20 May 2019
Imagine its impact if the change in the Basic Law came to light at the height the recent street protests. Photo: AFP
Imagine its impact if the change in the Basic Law came to light at the height the recent street protests. Photo: AFP

What happened to Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong?

Since Xi Jinping took the helm as Chinese leader, changes have been taking place across the nation, largely to show his ambitions to build China into a world power.

In Hong Kong, these changes have been mainly reflected in its system of governance which has been increasingly influenced by the central government in Beijing.

Theoretically, Hong Kong is a special administrative region of China with a high degree of autonomy for 50 years after its 1997 handover from Britain.

The applicable doctrine is “one country, two systems”, coined by Deng Xiaoping to ensure Hong Kong’s democratic freedoms under a communist regime.

And that doctrine undergirds an international treaty, called the Sino-British Joint Declaration, which sits in the vaults of the United Nations.  

That is the basis of an important provision in the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini constitution, which stipulates “Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong” – until the Hong Kong government changed its spirit and meaning.

Activist investor David Webb says the government made the change when no one was looking.

Here’s the change, according to Webb (italics ours): “The Basic Law is a constitutional document for the HKSAR. It enshrines within a legal document the important concepts of ‘one country, two systems’, ‘Hong Kong People administering Hong Kong’ and a high degree of autonomy.”

The word “administering” appears in the English version of Basic Law fact sheets for the first time, although the Chinese translation retains “ruling” as the operative word.

It is the English version, ostensibly written for a world audience, that changes everything.

Grammarians might quibble over nuance but ordinary citizens understand the difference — “ruling” connotes autonomy while “administering” suggests power devolved from a higher authority.

That’s very much in line with Beijing’s interpretation of Hong Kong’s governance principle in a white paper issued in June, which says Beijing is the source of Hong Kong’s autonomy.

Interestingly, the Hong Kong government did nothing to inform the public about the change other than issue a fact sheet.

But it must know that Hong Kong people deserve to be told about such substantive change with potentially permanent ramifications.

Instead, it’s allowing it to slowly filter into the public consciousness, perhaps in hopes that Hong Kong people will miss its significance and forget about the whole thing.

In light of mounting demands by Hongkongers to elect their own leaders, this action by Leung Chun-ying’s government only increases their suspicion that he is working not for them but for the bosses in Beijing.

Imagine its impact if all this came to light at the height of the recent street protests. 

Still, it’s an issue that will keep Hong Kong people wary — even fearful — of their own government and suspicious of Beijing.

Already, China has warned Britain to keep off Hong Kong, saying it completed its “historic” part of the Sino-British Joint Declaration when Hong returned to Chinese sovereignty on July 1, 1997.

Britain and China have had a contentious exchange over that but no one put it more succinctly than Daniel Ma, a young student protester.

“The UK has a legal responsibility and a moral responsibility to ensure Hong Kong has 50 years of high autonomy, but as we can see, China has breached the Joint Declaration… China has breached the law and I want to tell the whole world,” he said.

If Hong Kong people feel let down by China and look to Britain as a kind of political white knight, who can blame them?

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EJ Insight writer

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