Generation 40s – 四十世代

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Beijing’s white paper lays down the red lines for Hong Kong

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South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion

Andrew Leung

Andrew Leung says as well as sending a warning to Occupy Central supporters, the State Council’s white paper also lays down the central government’s red lines for Hong Kong on what it will not tolerate

As expected, the State Council’s white paper on “one country, two systems” turned out to have the opposite effect to its intention. It offered a timely helping hand to Occupy Central organisers, and looks set to galvanise a bigger turnout for the annual July 1 march. Beijing is now becoming even more alarmed. A showdown looks likely.

The white paper has been widely condemned as trampling on Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy. But why at this juncture has Beijing’s highest state organ seen fit to issue it, translated into seven languages? Trying to stem the Occupy Central momentum does not seem to be its only objective.

Perhaps it has one other purpose.

Reaffirming the constitutional safeguards for the “one country, two systems” formula, the white paper is a carefully thought-out response to emerging threats to Beijing’s red lines under the Basic Law. It seems to have taken stock of the groundswell of anti-Beijing political undercurrents both inside and outside Hong Kong. While none of these red lines are being crossed, the risks are beginning to loom large.

The first red line is that “one country” must not be subverted by “two systems”. A deliberately provocative, anti-Beijing, Hong Kong-centric identity seems to be fermenting. Beijing’s worries are not helped by an attempt to break into the People’s Liberation Army’s local garrison. Nor is Beijing happy to see frequent waving of colonial-era flags during demonstrations.

Granted, vocal criticism of the Communist Party have been and will continue to be a welcome feature of Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy, as will the city’s accolade as a capital of public demonstrations. But any undercover attempt to engineer a Jasmine revolution in Hong Kong to overthrow the Communist Party would be a different matter.

Adding to Beijing’s anxiety is Hong Kong’s failure to get Article 23 of the Basic Law enacted, which safeguards national security, or to introduce national education, which would instil a greater sense of national identity.

Second, the interests of the “two systems” must not override those of the “one country”. For example, there are increasing attempts to obstruct and overturn proposals for infrastructure projects integrating Hong Kong more closely into the mainland’s development.

While genuine opposition is to be expected in a pluralistic political ecology, the balance of opposition on various fronts seems to tilt precariously towards a narrow, short-sighted Hong Kong-centric focus, conveniently forgetting or sacrificing broader interests.

Third, Hong Kong’s law and order must not be allowed to be undermined. Radical tactics involving relatively minor violence are becoming popular, to which some anti-government groups seem allied. The recent storming of the Legislative Council building was a narrow escape from what could have become an enactment of the Taiwanese example. The Occupy Central movement is a further case in point. Even the organisers themselves have admitted to an intention to break the law if necessary. As law and order underpins Hong Kong’s stability, Beijing’s worries are not without foundation.

Perhaps the overriding red line is the fourth one. The Basic Law, the very foundation of Hong Kong’s “one country, two systems” model, must not be allowed to be adulterated, let alone overturned. On electoral reform for electing the chief executive, for example, various proposals to bypass or undercut the powers of the nominating committee blatantly violate the Basic Law. Most importantly, they are suspected by Beijing to be a sleight of hand to field popular candidates known to oppose the Communist Party.

While Beijing’s message on the four red lines is largely meant for Hong Kong, it is also intended for foreign countries. The aim is to prevent Hong Kong’s unique status from being exploited to thwart China’s rise, if not to plot the downfall of the Communist Party.

When Hong Kong first reverted to China, Beijing had bent over backwards to prevent mainland officials interfering. Visits by functionaries, even friendly cultural exchanges, were subject to stringent control. Over the years, the two sides have become intertwined economically. However, despite its laissez-faire approach, the central government today finds a Hong Kong which is increasingly anti-Beijing and somewhat estranged from the motherland. This coincides with great-power geopolitics at work today that can be hostile towards a rising China.

Since the handover, there has been a mindset here that while Hong Kong should guard and expand its elbow room under the “two systems”, it can afford to pay lip service if not totally ignore the other side of the bargain under the Basic Law. With more serious contradictions coming to the fore, the State Council has deemed it necessary to lay down the markers.

Confrontations do not beget trust. The more anti-Beijing Hong Kong becomes, the more hardline the other side is likely to be. Conversely, the more attentive Hong Kong is to the nation’s interests, the more likely Beijing would be to maximise the degree of Hong Kong’s autonomy. After all, a free and democratic Hong Kong would be a fitting testimony to the global attraction of a rising China.

What is more, on electoral reform, fighting to undermine the authority of the nominating committee ignores the risk to Beijing of electing a chief executive who is prepared to subvert the party. This doesn’t mean that Hong Kong’s leader needs to be a party member or be at Beijing’s beck and call. But, at the least, he or she needs to be someone acceptable to the central government, which, after all, has the ultimate power of appointment.

In any case, a fractious relationship between Hong Kong’s future chief executive and Beijing is unlikely to work in Hong Kong’s best interests. At the end of the day, more democracy is clearly the desire of most people in Hong Kong. But the Basic Law remains Hong Kong’s best guarantee of a high degree of autonomy.

If some of the Basic Law’s provisions could be broken or circumvented by Hong Kong, next time Beijing may do likewise. That’s why most Hong Kong people do not support Occupy Central. They have no wish to be tied to a runaway chariot charging to confront Beijing by breaking the Basic Law.

Before idealistic passions rush to the head, any potential Occupy Central supporters should think hard about what they are led to believe.

Andrew K. P. Leung is an international and independent China specialist based in Hong Kong


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