2019: The year China's Hong Kong chickens came home to roost

December 27, 2019 08:00
As China seems to interpret the law to mean whatever it wants it to mean, many Hongkongers feel Chinese officials, and their surrogates in HK, are not to be trusted, the author observes. Photo: Reuters

Zhou Enlai, premier of the People’s Republic of China from 1949 until his death in 1976, used to say: "We Chinese mean what we say.” China’s word was its bond.

This year, the People’s Republic of China turned 70. But now, few officials would be able to say with a straight face that China always keeps its word.

The turmoil in Hong Kong this year reflects distrust of the Communist government, born of broken promises.

It all began in 1984, when China and Britain signed the Sino-British Joint Declaration. Britain agreed to restore Hong Kong, then its colony, to China on July 1, 1997 while China pledged that on that day it would create a Hong Kong Special Administrative Region that would “enjoy a high degree of autonomy, except in foreign and defense affairs which are the responsibility of the Central People’s Government.”

Things went well for the first five years but then things started to go downhill. The Basic Law provided for the method of choosing the Chief Executive and the Legislative Council for 10 years, so many in Hong Kong expected that full democracy could be achieved after 2007.

With the dawn of the 21st century, there was much discussion on universal suffrage elections for Chief Executive in 2007 and the entire Legislative Council in 2008.

This was because in the 1990s China had promised that Hong Kong would be free to develop democracy at its own pace. On March 18, 1993, Lu Ping, director of the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office of the State Council – the official in charge of Hong Kong affairs – in a statement published on the front page of the overseas edition of the People’s Daily made the following declaration:

“How Hong Kong develops its democracy in the future is completely within the sphere of the autonomy of Hong Kong. The central government will not interfere.”

A similar statement was made by the Chinese Foreign Ministry the following year.

But as momentum for democracy mounted in Hong Kong, China’s National People’s Congress Standing Committee, without being asked, issued an interpretation of the Basic Law on April 6, 2004 in which it said that Hong Kong needs permission from the NPCSC before taking any action.

Qiao Xiaoyang, then deputy secretary general of the NPC, when asked about Lu’s promises, responded that no matter who said what, the Standing Committee’s interpretation was final.

Qiao may not have realized it, but those words undermined Chinese credibility around the world. China’s words would still be heard but the listeners would realize that Beijing could at any time renege on a commitment, just as it had reneged from its commitment to Hong Kong.

It was only after China reneged on its promises to Hong Kong that protesters started waving the Union Jack at rallies.

In 2014, the Chinese government went further down the road of reversing its previous stance on Hong Kong. It issued a hardline white paper on “one country, two systems.” Despite previous promises, the white paper asserted that “the central government has comprehensive jurisdiction over all local administrative regions, including the HKSAR.”

It defined Hong Kong’s autonomy as “the power to run local affairs as authorized by the central leadership,” which was “subject to the level of the central leadership’s authorization.” That is, the extent of autonomy could be reduced at any time.

This seemed difficult to square with the Joint Declaration. But senior Chinese officials attempted to square the circle by saying, from 2014 onward, that the Joint Declaration no longer had practical significance and was only a historical document.

Beijing is increasingly reining Hong Kong in and exercising its “comprehensive jurisdiction.” The special administrative region, it seems, is not that special any more.

In late 2015, Chinese agents abducted a Hong Kong resident, bookseller Lee Bo, and took him across the border into the mainland. This action was described by the United Kingdom in its six-monthly report to parliament as "a serious breach of the Joint Declaration.”

China seems to make up the rules as it goes along and interprets the law to mean whatever it wants it to mean. Understandably, many in Hong Kong feel betrayed. They are desperate and fear losing the freedoms they still have and believe that only democracy can safeguard their future.

They now believe that Chinese officials, including China’s surrogates in Hong Kong, are not to be trusted. Given this environment, the outlook for the restoration of normality is dim, especially when the Chinese leadership doesn’t seem to know the art of compromise.

Whatever the future may hold, 2019 was the year that China's Hong Kong chickens came home to roost, with a vengeance.

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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.