White Paper puts HK's autonomy in jeopardy

White Paper puts HK's autonomy in jeopardy
A policeman stands in front of a group supporting China's recent white paper over the control of Hong Kong, during a mass protest demanding universal suffrage in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong faces a gradual transition from the "one country, two systems" principle that gives it a high degree of political autonomy, to a "one country, one system" based on mainland China's political system. This is if Beijing's recent White Paper on the city is adhered to.

It is no wonder then that the half a million Hong Kongers who took to the streets on Tuesday, the anniversary of the city's handover to China by Britain in 1997, demanded the withdrawal of the paper, among other things.

The White Paper published on June 10 will likely curtail the degree of autonomy of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) and align its political system with that of China.

The paper appears to be aimed at moving Hong Kong closer politically to the mainland in preparation for 2047, when the "one country, two systems" is due to expire.

It does this by rolling back some of the guarantees stipulated in the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration and the 1990 Basic Law.

These two documents, which laid the foundation for Hong Kong's governance after its handover to China, guaranteed that it would enjoy a "high degree of autonomy, except in foreign and defence affairs" and that it would be vested with executive, legislative and independent judicial powers.

But Beijing's White Paper now says a "high degree of autonomy" does not mean total autonomy. It argues the central government in Beijing has total authority over the SAR via a new concept of "comprehensive jurisdiction".

This concept says "the high degree of autonomy of HKSAR is not an inherent power, but one that comes solely from the authorisation by the central leadership" and is "subject to the level of the central leadership's authorisation".

The White Paper also omits mention of the city's executive power. It states that "HKSAR would be vested with legislative and independent judicial power, including that of final adjudication". This is a departure from the two earlier documents.

Alarm bells were sounded back in March this year that Hong Kong might lose its autonomy when Premier Li Keqiang's annual report to China's parliament failed to include the phrase "Hong Kong people governing Hong Kong". It is the first time in 17 years that Beijing has failed to make reference to it in the report.

The White Paper indicates too that Beijing would take steps to assert its authority over Hong Kong. These steps were already hinted at in an article written in 2012 by Mr Zhang Xiaoming, then deputy director of the Hong Kong and Macao Office, a Cabinet-level body overseeing the affairs of the SARs.

Mr Zhang's article was meant to explain President Xi Jinping's policy towards Hong Kong soon after the latter took over the helm at the 18th national congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in November 2012.

In it, Mr Zhang, who is now head of the Central Liaison Office, or Beijing's chief representative in Hong Kong, stated a number of powers the central government enjoyed but had hardly exercised. These included the power to review and reject the laws enacted by the SAR; power to decide which national law to apply to the SAR; final authority over the way the chief executive and legislature are elected; and power to explain and revise the Basic Law, Hong Kong's mini Constitution.

Mr Zhang argued that apart from symbolically appointing the chief executive and principal officials, the central government had not exercised the other powers vested in it. Henceforth, the appointment of the chief executive and principal officials had to be "substantial" and the other powers should also be exercised.

His exposition of Mr Xi's policy towards Hong Kong is now embodied in the White Paper.

The White Paper is troubling also for its attempt to extend China's political and legal values to the SAR, what "one country, two systems" sought to avoid.

It imposed a political criterion - patriotism - for top officials and judges. In Hong Kong's political context, "patriotism" as defined by the pro-Beijing newspapers meant not just "loving the country" but also identifying with "socialism" and, by extension, unquestioned obedience to the CCP and its policies. Many people found this hard to accept.

The White Paper also demanded dual loyalty. Under the Basic Law, top officials and judges need only pledge loyalty to the SAR, not the country. This was to ensure that the two political entities are separate. But under the White Paper, they have to pledge loyalty to the central government as well, thus opening the way for political integration, something many Hong Kongers do not want.

It also makes political demands on judges. It stresses that when discharging their duties, judges should bear in mind national interests. This is absolutely alien to the legal tradition of the city.

The White Paper also stressed that national security interests should take precedence in all policies regarding Hong Kong. It went on to accuse some Western powers of meddling in local affairs. As a capitalist society, it is only natural that ideologically Hong Kong inclines towards the capitalist West. Yet the paper considers this as opening up the city for Western intervention into local affairs and would compromise China's national security.

A typical case is the Occupy Central movement. Beijing saw it as a local movement inspired by the Western concept of democracy to try to seize administrative authority over Hong Kong from the central government.

To Hong Kongers, if the principles laid out in the White Paper are put into practice, the future does not bode well for the SAR.

First of all, the universal suffrage promised under the Basic Law will not be authentic, but merely one where Beijing will pre-select a number of candidates for Hong Kongers to pick.

Second, Beijing is likely to try again to enact the national security law provided for in the Basic Law, given its obsession with countering Western infiltration. Its first attempt in 2003 was aborted after strong resistance.

Third, in order to further assert its authority over Hong Kong, the Central Liaison Office would be given a more explicit role in overseeing Hong Kong. There is already discussion within the local CCP units that the communist organisation might end its current "underground" status in Hong Kong.

Fourth, there would be a creeping erosion of the city's legal tradition unless the demands of the White Paper are scrapped. As the legal sector is the last line of defence in the "one country, two systems" formulation, it would be disastrous if this is breached.

Finally, the White Paper casts a long shadow over the freedom of speech, thought and the press so jealously guarded by the SAR. The massive July 1 demonstration testified to this concern.

This article was first published on JULY 4, 2014.
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