The betting on Hong Kong is on again

June 12, 2014 15:54
By stating clearly that it holds “comprehensive jurisdiction” over Hong Kong, Beijing is hoping to “correct” what it deems as erroneous thinking about the fundamentals of the “one country, two systems” principle. Photo: AFP

Seven years ago, Time magazine admitted in its cover story its sister magazine, Fortune, made a mistake in 1995 when it famously predicted the death of Hong Kong.

The Fortune story by Louis Kraar wrote: “The naked truth about Hong Kong’s future can be summed up in two words: It’s over.” Kraar concluded the world would soon be “mourning the death of what had once been one of the world’s greatest business cities”. He died in 2006.

In June 2007, Time said in its June issue entitled “Hong Kong’s future: Sunshine, with clouds” Fortune had got it wrong. It said the city has lived through a crippling regional financial crisis, bird flu and SARS, among other setbacks, in the first 10 years of its return to Chinese rule.

The embarrassing U-turn of the American publication giant is worth recalling as a white paper on Hong Kong policy published by China’s State Council on Tuesday raises a burning question: Is “one country, two systems” dead, half-dead or still alive?

The answer is in the eyes of the beholder. But to borrow the analogy of the Time cover story in 2007, dark clouds were gathering over the sky of Hong Kong. There were occasional showers.

Hong Kong people can be pardoned for a deepening feeling of doom and gloom about the communist takeover because China has, for the first time, said in the 23,000-worded white paper the central government holds “comprehensive jurisdiction” over Hong Kong.

The statement is in sharp contrast, both in letter and spirit, with the policy of “high degree of autonomy”, which is the most important principle under the “one country, two systems” policy.

Based on the constitutional framework, the central government is responsible for defense and foreign affairs and has a role in mainland-Hong Kong issues such as entry of mainlanders into the city. Under the principle of “Hong Kong people of Hong Kong”, the SAR government, composed of local people, will be allowed to run the show when it comes to domestic issues.

In view of the deep-seated phobia towards the Communist Party over their cadres’ style and understanding on Hong Kong, letting Hong Kong administer their own affairs has been seen as the best possible safeguard for the city’s systems after the sovereignty changeover.

To the credit of the Communist Party, their self-restraint not to meddle with Hong Kong affairs after the handover has proved such cynics and doubters like Fortune magazine wrong. A sense of pragmatism about the economic value of Hong Kong and the city’s role in China’s economic revolution has helped dilute the leadership’s interventionist instinct in their DNA.

Both the central and Hong Kong governments have cited the hands-off approach of Beijing to convert communist-doubters like Fortune magazine.

Tuesday’s white paper marks a milestone in Beijing’s Hong Kong policy following the elevation of Xi Jinping at the 18th national congress of the Communist Party in November 2012. Since then, Beijing has taken incremental steps to underline the paramount importance of the principle of “one country”.

With hindsight, a lengthy article by former deputy director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office Zhang Xiaoming on the party congress report was a curtain-raiser to the white paper. Zhang, who became the director of the central government’s Liaison Office last year, elaborated on a list of powers enjoyed by the central government over Hong Kong.

In his government work report delivered at the National People’s Congress in March, Premier Li Keqiang caused a stir when he omitted the reference to “high degree of autonomy” in the section on Hong Kong policy. Although Beijing has stressed there was no change of policy, pundits and ordinary people felt chilly winds were blowing.

Rainstorms hit the city on Tuesday as Hong Kong people reacted with awe and bewilderment about the white paper issued by the State Council. Although China has issued a list of white papers on issues such as human rights, defense, Tibet and Taiwan, the publication of a white paper on “one country, two systems” in Hong Kong has been kept in secrecy until Tuesday. Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying revealed on Tuesday the drafting of the document took more than one year.

In a frank admission of Beijing's jitters about Hong Kong, the white paper said: “Many wrong views were currently rife in Hong Kong… Some people are confused or lopsided in their understanding of the policy (one country, two systems) and the Basic Law.” It also warned of the need for vigilance against external forces using Hong Kong to intervene in China’s internal affairs.

Citing events including the demand for public nomination for universal suffrage and the Occupy Central movement, mainland officials believe the tendency of some Hongkongers to talk only about “two systems” while ignoring the notion of “one country” must be altered.

By stating clearly that it holds “comprehensive jurisdiction” over Hong Kong, Beijing is hoping to “correct” what it deems as erroneous thinking of some Hong Kong people about the fundamentals of “one country, two systems”.

It may be merely a reminder of a balance between “one country” and “two systems”. But Beijing’s assertion of “comprehensive jurisdictions” over Hong Kong and its move to put judges in the category of “Hong Kong’s administrators” have raised serious questions about certain key principles under “one country, two systems”.

An independent judiciary is one. If the Bar Association has come out in strong defense of the city’s independent judiciary, it is because it is the key to rule of law, one of the pillars of the Hong Kong system.

The betting on the fate of Hong Kong under Chinese rule is on again.

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He was editor-at-large at the South China Morning Post and, more recently, deputy chief editor of the Hong Kong Economic Journal.