Police crackdowns on protesters make good television. And even without video or photographs, the stories have concrete images that readers and listeners can quickly comprehend.
But technical wording changes in long 'white papers' are much harder for the news media to present. Especially when the history behind the documents is unknown.
China has recently made significant changes in the rules that govern Hong Kong - The Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR.) Rules that foreshadow crackdowns on the freedoms that Hong Kong residents enjoy that aren't shared in the rest of China.
In this post I'm going to
- give a very brief history of the Basic Law and the context of Hong Kong at the time based on my experiences living in Hong Kong when it was promulgated.
- offer an excerpt from the new white paper that gives a sense of the kind of language that is making the people of Hong Kong fearful.
On April 4, 1990, toward the end of our Fulbright year at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, the Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) was passed by the Third Session of the Seventh National People's Congress (NPC) in Beijing.
There were still seven years to go before the UK would hand over Hong Kong to the Chinese. It was less than year since Tiananmen and people in Hong Kong were worried that all the freedoms they had under the British would be swept away. (I'd note that compared to the US, their freedoms were modest already.) People were seeking escape routes in case things got bad. News stands were full of new magazines that highlighted countries where Hong Kong residents could apply for citizenship. I remember big ads in the newspaper for citizenship in Botswana for people who could invest, if I recall right, US$250,000. Vancouver was becoming known as Hongcouver because so many people were buying property and establishing residency there.
Although Hong Kong was a British colony and people had British passports, people had discovered that when they renewed their passports, the words 'right to abode' were no longer in them. Britain was not prepared to have 5 million Hong Kong residents move to London.
The Basic Law offered Hong Kong special rights and freedoms that were not available to mainland Chinese. At the time, Hong Kong was a wide open capitalist* city full of consumer goods and high rise buildings - all the glitter and free trade of the West. In mainland China things were still grey from people's clothes to the most rudimentary shops with few goods for sale. You'd tell the clerk what you wanted. She'd write out a receipt which you took to the cashier. When you paid, you were given a receipt to take back to the clerk who would give you your item. Every hotel floor - and even the 'foreign expert housing' I stayed in on campus when visiting Beijing - had young giggling girls who monitored guests as they came and went from their rooms.
China had to make some guarantees to the British that Hong Kong wasnt going to revert to the severe Mainland communist control and that the people of Hong Kong weren't going to lose all the freedom they had. And Beijing, it seemed, didn't want to kill the golden goose that was bringing in so much foreign currency, much of it sending Chinese products to the rest of the world. This was before Deng Xiaoping made his southern tour and declared there was a place for capitalism within China. It was before Shanghai's transformation.
The answer was the document known as the Basic Law. A key phrase in the Basic Law was "One country, two systems." As Hong Kong reverted back to China after its 99 year lease to Great Britain, it would be allowed to maintain its own system. The border from Mainland China into Hong Kong was heavily controlled. That was the deal. This last week, following the tens of thousands in Hong Kong who publicly commemorated Tiananmen's 25th anniversary, China released a white paper that appears to change the rules originally set out in the Basic Law.
One part of the Basic Law says that eventually the people of Hong Kong should be able to vote for the chief executive. In 2007 the date for such elections was set as 2017. It appears that many people in Hong Kong believe if such an election does take place, Beijing will limit candidates to those who "love China."
I haven't had a chance to read the whole White Paper carefully. But here's an excerpt that I found that seems to highlight the kinds of changes that are causing severe heartburn for people in Hong Kong right now.
"One country, two systems" is a holistic concept. The "one country" means that within the PRC, HKSAR is an inseparable part and a local administrative region directly under China's Central People's Government. As a unitary state, China's central government has comprehensive jurisdiction over all local administrative regions, including the HKSAR. The high degree of autonomy of HKSAR is not an inherent power, but one that comes solely from the authorization by the central leadership. The high degree of autonomy of the HKSAR is not full autonomy, nor a decentralized power. It is the power to run local affairs as authorized by the central leadership. The high degree of autonomy of HKSAR is subject to the level of the central leadership's authorization. There is no such thing called "residual power." With China's Constitution stipulating in clear-cut terms that the country follows a fundamental system of socialism, the basic system, core leadership and guiding thought of the "one country" have been explicitly provided for. The most important thing to do in upholding the "one country" principle is to maintain China's sovereignty, security and development interests, and respect the country's fundamental system and other systems and principles.The whole text can be read at the South China Morning Post here.
Given that Hong Kong was a British colony, one might expect Great Britain to be concerned about changes that affect the agreement they signed when they handed over Hong Kong to China. But I can't find any official reaction out of London. That may not happen as China's premiere Li Keqiang is headed to London for significant trade talksnext week.
Should anyone be surprised about this? I think not. I would guess that the Basic Law gave the British a way to say, as they left, that we've made sure you'll be ok, though they had nothing to do with writing it. It was the Joint Declaration that they worked out with China as conditions for the handover. The Basic Law always had enough ambiguity that China would be able to have as much control as they needed. I think while people knew this, they still held out hope that they'd keep their freedoms.
*The capitalist label is a little misleading. Most Hong Kong workers lived in low rent government housing blocks and different business sectors had guaranteed seats in the Hong Kong government.
This was originally posted at the blog What Do I Know?