Thursday 26 June 2014

'One country, two systems' needs fine-tuning

As Hong Kong residents take part in an unofficial referendum on constitutional change that irks Beijing, two writers look at the future of the "one country, two systems" arrangement between Hong Kong and China.
By Ker Sin Tze, Published The Straits Times, 24 Jun 2014

JULY 1 marks the 17th anniversary of Hong Kong's handover to China. Under the "one country, two systems" arrangement, Hong Kong is allowed to keep the city's political and economic systems for 50 years from 1997. One-third of the promised 50 years has passed.

What has been the experience so far? Will Hong Kong maintain its autonomy from the mainland? Will Hong Kongers keep their way of life? The picture is mixed, but I believe that, with some fine-tuning, Hong Kong's unique status within China can be maintained.

The "one country, two systems" agreement was an ingenious way of resolving the differences between the British government and China during the 1982-1984 handover negotiations. It provided the British an honourable exit from Hong Kong after ruling the city as a colony for 155 years. It was also paramount leader Deng Xiaoping's way of reassuring Hong Kong residents that they could continue with their way of life for at least 50 years after 1997.

The assurance was effective. Many residents who migrated to other countries prior to the handover returned to live and work in Hong Kong after the impact of the handover and the 1998 financial crisis subsided. After 1997, the territory's elite social institutions, such as the Hong Kong Jockey Club, remained unchanged. So did the legal system, except that the British Court of Appeal was replaced by the newly created Court of Final Appeal. The economy still functioned under the capitalist system. Life went on.

What did change were the hoisting of the Chinese national flag and the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region's flag and the playing of the Chinese national anthem at official functions.

But in agreeing to the "one country, two systems" formula, Beijing was more concerned with making Hong Kong conform to the "one country" aspect rather than facilitating the "two systems" approach.

To incorporate Hong Kong into China politically, a change at the top of the administration was necessary. As a result, the colonial government was replaced by the Special Administrative Region government, and the governor by the chief executive.

The Basic Law, a product of the Sino-British agreement and approved by China's National People's Congress, was adopted as Hong Kong's mini Constitution. The People's Liberation Army also moved into the barracks vacated by the British forces.

The central government then installed a new Legislative Council, although its structure remained basically unchanged from the colonial government. The continued separation of the executive and legislative branches of government after 1997, however, created political problems.

Lack of political support

UNDER the Westminster parliamentary system, the prime minister has the support of his party's Members of Parliament in approving Bills and implementing party policy. But this has never been the case in Hong Kong.

During the colonial administration, the governor had executive power, and the appointed Legislative Council members were bound to support the governor.

The central government recognised the merit of executive dominance of the colonial administration and decided to retain the same system. This was to prevent excessive interference by political parties on policy implementation.

The Chief Executive Election Ordinance requires the winning candidate to declare that he is not a member of any political party. The intention is to weaken the influence of political parties and pre-empt any claim by a chief executive that he has the backing of any political party.

In practice, however, the influence of political parties has been growing. After 1997, the majority of Legislative Council members were elected by voters, not appointed by the government.

It has therefore been difficult for the chief executive to get Bills approved. Even the pro-establishment and pro-government parties have voted against government Bills when they felt it necessary to maintain popular support. Consequently, the separation of the legislative and the executive branches has led to a weak government. This inevitably results in a lack of long-term vision in policy implementation and governance.

In a parliamentary democracy, political parties formulate their party platforms in order to campaign for votes. The winning party forms the government and implements its policies based on its long-term vision for the country.

This is, however, not the case in Hong Kong. Political parties do not have the possibility of forming the government. Their role is mainly to scrutinise Bills submitted for approval. As such, they do not need to have a long-term vision for the territory.

Because Legislative Council members are now elected either from geographical constituencies or functional constituencies, they tend to behave like populists when garnering votes.

The chief executive and his team certainly have a vision and a plan. However, due to the lack of support in the legislature, the chief executive often finds it difficult to implement policies and has also been distracted by boycotts and protests.

Despite this, the "one country, two systems" concept has been working well so far. Beijing has refrained from meddling in the internal governance of the city, and has in fact provided help to support the economy during the 1998 financial crisis and Sars in 2003 by allowing more mainlanders to visit Hong Kong.


BEIJING focuses more on "one country"? while Hong Kongers see only the "two systems". The concept of "one country, two systems" served a useful purpose in facilitating the smooth handover to China in 1997. But times have changed, and the current formula may need to be fine-tuned.

Young people, mostly students and fresh entrants into the job market, are idealistic. They see themselves as prime movers for democratic reform. Thus, they campaign for universal suffrage both in the Legislative Council and the chief executive elections.

They also want maximum autonomy for Hong Kong, and are not happy with Beijing's assertion in a White Paper that the central government holds comprehensive jurisdiction. There is nevertheless room for electoral reforms that may appease young voters.

As to whether the "one country, two systems" approach may be extended beyond the 50-year period, the question may never arise.

China has changed enormously since the 1980s and more changes can be expected. In a few decades, there may not be many significant differences between Hong Kong and the socio-economic systems of other Chinese cities.

In the meantime, all Hong Kong needs to do to retain its uniqueness is to remain useful to China in the eyes of the decision makers in Beijing. This will strengthen its ability to maintain the status quo for a long time into the future.

The writer was Singapore's Consul-General in Hong Kong (2008-2012), and is currently Adjunct Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.

Beijing's own goal in Hong Kong
By William Pesek, Published The Straits Times, 24 Jun 2014

PERHAPS rumours of Hong Kong's demise weren't exaggerated after all.

Nineteen years ago this month, Fortune ran its infamous "Death of Hong Kong" cover. By 2007, the magazine had changed its tune, deciding, in the Mark Twain sense, that it had been "wrong" and that "reports of Hong Kong's death have been greatly exaggerated".

Given recent events, however, Fortune's initial prediction that Beijing's meddling would cost Hong Kong its pivotal role in the world may have been spot on.

Take this month's unnerving White Paper from China's State Council, which asserted that Beijing's interests took precedence over Hong Kong's. Its characterisation of those who didn't want to live in a communist society as "confused or lopsided" was as bizarre as it was chilling.

So was its suggestion that Hong Kong courts effectively need to ask "what would Mao Zedong do?" before making decisions. The upshot: Hong Kong's seven million citizens can forget about being truly free to pick their own leader in 2017, as Beijing had led them to believe would happen.

It's no longer impossible to imagine the end of the "one country, two systems" policy China agreed to after Britain returned the territory in 1997. And Hong Kongers don't intend to surrender quietly. China is enraged by an unofficial online poll on Hong Kong democratic ambitions that's been taking place since Friday. What Beijing has labelled an illegal vote, nearly 700,000 Hong Kongers so far have embraced to tell Beijing to back off.

This is nothing if not an own goal by President Xi Jinping. China needs to become more like Hong Kong, not the other way around. What Chinese officials mean when they talk about rebalancing China away from exports and unproductive investment is creating a vibrant and innovative service sector. A key part of that process will be inspiring more young Chinese to take risks and embrace innovation like Mr Jack Ma, the billionaire founder of Alibaba. But that requires an environment conducive to true debate, creative destruction and more than a little counter cultural discourse.

How is that possible when the tools the rest of the world uses to spark thought and disrupt complacency - a free press, academics unafraid of thinking aloud, Google, Facebook and Twitter - are banned?

Hong Kong has nothing to learn from Beijing. An economy consistently rated the world's freest has zero to gain from the self- censorship, patriotic education and opacity China increasingly wants to impose across the Pearl River.

If China continues to muddle financial transparency, call into question the independence of Hong Kong's courts and force expatriate economists to censor themselves, Singapore wins - not Hong Kong's people. China must incorporate Hong Kong's freewheeling ethos, not stamp it out.

In an opinion piece last week, state-backed China Daily likened Hong Kong's democratic dreams to a fable about a greedy fisherman's wife who wished for too much. Greedy? Because they crave better local leaders? That kind of arrogant rhetoric is only driving more and more Hong Kongers into the activists' camp, reports my Bloomberg colleague Natasha Khan.

Last Friday night, "Occupy Central", Hong Kong's answer to Occupy Wall Street, led a sing-along downtown of Do You Hear The People Sing? from the musical adaptation of Victor Hugo's 1862 novel Les Miserables.

If Mr Xi pushes too far, millions more will add their voices to that chorus, miserable that their world-class economic system died a death entirely of Beijing's making.


White Paper puts HK's autonomy in jeopardy
By Ching Cheong, The Straits Times, 4 Jul 2014

HONG Kong faces a gradual transition from the "one country, two systems" principle that gives it a high degree of political autonomy, to a "one country, one system" based on mainland China's political system. This is if Beijing's recent White Paper on the city is adhered to.

It is no wonder then that the half a million Hong Kongers who took to the streets on Tuesday, the anniversary of the city's handover to China by Britain in 1997, demanded the withdrawal of the paper, among other things.

The White Paper published on June 10 will likely curtail the degree of autonomy of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) and align its political system with that of China.

The paper appears to be aimed at moving Hong Kong closer politically to the mainland in preparation for 2047, when the "one country, two systems" is due to expire.

It does this by rolling back some of the guarantees stipulated in the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration and the 1990 Basic Law.

These two documents, which laid the foundation for Hong Kong's governance after its handover to China, guaranteed that it would enjoy a "high degree of autonomy, except in foreign and defence affairs" and that it would be vested with executive, legislative and independent judicial powers.

But Beijing's White Paper now says a "high degree of autonomy" does not mean total autonomy. It argues the central government in Beijing has total authority over the SAR via a new concept of "comprehensive jurisdiction".

This concept says "the high degree of autonomy of HKSAR is not an inherent power, but one that comes solely from the authorisation by the central leadership" and is "subject to the level of the central leadership's authorisation".

The White Paper also omits mention of the city's executive power. It states that "HKSAR would be vested with legislative and independent judicial power, including that of final adjudication". This is a departure from the two earlier documents.

Alarm bells were sounded back in March this year that Hong Kong might lose its autonomy when Premier Li Keqiang's annual report to China's parliament failed to include the phrase "Hong Kong people governing Hong Kong". It is the first time in 17 years that Beijing has failed to make reference to it in the report.

The White Paper indicates too that Beijing would take steps to assert its authority over Hong Kong. These steps were already hinted at in an article written in 2012 by Mr Zhang Xiaoming, then deputy director of the Hong Kong and Macao Office, a Cabinet-level body overseeing the affairs of the SARs.

Mr Zhang's article was meant to explain President Xi Jinping's policy towards Hong Kong soon after the latter took over the helm at the 18th national congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in November 2012.

In it, Mr Zhang, who is now head of the Central Liaison Office, or Beijing's chief representative in Hong Kong, stated a number of powers the central government enjoyed but had hardly exercised. These included the power to review and reject the laws enacted by the SAR; power to decide which national law to apply to the SAR; final authority over the way the chief executive and legislature are elected; and power to explain and revise the Basic Law, Hong Kong's mini Constitution.

Mr Zhang argued that apart from symbolically appointing the chief executive and principal officials, the central government had not exercised the other powers vested in it. Henceforth, the appointment of the chief executive and principal officials had to be "substantial" and the other powers should also be exercised.

His exposition of Mr Xi's policy towards Hong Kong is now embodied in the White Paper.

The White Paper is troubling also for its attempt to extend China's political and legal values to the SAR, what "one country, two systems" sought to avoid.

It imposed a political criterion - patriotism - for top officials and judges. In Hong Kong's political context, "patriotism" as defined by the pro-Beijing newspapers meant not just "loving the country" but also identifying with "socialism" and, by extension, unquestioned obedience to the CCP and its policies. Many people found this hard to accept.

The White Paper also demanded dual loyalty. Under the Basic Law, top officials and judges need only pledge loyalty to the SAR, not the country. This was to ensure that the two political entities are separate. But under the White Paper, they have to pledge loyalty to the central government as well, thus opening the way for political integration, something many Hong Kongers do not want.

It also makes political demands on judges. It stresses that when discharging their duties, judges should bear in mind national interests. This is absolutely alien to the legal tradition of the city.

The White Paper also stressed that national security interests should take precedence in all policies regarding Hong Kong. It went on to accuse some Western powers of meddling in local affairs. As a capitalist society, it is only natural that ideologically Hong Kong inclines towards the capitalist West. Yet the paper considers this as opening up the city for Western intervention into local affairs and would compromise China's national security.

A typical case is the Occupy Central movement. Beijing saw it as a local movement inspired by the Western concept of democracy to try to seize administrative authority over Hong Kong from the central government.

To Hong Kongers, if the principles laid out in the White Paper are put into practice, the future does not bode well for the SAR.

First of all, the universal suffrage promised under the Basic Law will not be authentic, but merely one where Beijing will pre-select a number of candidates for Hong Kongers to pick.

Second, Beijing is likely to try again to enact the national security law provided for in the Basic Law, given its obsession with countering Western infiltration. Its first attempt in 2003 was aborted after strong resistance.

Third, in order to further assert its authority over Hong Kong, the Central Liaison Office would be given a more explicit role in overseeing Hong Kong. There is already discussion within the local CCP units that the communist organisation might end its current "underground" status in Hong Kong.

Fourth, there would be a creeping erosion of the city's legal tradition unless the demands of the White Paper are scrapped. As the legal sector is the last line of defence in the "one country, two systems" formulation, it would be disastrous if this is breached.

Finally, the White Paper casts a long shadow over the freedom of speech, thought and the press so jealously guarded by the SAR. The massive July 1 demonstration testified to this concern.

Culture war powers democracy protests
By Adam Minter, Published The Straits Times, 4 Jul 2014

POLITICAL freedom is not the only impetus for the hundreds of thousands of pro-democracy protesters who this week marched through central Hong Kong.

True, the immediate cause was the Chinese government's recent efforts to assert greater control over Hong Kong. But that is not all of it, by any means.

Tension between citizens of Hong Kong and mainland China has been increasing for several years now, metastasising into cross-border online shouting matches that have made strong impressions on people - and governments - in both places.

Earlier this year, mainland Chinese were shocked by a deplorable incident in which Hong Kong locals sprayed mainland tourists with water from bottles labelled "locust insecticide".

As almost every mainland Chinese knows by now, "locust" is what tens of millions of Chinese tourists who visit Hong Kong annually were labelled in a notorious 2012 advertisement in Hong Kong's most ardent pro-democracy newspaper, the Apple Daily. (It was paid for by 800 donors responding to a Facebook campaign.)

It was an ugly message, and it served little purpose beyond highlighting an intractable cross-border culture war - all the while convincing many Chinese that to be pro-democracy is to be anti-Chinese.

The contrast of world views, and the hate it engenders, is profound.

In the eyes of many Hong Kong residents, mainland Chinese are uncouth buffoons with bulging wallets, no manners and no deference to Hong Kong's status as a more highly developed and cultured gem.

For mainlanders, Hong Kong residents are snobs who fail to accept that they belong to One China.

The skirmishes between the two - mostly conducted online - are depressingly predictable, typically opening with a mainland Chinese tourist committing a petty offence that would hardly be noticed, much less prosecuted, back home.

In January 2012, an online video of Hong Kong residents berating the mainland Chinese mother of a child eating on a Hong Kong subway went viral.

In Hong Kong, where eating on trains is prohibited, the video represented the crude manners and lawlessness of Chinese tourists. Weeks of online vitriol took off from there.

In China, netizens fired back, and a self-described descendant of Confucius went on national television, calling the residents of Hong Kong "dogs" and urging the city to seek help from its "British daddy".

Hong Kong's camera-toting vigilantes remain perpetually vigilant for uncouth mainlanders worth shaming online. The most notorious of these videos emerged this spring, showing a mainland child urinating on a Hong Kong street.

The subsequent predictable debate became so heated, and the hate so palpable, that People's Daily, the official mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, offered an exasperated editorial calling for both sides to calm down.

It was a good idea. But about six weeks later, China issued an official policy paper reminding Hong Kong's residents that their rights exist only insofar as China grants them.

Tuesday's massive pro-democracy protest was in direct response to that paper, and was assuredly political in nature.

But if the spark was provided by China's attempts to control the city's politics, years of accumulated social resentment is fuel. It is a toxic combination, with no apparent solution.

Even if China's leaders offered Hong Kong total independence, the culture war would continue.

That poses a particular challenge to a Chinese Communist Party that counts the return of Hong Kong among its proudest accomplishments.

A softening of its hard line against universal suffrage in the city would go a long way to calming nerves. But it would not do much to the end resentment.

Ultimately, that responsibility is shared by the citizens of Hong Kong. If they hope to achieve a true democracy, with equal rights for all, they will need to accept, and even empathise with, the mainland Chinese who live among them.

HK 'could become a Thailand or Ukraine'
Glass flung at Chief Executive during legislative session
By Li Xueying Hong Kong Correspondent, The Straits Times, 4 Jul 2014

THE spectre of Hong Kong being "radicalised" has been raised by both its leader and China's media following Wednesday's high-profile act of civil disobedience by students demanding greater democracy.

This was even as an independent lawmaker flung a glass towards Chief Executive Leung Chun Ying during a legislative session yesterday in a scene unprecedented in the city's legislative chamber. It did not hit him but broke when it fell to the floor.

Picking up a shard of glass, Mr Leung, in unusually strong language, said he and other government officials entering the legislative chamber have been met with "not just insulting language, but increasingly violent behaviour including what we all saw today".

This, he later added, is influencing how some of Hong Kong's young are acting today. "I appeal to the Legislative Council and society to pay attention to this trend," he said.

China's nationalistic Global Times, meanwhile, warned that Hong Kong was in danger of becoming a "Ukraine or Thailand" if it "continues headlong into political upheaval" with no consideration of the law. The People's Daily denounced the student groups that organised the sit-in at Central.

The warnings came after recent developments in a society that is becoming more politically fractured.

The desire for greater leeway in choosing their leader and anger at perceived tightening of screws by Beijing on Hong Kong drove up to 510,000 people - a record turnout - to the streets on Tuesday. It was followed by a non-violent sit-in, led by students, who occupied Chater Road before they were removed by police. Over 500 were arrested, with 25 released on bail and the rest let go after warnings.

There have also been rowdy scenes outside the legislature in recent weeks over the government's plan to develop new towns in the New Territories.

While most Hong Kongers disapprove of such actions, a growing number, hoping to see change, have been giving so-called radical legislators their vote. They received 16 per cent of all ballots in the 2012 election, up from 10 per cent previously.

Mr Leung yesterday expressed worries that a small segment of Hong Kong youth are becoming increasingly violent in expressing their views, saying that this is a problem that Hong Kong needs to take note of.

Besides the influence of legislators, he said, another factor is unhappiness over issues like the widening income gap, stagnating social mobility and future prospects. "In this, my government has been trying to resolve these problems in the last two years."

In his first comments on the sit-in, he said such actions are "not necessary" and a waste of police resources.

Mr Wong Yuk Man, the radical legislator who threw the glass, was unrepentant, saying Mr Leung "should go to hell". He said he wanted to insult Mr Leung, given that he had been selected as leader by just 689 people in the 1,200-strong election panel. His actions left the other pan-Democrat lawmakers flat-footed. They left the chamber before Mr Leung's speech to protest his lack of response to results of an unofficial referendum on political reform. But the wind was knocked out of their sails when focus turned to the glass-throwing incident instead.


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