China: Time for vision in Hong Kong

November 05, 2019 10:31
A National Day float features the "one country, two systems" policy in Beijing on Oct. 1. The Communist Party's Central Committee has asserted that “two systems” was subordinate to and derived from “one country”.  Photo: CNS via Reuters

As violent anti-China protests in Hong Kong continue, the Communist Party of China’s Central Committee, meeting last week in Beijing for the first time in 20 months, issued a communiqué in which it pledged to take action to “improve the legal system and enforcement mechanism for safeguarding national security” in the former British colony.

The good news is that China appears committed to keeping the “one country, two systems” model for Hong Kong.

The bad news is that Beijing seems to plan to exercise “full administrative power” over Hong Kong and tighten its supervision of the chief executive and top officials as well as extend patriotic education to government officials. The participation of civil servants in some protests was clearly deeply disturbing to Beijing.

In Beijing’s view, Hong Kong’s increasingly violent protests have challenged China’s sovereignty and touched the bottom line of the “one country, two systems” policy under which Hong Kong and Macau have been treated as semi-autonomous “special administrative regions”.

But Beijing should understand that the turmoil in Hong Kong, while a response to misgovernment by Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, also discloses widespread unhappiness over the way the central government has been tightening its control in recent years.

The Central Committee plenum adopted a “Decision” – evidently a series of decisions – whose contents have not been made public.

However, at a post-plenum press conference, Shen Chunyao, head of the Basic Law Committee of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, provided some clarification, saying that the Decision asserted that “two systems” was subordinate to and derived from “one country”.

“We will further improve the central government's system of exercising full administrative power over the special administrative region in accordance with the Constitution and the Basic Law,” he said, “firmly safeguard national sovereignty, security, and development interests, safeguard the long-term prosperity and stability of Hong Kong and Macau, and will not tolerate any challenge to the ‘one country, two systems’ bottom line.”

Shen also said that “the system and mechanism for the appointment and removal of the chief executives and principal officials” would be improved. Just what this means is unclear. At present, the chief executive is chosen by a 1,200-member election committee and appointed by the central government, while the principal officials are chosen by the chief executive and are appointed by Beijing if they are approved.

It is indeed high time for reform in the appointment system, especially of the chief executive.

In the last election, Lam was clearly Beijing’s choice and Chinese officials made it clear that no one else would be appointed, even if chosen by the election committee. This made a mockery of the election process.

While it is true that the chief executive must be someone whom Beijing feels it can work with, events of the last five months have clearly shown that she must be someone whom the people of Hong Kong also trust.

Article 43 of the Hong Kong Basic Law says the chief executive “shall be accountable to the Central People’s Government and the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region”.

The 2014 white paper on Hong Kong issued by Beijing referred to administrators as being “subject to oversight by the central government and Hong Kong society”. Unfortunately, no concrete steps have been taken to see to it that senior officials, including the chief executive, are subject to oversight within Hong Kong.

There is thus a crying need for future chief executives to be seen as working not only in the interest of the central government but as being dedicated to Hong Kong’s interests as well. It is incumbent on the authorities in Beijing to ensure that anyone picked as chief executive in the future understands clearly that her/his obligations are not only to carry out the central government’s directives but also to be Hong Kong’s voice in Beijing.

In this regard, it may be useful for Beijing to study the behavior of British colonial officials in Hong Kong. While they were appointed by London, once appointed, their role was to fight for Hong Kong’s interests.

Thus, John Cowperthwaite, financial secretary from 1961 to 1971, called himself a “small Hong Kong chauvinist” who felt that his first loyalty was to Hong Kong. When sterling was devalued in 1967, both he and the governor, David Trench, negotiated with London and diversified Hong Kong’s reserve holdings from sterling to a basket of currencies.

The current time is a golden opportunity for reform of the appointment system of the chief executive. Historically, the Communist Party has a record for pragmatically resolving knotty problems. “One country, two systems” was visionary. Now is the time for more vision and flexibility, not for cracking down.

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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.