Asia, Take Notice: China’s Hong Kong Gambit

A recent white paper discussing China's plans for Hong Kong should have Asian capitals on edge.

While recently in Hong Kong for a reunion of former correspondents, the territory seemed much the same as we had first found it in the 1980s, a robust place where assertive southern Chinese business acumen had intertwined with British habits of law and free speech. Yet appearances can be deceptive.

This past week, the Chinese State Council published a ‘White Paper’ for Hong Kong. The document nicely illustrates both the Chinese Communist Party’s political fragility and a type of slightly menacing diktat, which the Middle Kingdom is currently applying across East Asia.

It was no coincidence that this first-ever White Paper appeared only a few days after 150,000 Hong Kong residents had marched peacefully to mark, on June 4, the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Tiananmen rebellion. Today, almost two decades have elapsed since the former British colony reverted to mainland Chinese rule—albeit as a Special Administrative Region, or SAR.

In the interim, Hong Kong’s fortunes have turned out to be less than many had hoped, but less bad than many had feared. The “Basic Law” spells out the terms under which the territory reverted to mainland rule in 1997. The key element was a “high degree of autonomy”, leaving the colony’s existing rule of law in place. Undisturbed also were the British style civil service and a freewheeling business system.

Changes—some would say “erosion”—to this edifice began almost immediately, but slowly. Since 1997, China’s political control and influence have advanced subtly. By and large (and leaving aside a few caveats implicitly limiting press freedom), Hong Kong has been more or less allowed to be Hong Kong.

The key was mainland China’s fidelity to Deng Xiaoping’s clever “One Country Two Systems” formula. With the White Paper’s implicit admonishments, the formula now seems more like “one country,” and much less like “two systems.” The political markers laid out in the White Paper have unnerved many locals.

It stresses that Hong Kong’s autonomy has limits. The “power to run local affairs” remains—but only “as authorized by the central leadership.” In other words, your liberty stops when we say so. The White Paper puts other new twists on the 1997 Accord. It offers the notion that the territory’s judicial decisions must “take into account the needs of China,” a vague requirement, but perfectly plain to Hong Kong.

On the hot-button issue of democracy, one that has repeatedly brought locals into the streets, the White Paper hasn’t reneged on China’s commitment to move beyond a system in which Beijing appoints Hong Kong’s chief executive—yet. The White Paper speaks of introducing universal suffrage, as promised in the Basic Law, by 2017—but the requirements to run in the elections are that a candidate must be “patriotic” and “love China.” Guess who is going to set the test and determine that outcome?

Beyond Hong Kong

Overshadowed by the Middle East and Ukraine crises, the White Paper received scant global attention, and only a little even within Asia. But its ambit goes far beyond Hong Kong itself. As China’s former paramount leader, Deng had introduced the ‘One Country, Two Systems” formula with Taiwan in mind. China’s repressive, one-party state has always made the Taiwanese queasy. Their skepticism has only deepened as they’ve watched Beijing’s unelected rulers circumscribe Hong Kong’s freedoms.

It’s been a long time since 1997. East Asia’s robust dynamism has showered wealth on Hong Kong, Taiwan and China. With Taiwan, “cross-strait economic integration” has made great strides. Yet Taipei continues to resist political dialogue aimed at ensnaring it into China’s orbit, as Hong Kong has become ensnared with a chief executive whose ultimate masters sit in a Leninist-style politburo in Beijing. China has appeared comfortable with ruling KMT President Ma Ying-jeou, who has accelerated cross-strait interaction more than any of his predecessors.

But popular protests in Taipei against new cross-straits trade accords suggest that the next Taiwanese presidential elections in 2016 could yield results that might make Beijing less patient. In his first statement on Taiwan upon taking office, Chinese President Xi Jinping hinted at a desire to resolve the Taiwan question: “Looking further ahead, the issue of political disagreements that exist between the two sides must reach a final resolution, step by step, and these issues cannot be passed on from generation to generation.” Few believe this means Beijing is about to impose a timetable for reunification. But an absence of movement in political dialogue (for which there is little support in Taiwan) could see China begin to force the issue.

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