China narrows HK autonomy but the tighter grip may backfire

November 27, 2017 14:26
A speech delivered by Li Fei, chairman of the Basic Law Committee, earlier this month stripped away the verbiage with which China has surrounded its Hong Kong policy, observers say. Photo: CNSA

For the first time in more than three decades, a senior Chinese official has defined Hong Kong's "high degree of autonomy" as joint administration by the central and local governments, with Beijing alone dealing with "some major matters".

Li Fei, chairman of the Basic Law Committee under the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, delivered a major address in Hong Kong on November 16.

The event was held at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Center, the very venue where the handover ceremony itself took place 20 years ago. To underline the importance of Li's talk, it was carried live and broadcast to assembled students in 50 secondary schools. However, since he spoke in Putonghua rather than Cantonese, it is doubtful that many students were able to understand his words.

The live audience in the convention center included Chief Executive Carrie Lam and many of her top officials.

China's leader, Xi Jinping, had delivered a major address in Hong Kong on July 1 to mark the 20th anniversary of the city's return to Chinese control. In October, Xi, during the Communist Party congress in Beijing, had again talked about "a high degree of autonomy" in Hong Kong. Hence, Li’s speech was not expected to deviate from it.

However, to everyone's surprise, the Basic Law Committee chairman, after repeating the mantras of "one country, two systems", "Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong" and "a high degree of autonomy", went into some detail to explain what these concepts mean in practice.

"In the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region," he said, "the Central People’s Government, together with the local authorities of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region authorized by the central government, jointly administer the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region."

"In the process," he added, "some important matters are directly administered by the central government while more local matters are dealt with by local authorities authorized by the central government to administer the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region."

That is to say, Hong Kong's "high degree of autonomy" means that the former British colony is jointly managed by the central government and individuals in Hong Kong that it has authorized to act on its behalf. While most local issues are handled by the Hong Kong authorities, some major issues are managed solely by the central government.

This Li speech is very important. It strips away the verbiage with which China has surrounded its Hong Kong policy and shows things as they are today. This is certainly a narrowing of Hong Kong's autonomy.

In the past, from the time of the Sino-British Joint Declaration, China had said that Hong Kong "will enjoy a high degree of autonomy, except in foreign and defense affairs which are the responsibilities of the Central People’s Government."

The assertion that "foreign affairs and defense" are reserved for the central government is found also in the Basic Law, which came into effect in 1997.

A turning point was reached in 2014 when China issued a white paper insisting that it had "comprehensive jurisdiction" over Hong Kong despite the supposed "high degree of autonomy". But that paper, at least, paid lip service to the concept of defense and foreign affairs.

Now, in Li's presentation, there is no longer any pretense that Hong Kong's autonomy is wide, and that only certain areas are reserved for the central government.

It has been made clear now that it is the central government that is in charge of Hong Kong affairs, while delegating relatively minor local matters to local officials whom it has authorized.

Understandably, given the trend of events in recent years, the international community is asking questions. Instead of autonomy, it seems, Beijing is now talking about joint management.

Last month, a US congressional commission said that "the long-term viability of the 'one country, two systems' model in Hong Kong is increasingly uncertain given central government interference."

China should understand that if the international community perceives that Hong Kong is no longer enjoying the autonomy it was promised, it will affect the territory's role as a financial center. Already, the Fraser Institute of Canada has warned that Hong Kong might lose its coveted position as the world's freest economy if rule of law were undermined.

If that happens, then China as well as Hong Kong will be negatively affected. Reducing the level of autonomy will not only make Hong Kong more like mainland cities, it will also diminish the territory's usefulness to China. If Hong Kong ceases to function as an international financial center, which requires rule of law and freedom of information, it won't be good for Beijing.

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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.