Basic Law 30th anniversary calls for revamp of mini-constitution

April 23, 2020 06:00
Photo: Reuters

This month marked the 30th anniversary of the promulgation of Hong Kong’s Basic Law. While the coronavirus outbreak has subdued events planned to mark the occasion, Hong Kong’s manifold challenges in recent years call for an urgent review of the city’s mini-constitution.

To begin, we must revisit the origins and trajectory of the “One Country, Two Systems” experiment.

In the early 1980’s the former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping conceived the notion of “One Country, Two Systems” for Hong Kong’s re-unification with the motherland. At the time it was widely acclaimed as a most innovative institutional design that allowed Hong Kong to continue to enjoy its distinct political, socio-economic, and legal arrangements for at least 50 years after it returned to Chinese rule.

On 1 July 1997, the British left with dignity, the Chinese government inherited the useful legacy of British rule in Hong Kong, and Hong Kong people believed they could benefit from China’s modernization and economic development. These were good intentions on all sides to take Hong Kong into the 21st century.

From the early stages of the Sino-British negotiations about Hong Kong’s future, Beijing understood and accepted that Hong Kong people did not mind returning to the Chinese family, so long as positive aspects of former British rule could be maintained. Indeed, under the first post-handover Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, the Hong Kong government enjoyed considerable autonomy.

However, when Tung’s successor Donald Tsang met Prime Minister Wen Jiabo in Beijing in 2005, he was told to address Hong Kong’s deep-rooted contradictions. These issues are multi-faceted, spanning economic development, livelihood matters, social equity, ideological differences and varied interpretations of the idea of “Hong Kong people running Hong Kong”.

Under British rule, a free market economy drove Hong Kong’s success. Since the handover, however, the city’s ruling elites have rigidly held to the “big market, small government” principle, paying no heed to the failings of neo-liberalism, which has resulted in great social disparities and a ticking time bomb for Hong Kong society.

Equally, increasing domestic political liberalization since the 1980s has caused major tensions with traditional Chinese values. There has been little effort on the part of local education chiefs since 1997 to enrich our younger generations with the recognition of Chinese culture and identity. At the same time, Beijing has felt that the Hong Kong government has not worked hard enough to defend national sovereignty and security.

Besides tensions over ideological and livelihood matters, disagreements have played out over Hong Kong’s autonomy as a special administrative region (SAR). Beijing considers that the SAR should be run by patriots who are widely accepted by the local elites. Yet, many in the local population believe that only a popularly elected chief executive can work for their best interests.

Similarly, many see the rule of law upheld by an independent judiciary as a cornerstone of Hong Kong. That guarantee is also the focus of the international community in determining whether Hong Kong can maintain its special status and be treated separately from mainland China when it comes to trade and economic relations.

Yet, while Hong Kong has a very different legal system to mainland China’s, it must be noted that the Basic Law was enacted under the Chinese constitution and that interpretations of the Basic Law and Decisions of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress are essential constituents of Hong Kong’s post-1997 legal set-up.

It has therefore been, and probably will always be, a difficult balancing act between affirming the importance of “One Country” and protecting the fundamental rights and freedom of the Hong Kong people, while preserving and reinforcing the city’s unique status on the international stage.

In 1997, euphoria greeted Hong Kong’s return to Chinese rule. Almost a quarter of a century on, Hong Kong’s relation with the mainland is, sadly, beset with mistrust and mutual suspicion. This fraught climate cannot be left to fester. A radical move is urgently needed to break the current impasse.

As the halfway point of Hong Kong’s increasingly strained “One Country, Two Systems” arrangement draws close, we have to address the SAR’s mid-life crisis by reviewing the Basic Law and make amendments and additions to improve the capacity and quality of local governance. To that end, a consultative committee, modelled on the 1985 Basic Law Consultative Committee, should be established to canvass the views of the Hong Kong people, especially those of the younger generations.

We still have slightly more than two years before celebrating the HKSAR’s 25th anniversary. This could be a pivotal moment for Chairman Xi Jinping to announce a revamped Basic Law to herald a 2.0 version of “One Country, Two Systems”, while reassuring all that Hong Kong’s capitalist system and way of life will remain unchanged for another 25 years.

Having the concerns of all stakeholders and powerholders properly addressed and reconciled in the revamped Basic Law, good intentions of yesteryears can be rescued and brought back on the right track.

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Convenor of Doctoral Exchange