Beijing reneges on Hong Kong freedom guarantee


Hong Kong Skyline and Victoria Harbor. Sixteen-shot panorama, digitally modified, retouched, and assembled by Haydn Hsin. Creative Commons licence.

June  11, 2014 

The Chinese government has confirmed what everyone has known for a long time: it was lying when it signed a treaty guaranteeing Hong Kong substantial autonomy, speedy progress to democracy and protection of the rule of law.

Protesters took to the streets in Hong Kong today and burned copies of a “white paper” Beijing issued on Tuesday reminding the territory’s seven million people that their institutions will only be on a loose leash so long as they are “patriotic.” In this context, that means subservience to the will of China’s ruling Communist Party.

There are profound implications in Chinese government’s publication of its position that “the high degree of autonomy of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) is not an inherent power, but one that comes solely from the authorization by the central power.”

The publication comes as pro-democracy groups in Hong Kong anticipate Beijing intends to ensure only its loyalists are eligible to be candidates for the territory’s governor, the Chief Executive, when “free” elections are introduced in 2017. Democracy groups are preparing a mass demonstration to occupy the central business district if the election rules, when they are announced in a few weeks time, contain the expected severe limitations on the process.

The white paper has also hit the streets only a couple of weeks ahead of the July 1 anniversary of Britain’s hand-over of Hong Kong’s sovereignty to Beijing. This has come to be a day when demonstrators take to the streets to protest Beijing’s unfulfilled and jettisoned promises.

Beijing’s white paper, issued by the Information Office of the State Council, the equivalent of the cabinet, is being closely studied in Taiwan. Taiwan and its 23 million people are an independent nation, but the Chinese Communist Party claims to own the island and seeks to lure the Taipei government into a political union by offering the same “One Country, Two Systems” terms under which the British handed over Hong Kong.

But there have always been doubts among Taiwanese, close to 90 per cent of whom want to keep their independence, whether Beijing could be trusted to respect the island’s democracy and rule of law. The white paper will confirm these doubts and further undermine the position of outgoing President Ma Ying-jeou, whose popularity has tanked as his administration has courted Beijing with economic concessions.

More broadly, Beijing’s reinterpretation of its 1984 agreement with London puts a large question mark over any deal or treaty the Chinese government signs. Since Beijing started opening up its economy to world trade 30 years ago there have been umpteen examples of its failure to live up to agreements and sometimes to actively junk them.

But as China becomes an assertive and expansionist military and political power, there must now be questions about the value of trying to negotiate settlements with Beijing. Most pressing are Beijing’s increasingly provocative actions and use of force to back its claims to ownership of almost all of the South China Sea, and its claim to Japanese-owned islands in the East China Sea.

It has been apparent since soon after the 1997 hand-over of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty after 156 years of British rule, that Beijing was unwilling to comply with the 1984 agreement it signed with London. In this “Joint Declaration,” Beijing guaranteed that for 50 years — until 2047 – it would respect the territory’s autonomy, protect the British-style rule of law and judicial independence, and permit the rapid development of a democratically elected legislature and government leader.

Beijing first stepped in to impose its will on the Hong Kong courts over a question of nationality. The lesson that Hong Kong’s courts are not truly independent and their power to give rulings on the territory’s mini constitution, the Basic Law, has constrained the legal profession and judiciary since.

However, today it was Hong Kong’s Bar Association that came out with the first substantive criticism of Beijing’s white paper. The lawyers castigated the Chinese government for including the judiciary among Hong Kong’s governmental institutions, and saying that “loving the country is the basic political requirement for Hong Kong’s administrators.”

Beijing’s position, says the Bar Association, sends out “the wrong message to the people of Hong Kong, people on the Mainland and the wider international community that Courts here are part of the machinery of the Government and sing in unison with it. Irrespective of whether this is the case with Courts elsewhere (in China), this most definitely is NOT the case in Hong Kong.”

This aspect of the white paper is also a reminder, if any were needed, how far the Chinese Communist Party remains from any meaningful recognition of the rule of law and an independent judiciary. It underlines, yet again, the inherent paradox in the stated determination of President and Communist Party boss Xi Jinping to launch a new wave of economic reforms. These cannot be accomplished without removing the party’s political control of and policy dictatorship to regulatory institutions and the courts. There is no question whose interests will prevail in these contradictions.

In 2002 the Hong Kong administration, under pressure from Beijing, introduced an anti-subversion law, known as Article 23 of the Basic Law. The definitions in the proposal were opaque, leading many to fear it would be used to ban any opposition to the Chinese Communist Party and override the safeguards in Hong Kong’s independent judicial system.

The following year a demonstration by crowds, estimated at up to 700,000 people, took to the streets, forcing the Hong Kong administration to shelve the whole question. What was alarming for Beijing in this protest was that the marchers were mostly well-established middle class families who don’t usually take to the streets, but who clearly felt Article 23 was an intrusion too far.

Antipathy in Hong Kong towards the Chinese government continues to grow. The content and publication of the white paper suggests Beijing believes matters in its troublesome territory are getting out of hand. Just last week close to 200,000 people gathered in Hong Kong’s Victoria Park to mark the 25th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre in Beijing of pro-democracy demonstrators, and called for renewed pressure for political reform in China.

The prospect of mass protests to back demands for the speedy introduction of full democracy has already prompted the Chinese government to move the venue of this fall’s summit of the 21-member association of Pacific Rim countries, the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum, from Hong Kong to Beijing.

The white paper acknowledges that “some people in Hong Kong have not yet felt comfortable with the changes” since the 1997 hand-over. However, the paper asserts that “patriotism” among Hongkongers is the key to harmony. There is only “a very small number of people who act in collusion with outside forces (Britain and the United States) to interfere with the implementation of ‘One Country, Two Systems’ policy in Hong Kong.”

Copyright © Jonathan Manthorpe 2014


SPREAD THE WORD: tell others about this column — please  “share” our Frontlines blog