HK autonomy: A long leash, but one that Beijing won't let go

October 15, 2019 10:30
Beijing offers a long leash for Hong Kong in relation to the territory's autonomy, but tightens it at will when it perceives any threat to national interests, the author notes. Photo: Reuters

China's intense anticorruption campaign has generated a flood of fugitives who have fled abroad and Beijing in turn has launched a global drive to seek their return, leading to the arrest of more than 5,000 suspects in the last four years. Significantly, however, though Beijing believes 300 fugitives are holed up in Hong Kong, not a single one has been sent back because of Hong Kong’s “high degree of autonomy” under the “one country, two systems” policy.

This makes Hong Kong's autonomy look pretty impressive, especially since China has expended considerable political capital to get fugitives back from the United States and other western countries.

In principle, as set out in the Sino-British Joint Declaration, Hong Kong enjoys “a high degree of autonomy, except in defense and foreign affairs.” Beijing has promised not to interfere in matters within Hong Kong’s autonomy. But from a practical standpoint, what does that mean? The extradition bill saga provides significant clues.

The Basic Law says that “with the assistance or authorization” of the Chinese government, Hong Kong “may make appropriate arrangements with foreign states for reciprocal juridical assistance.”

So Hong Kong was able to initiate the legislation, but China probably became involved at an early stage.

The original idea stemmed from a murder in Taiwan committed by a Hong Kong resident, The bill was meant to be the legal vehicle to enable Hong Kong to return the suspect to Taiwan for trial. At the same time, it would enable Hong Kong to extradite suspects to more than 170 other jurisdictions around the world, including mainland China.

Throughout the early months of Hong Kong’s legislative exercise, the Chinese government kept quiet.

Opponents of the measure obtained overseas support, with American and European officials warning that the bill would erode Hong Kong's rule of law while criticizing China’s judicial system and human rights record.

China then responded with officials in Beijing and Hong Kong publicly supporting the bill. They said that if foreigners could comment on the bill, so could Chinese.

On May 21, Hong Kong's Chief Executive Carrie Lam told the media that from Feb. 15 when the bill was unveiled, “everything was initiated, led and supervised” by Hong Kong. But because foreign governments had used the controversy to affect the relationship between the central government and Hong Kong, the issue had been raised to a national level.

When she suspended the bill on June 15, she said of the Chinese government, “they understand, they have confidence in my judgment and they support me.”

The Chinese foreign ministry issued a statement that said, “We support, respect and understand this decision.”

In the wake of the extradition bill, Hong Kong saw escalating protests, including an attack on China’s Liaison Office. The chief executive warned that this challenged the bottom line of “one country, two systems,” and the central authority. Beijing’s stake in the handling of the protests increased substantially as a result.

In August, news leaked that Beijing rejected a Hong Kong request for withdrawal of the bill. Then a private talk by Lam got leaked in which she admitted that she was not allowed to quit and had almost no room for maneuver.

After she announced the withdrawal of the bill Sept. 4, Lam was asked by a skeptical media if the withdrawal was at her own initiative. She responded that the central government had supported her at every stage.

But this time there was no supportive statement from the Chinese foreign ministry. And state media went into a silent mode.

When Lam announced an anti-mask law Oct. 5, she rejected a suggestion that she needed Beijing’s approval. She insisted it was “handled within Hong Kong’s autonomy.”

China’s ambassador in London, Liu Xiaoming, told the BBC that the Chinese government continues to respect and support her.

So, what is one to make of Hong Kong’s autonomy? On the surface, it appears very high indeed, with Hong Kong almost enjoying the trappings of sovereignty, issuing its own currency, passport and postage stamps, and enjoying separate membership in international bodies such as the World Trade Organization.

But when an issue affects what China considers to be its sovereignty, then notions of autonomy are swept aside and the Chinese government takes over all decision-making, while maintaining only the appearance of autonomy.

In other words, the extent of the autonomy is like a long leash. If an issue is of no importance to China, the leash can be very long indeed. But once an issue touches China's national interests, the leash will be shortened and the extent of autonomy lessened until there is virtually no autonomy to speak of.

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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.