Hong Kong’s autonomy: China’s fate is also in the balance

April 08, 2019 12:51
US Consul General Kurt Tong said Beijing appears to have been intimately involved in the Hong Kong government’s decision-making. Photo: Bloomberg/HKEJ

Ever since the Hong Kong Policy Act was passed in 1992, the United States has been checking regularly to see if Beijing is keeping its promise to grant Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy under the policy of “one country, two systems”, enshrined in the Sino-British Joint Declaration and the Hong Kong Basic Law.

Under that act, as long as Hong Kong remains autonomous, the US will treat the city as a separate customs territory in such areas as export control, visa issuance andimmigration quotas.

That is why current US trade sanctions against China don’t apply to Hong Kong, and the Hong Kong special administrative region can import US technology denied to the mainland. But a necessary condition is that Hong Kong enjoys actual autonomy.

To justify separate treatment, the State Department prepares reports to the US Congress describing the state of play in Hong Kong and mainland China. Often, such reports would say that despite a high degree of autonomy, negative events had occurred that seemed inconsistent with a policy of one country, two systems.

China routinely condemns such reports as interference in its internal affairs. However, the very fact that China registered the Joint Declaration with the United Nations meant that it was calling the world’s attention to its promise of autonomy. To now say that no one, not even Britain, has any right to comment on whether China is keeping its word seems odd, to say the least.

Multiple Chinese decisions over the years not to allow greater democracy in Hong Kong elicited comments from American officials. In 2014, China’s announcement that it will vet candidates for chief executive if universal suffrage elections are held precipitated the Occupy Central disturbances. That November, several members of both houses of the US Congress announced the introduction of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, a bill which, though not passed, reflected congressional sentiment.

A few weeks ago, the senior American official in Hong Kong, Kurt Tong, addressed a business audience in the American Club, high above the city’s famed harbor.

While the speech started with a paean to Hong Kong’s success, it ended on a sober note, with the US consul general accusing China of infringing on the city’s autonomy and warning that favored American treatment required sufficient autonomy.

Tong pointed to three negative “firsts” last year. They were the first banning of a political party, the first foreign journalist ejected from the city and the first time Hong Kong has disqualified a large number of political candidates for their political views.

“In all of these cases and trends,” he said, “the Mainland Central Government appears to have been intimately involved in the Hong Kong Government’s decision-making.”

The following month, on March 21, the State Department issued its latest report under the Hong Kong Policy Act. In a “key finding”, it said that Beijing had “implemented or instigated a number of actions that appeared inconsistent with China’s commitments in the Basic Law, and in the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984, to allow Hong Kong to exercise a high degree of autonomy.”

It added: “The tempo of mainland central government intervention in Hong Kong affairs – and actions by the Hong Kong government consistent with mainland direction – increased, accelerating negative trends seen in previous periods.”

It concluded: “As a general matter, Hong Kong maintains a sufficient – although diminished – degree of autonomy under the ‘one country, two systems’ framework to justify continued special treatment by the United States.”

The following day, as expected, China’s foreign ministry spokesman rebutted the American charges by saying that “Hong Kong affairs are purely China’s domestic affairs” and “No foreign government has the right to interfere”.

The Hong Kong administration, too, issued a protest ending with these words: "The HKSAR Government reiterates that foreign governments should not interfere in any form in the internal affairs of the HKSAR."

This response serves little purpose. Since the central government is responsible for foreign affairs, it is unnecessary, indeed foolish, for Hong Kong to echo Beijing’s words and look and sound like a puppet.

China is very good at salami slicing and, for several years now, the US has concluded that autonomy was diminishing, though not enough to justify ending special treatment for Hong Kong.

However, such a process can only go on for so long. One day, the US may conclude that the line has been crossed. Beijing should remember that every time it narrows Hong Kong’s autonomy, it is imperiling not only the city’s future but its own as well.

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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.