China is moving Hong Kong goalposts

May 21, 2018 15:30
Following an amendment to China’s constitution, mainland ‘legal experts’ have been coming to Hong Kong to lecture the locals that they now owe new duties to the state. Photo: Bloomberg

In China's long history, it has perhaps had more than its normal share of inventions, particularly from ancient China, such as the compass, gunpowder, papermaking and printing.

What about sports? Well, it turns out that a form of soccer was played in China more than 2,000 years ago, with goals being scored by kicking a ball through a hole in a piece of cloth hung between two poles. There were no goalposts. Still, the concept of changing the rules, now often referred to as shifting the goalposts, must have been well understood to have been a no-no after a game had started.

Well, shifting the goalposts is what Chinese officials seems to be doing in Hong Kong, 20 years after the game started in 1997.

First, a brief recap. China's paramount leader in the 1980s, Deng Xiaoping, proposed unification by allowing Taiwan to keep its capitalist system and lifestyle. In 1982, a new Constitution was drafted giving the state authority to "establish special administrative regions when necessary." When Hong Kong’s future had to be settled in the 1990s, Deng applied the "one country, two systems" formula to Hong Kong first. The Hong Kong Basic Law was promulgated in 1990. In 1997, Hong Kong passed from British to Chinese hands.

Fast forward to 2018. The Communist Party decides to amend the state constitution. There are a number of amendments. One inserted the words: "The leadership of the Communist Party of China is the defining feature of socialism with Chinese characteristics."

In the weeks after that, a series of Chinese "legal experts" streamed into Hong Kong to lecture civil servants, politicians and the populace that they now owe new duties because the Chinese constitution says so.

A leading expert, Qiao Xiaoyang, former chairman of the Basic Law Committee of the National People’s Congress, delivered a lecture in which he thundered that the Chinese Constitution “is the cornerstone, root and origin of the Basic Law.”

It would be understandable if that argument was made of the original 1982 constitution, the one that was in effect when the Sino-British Joint Declaration was signed in 1984, the Constitution that was in effect when the Basic Law was promulgated in 1990, the Constitution that was in effect at the time of the handover in 1997.

Qiao should know that the cornerstone has been changed. This is not the cornerstone of 1982. True, other constitutional amendments have been adopted in the intervening years, but their provisions do not seem to have had that much of an impact on Hong Kong. At least, we did not have Beijing legal experts telling us we were violating the constitution as a result of the amendments.

Aren’t cornerstones by definition meant to be unchanging? Can a tree grow strong if it is uprooted and replanted over and over?

Why have things changed to this extent since the 1980s? Then, Deng said the party trusts local people to run Hong Kong well. Now, the legal experts say, the major decisions will be made by Beijing and less important ones jointly with Hong Kong.

Then, Deng said it wasn’t necessary for Hong Kong to support socialism. Now, we’re told by no less a figure than Qiao that Hong Kong should support the party and not cross the “legal line” to oppose socialism. So now, it appears, opposing socialism could well be an illegal act.

Ever since the Tiananmen Square massacre in June 1989, people in Hong Kong have mourned the dead, with some calling for an end to one-party rule in China. To Beijing’s credit, this has gone on without hindrance for 20 years after the handover. But now, we are told, this should no longer be done, because the constitution says that the party leads China.

Tam Yiu-chung, a deputy to the National People's Congress Standing Committee, the nation’s highest legislative body, said anyone who called for an end to "one-party dictatorship" risked disqualification from elections. That, he explained, was because Article 1 of the Chinese constitution was recently amended to denote the party’s leadership as "the most essential feature of socialism with Chinese characteristics," and calling for that leadership to end would contradict it.

He would have been more persuasive if he had said that, since the 1982 constitution was Hong Kong's root and foundation, it should not have been changed during the 50-year period prescribed by the Basic Law, that is, until June 30, 2047. Since amendments have been made, it would seem sensible that they should not have effect in Hong Kong before June 30, 2047.

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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.