one country, two systems’.”

Asked what it means to “combine” Beijing’s authority over Hong Kong and Macau, as well as the two cities’ high degree of autonomy “in an organic manner”, Professor Lau Siu-kai, vice-chairman of The Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies, said Xi was reminding Hong Kong people that when they remember the city’s semi-autonomous powers, such as the power to maintain an independent judiciary, they must also bear in mind that Beijing is not “completely hands-off”.

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“For example, it has the power on the cities’ defence, foreign affairs … as well as the power to assess legislations reported by the Legislative Council,” Lau said.

“He’s saying Hong Kong’s power comes from the central government, Hong Kong and Beijing must work together to uphold ‘one country, two systems’ … and fulfil their responsibility in safeguarding national sovereignty and security.”

Tian Feilong, a Basic Law specialist at Beijing’s Beihang University, said the mention of “comprehensive jurisdiction” showed Beijing’s response to the rise of Hong Kong independence sentiment and the Occupy movement.

“It is the Communist Party’s internal institutionalisation of how to deliver ‘one country’,” Tian said. “There will be a bigger role for the liaison office to play in helping central authorities deliver their Hong Kong-related policies, for example by connecting with the Hong Kong government.”

Democratic Party leader Wu Chi-wai said Xi’s speech showed that Beijing was going to tighten its grip on Hong Kong.

“Xi has made it clear that the [central govenment’s] policies on Hong Kong should be based on his own interpretation of the Basic Law, which is: Beijing enjoys a full jurisdiction over the city’s affairs.”

Wu argued such a gesture would do no good in resolving the tensions between Hong Kong and Beijing, and also make it tougher for Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor to resolve the city’s deep-rooted conflicts.

“Lam has been pledging to mend the rifts in the society, but actually there is very little room now for her to manoeuvre,” he said, adding he thought Lam lacked the determination to do so.

Meanwhile, former chief executive Leung said that cooperation between the Hong Kong and mainland will benefit everyone, including the young.

“In the next three to four decades, Hong Kong and mainland young people’s careers will be closely intertwined with the nation’s development. They will have a huge platform, [much] energy and limitless opportunities to live a great life for themselves, their families and the nation.”

With additional reporting by Jeffie Lam