18 February 2019
Chinese leader Xi Jinping said “the concept of ‘one country, two systems’ was advanced, first and foremost, to realize and uphold national unity”. Photo: Reuters
Chinese leader Xi Jinping said “the concept of ‘one country, two systems’ was advanced, first and foremost, to realize and uphold national unity”. Photo: Reuters

China charter revision shows HK future hangs by a thread

On Feb. 25, the Xinhua news agency disclosed in a terse report that the Communist Party of China proposed to remove term limits on the president and vice president from the national constitution. This happened on March 11, exactly two weeks later, when the nearly 3,000 members of the National People’s Congress, China’s parliament, voted on the resolution, with only two opposed and three abstentions.

This was a dramatic rollback of one of Deng Xiaoping’s major political reforms in the 1980s, in the wake of the death of Chairman Mao Zedong, whose one-man, 27-year rule had exacted a huge toll on China.

Xi Jinping, who concurrently holds the posts of general secretary of the party, chairman of the Central Military Commission and president, was able to undo Deng’s handiwork in a matter of days.

Now, Xi is virtually all-powerful, having been declared the “Core” of the party, with his “Thought” enshrined in both the party and state constitutions, and with the ability to serve as the country’s leader for as long as he likes. He can also, if he likes, add new clauses to the 1982 constitution or, as he has just done, remove existing provisions.

This is very disturbing, especially since another feature of the 1982 constitution, also Deng’s handiwork, was the addition of the novel concept of “special administrative regions”, which provides justification for Hong Kong and Macau to practice capitalism rather than socialism.

The 1982 constitution marked a major break with the past, when constitutions came and went with the political winds. Thus, the 1975 constitution, adopted during the Cultural Revolution, was a highly ideological document. It was replaced, after Mao’s death the following year, by another adopted in 1978.

It was only in 1982 that a far more detailed document appeared that attempted to be a permanent constitution rather than one that reflected the ups and downs of the politics of the day. It provided a foundation for China to evolve into a country governed by law and not just the Communist Party.

Fortunately, Xi has repeatedly asserted that China will not change its “one country, two systems” policy regarding Hong Kong. However, there is no getting around the fact that, since Xi assumed office, the central government has significantly tightened its control over Hong Kong.

In his closing speech at the congress on March 20, Xi declared, “We will comprehensively and accurately implement the principles of ‘one country, two systems’, ‘Hong Kong people governing Hong Kong’… and a ‘high degree of autonomy’.”

This echoed his message on the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to China, when he recalled that “Mr. Deng Xiaoping put forward the great vision of ‘one country, two systems’ which guided China’s diplomatic negotiations with the United Kingdom to the successful resolution of the Hong Kong question”.

As Xi said, “the concept of ‘one country, two systems’ was advanced, first and foremost, to realize and uphold national unity”.

Since 1997, national unity has been upheld and the question of “one country” has been definitively and irreversibly resolved, with Hong Kong reunified with China. Now, it seems, the focus should be on “two systems”.

But Beijing doesn’t see it that way. Understandably, the Chinese government would be opposed to any Hong Kong independence movement.

However, common sense makes it clear that independence is simply not possible, since Hong Kong depends on the mainland for its food and water. There seems little reason for Beijing to be fearful.

But Xi is resorting to rather extreme nationalistic rhetoric, saying for example that “every inch of the territory of our great nation cannot be separated from China”.

If that is China’s position, there seems little point for any of its neighbors with territorial disputes to negotiate. Negotiations, after all, involve give and take. If China won’t give an inch, it will only be taking. Certainly, in past negotiations, China was willing to be reasonable.

Similarly, with Hong Kong, China should recognize that for “one country, two systems” to be successful, it must expect people in Hong Kong – by definition from a different system – not to agree with the Chinese government 100 percent of the time.

And when this happens, Beijing should not automatically bring out its old toolbox and call them unpatriotic, subversive or even traitors.

After all, as Deng Xiaoping promised, there would be room for various views within the Hong Kong government. As he put it, not only capitalists but even those who believe in feudalism or slavery would be acceptable.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.

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