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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

  1. 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.
  2. 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?

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Comment Preferences

  •  What could the U.K. do? (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Karl Rover, FG, kurt

    Hong Kong has reverted to Chinese rule after expiration of a 99-year lease.  I take it that makes China the undisputed sovereign.  I don't know what legal right the British would have to do anything.

    "Ça c'est une chanson que j'aurais vraiment aimé ne pas avoir écrite." -- Barbara

    by FogCityJohn on Fri Jun 13, 2014 at 05:07:42 PM PDT

    •  They have the same legal right (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      any country has to protest transgressions of other nations  - diplomatic and economic.  But it seems China's released this as they are headed to London with deals the Brits don't want to jeopardize.  Britain has a little more moral responsibility because the citizens of Hong Kong were British citizens until 1997 and the Joint Declaration included guarantees for HK citizens.  

      •  I British did not feel morally obligated to gra... (0+ / 0-)

        I British did not feel morally obligated to grant Hong Kong citizens full franchise and rights as colonial subjects British citizens themselves enjoyed, why do you expect them to do so now almost 10 years after the fact?

        In fact Hong Kong people enjoy more rights of self determination today then they ever did under British rule, a basic fact you seem to ignore.

        The fact Hong Kong people now debate this is a sign of growing political maturity that was totally absent under British colonial rule and having discovered they are, indeed, Chinese citizens and not a variety of hot house flower is another step in the process.

        Wishing them the best of luck because Hong Kong is an incubator for change in China, but running to the British is irrelevant.

        Those privileged Hong Kong people with full British Passports and right of abode have more options but most Hong Kong people do not.

  •  Your article is misleading in several ways (0+ / 0-)

    First, you seem to give the impression that Hong Kong Chinese enjoyed a lot of civil rights pre-handover they simply did not.

    For example, the British Colonial Government was had an appointed Governor and Executive Council (upper house) and Legislative Council (lower house) packed with appointees from "Functional Constituencies" (a legacy system that persists) with Chinese only granted to vote for Urban Council, i.e., local government services such as trash collection.

    There was ZERO progress granting locals any other rights until after the handover was essentially agreed and the British faced the embarrassing prospect of turning over a politically backward colony.

    In fact, even the Basic Law itself proscribed a gradual and evolutionary process to convert appointed seats to elected ones, so since the handover, the number of directly elected officials has increased and today is more than every existed under British Colonial rule.

    So any complaints about the rather inbreed and privileged class of legislators a legacy of colonialism, and in fact, the system has become more open and competitive under Chinese rules consistent with the Basic Law.

    Second, you fail to mention another legacy of British Rule, which was the division of Hong Kong people into a privileged class granted Full British Citizenship and Passports and those who had second class BNO Passports with no right of abode or privileges of full citizenship, a class division that exists to this day.

    Your total failure to address these significant historical point suggest you are either ignorant of some basic facts of misleading to support an anti-Chinese narrative.

    I think the real issues before the Hong Kong public today concern two issues:

    (1) When the remaining legislative offices including the CE that are indirectly elected (i.e., by Chinese approved committee) will be converted to directly elected offices, and whether there is a chance to accelerate this as some, notably the Democratic Party, advocate.

    (2) Whether rules degrading freedom of the press will be enacted that would harm existing civil liberties.

    I think it's eastyo state these issues clearly and objectively without excess baggage about traditional Asian shop keeping and hotel practices common not only to China but also, historically, Korea and Japan, which have to due with traditional Confusion notions of propriety and nothing to do with politics, or your experience as a visitor to China back in the days.

    You might want to fix the link to the white paper making it a direct link to the SCMP as this requires a log in.

    I'm going to tip for raising a good topic but suggest in future you consider going straight to the point, of if you are going to add background, trying to be a bit more objective.

    Hong Kong people's expectations have actually increased since the handover as the body politic has matured after 150 years of being treated like children. Now they understand better the need to become involved and be responsible.

    There's bound to be some growing pains but they have they already enjoy more self-determination then they did in the past and more than us brothers and sisters to the North, let's see if they can set a good example for us to follow.

    No one is coming to save us, the future is in our hands.

    by koNko on Sat Jun 14, 2014 at 01:17:06 AM PDT

  •  Addenda (0+ / 0-)

    Coming back to my previous comment, I find some points are not so clearly expressed or inadequate so I would like to add to them.

    First, I want to pose some basic questions that need answering by anyone approaching the subject:

    1. Do people recognize that as colonial subjects, Hong Kong Chinese had less means of political self determination and less direct influence over their own lives than they do today?  Is it recognized the territory was run by a foreign colonial government and wealthy Chinese elite who shared no real power with common citizens?

    2. Do people recognize that leading up to the handover after the agreement, the British colonial government: (a) put up a nominal front of a directly elected minority of the lower house of legislature while maintaining absolute control by "hand picked" British Citizens (Anglo or Sino) appointed by and loyal to the Crowne, and; (b) relinquished the right of abode to holder of BNO Passports (which is more specific than what the diary states - noted that Full Rights and Abode were granted to the Elite who had governed)?

    3. Do people recognize that fact that: (a) China was always the sovereign owner of lands subject to the lease which was extracted by military force as a concession in a 19th Century treaty (in fact the lease applied to land North of Boundary Street including the entire New Territories), and; (b) from the expiration of the lease and the handover in July 1997, Britain relinquished all rights to govern other than the standard diplomatic and consular services to its resident or visiting citizens?

    4. Do people recognize that the Basic Law and the concept of "One Nation Two Systems" enshrined in it: (a) does not grant Hong Kong sovereign status, but; (b) provides for it to be governed as a Special Administrative Region (hence, "Hong Kong SAR") with its own system of local government that differs from the mainland but is not superior, and; (c) in fact, Hong Kong people enjoy a greater degree of political self-determination and civil rights than mainland citizens (including myself)?

    5. Do people recognize that since the hand-over: (a) Hong Kong people have gained greater self-determination and freedoms than they enjoyed under British rule and that this process has been consistent with the Basic Law, and; (b) as they have gained rights, they have used them to call for more rights (i.e., to expand upon the scope) as they continue to do today?

    6. Do people recognize, that the timeline for gradual self-determination by direct elections enshrined in the Basic Law; (a) was necessarily imprecise since it was charting a political evolution over 20+ years, and; (b) from inception, many Hong Kong people have, in fact, used the very imprecision to lobby for expanding the rights and shortening the process as they continue to do?

    7. Do people recognize that no laws governing any modern nation or territory are static and unchanging, and indeed, that is the reason to have legislatures?

    Now given the above, I reiterate that:

    A. British did not treat Hong Kong people any better that they are treated today; in fact, since they left the scene Hong Kong society has become more civil for more people (discounting, perhaps, some economic and political privileges enjoyed by a minority)

    B. The British, having left the scene, were not the saviors and are not the saviors of Hong Kong people and anyone expecting this needs a reality check on history and current events.

    C. The fact that Hong Kong people can and do express their desire for more rights and self determination is evidence of evolving political maturity and also that these rights do, in fact, exist.

    D. Anyone suggesting that Hong Kong has anything less than the "One Country Two Systems" is ignorant of the comparative affluence, political rights and civil rights Hong Kong people enjoy over their mainland compatriots, and it is my personal experience that many Hong Kong people, particularly young people, do fail to understand this. In doing so, they are fortunate to have such illusions because were they to actually to reverse roles, I'm fairly certain it would come as a shock on every level.

    E.  Therefore, (D.) suggests they have made a lot of progress; spoiled children only come with abundance.

    F. If Hong Kong people are truly dedicated to civil and political rights, they can demonstrate it by starting at home and treating the foreign domestic workers that clean their houses, raise their kids, cook their food and wash their toilets more like humans with rights, because some of us in Mainland actually wonder whether they can tie their own shoes and know what an honest day of work is. Seriously, I feel ashamed for Hong Kong on this count.

    I'm really all for Hong Kong people maintaining their rights and getting more if they can, but politics is a process and takes time.

    I hope you don't think I'm unsympathetic, but I don't see a role for Britain or anyone else do to this for them, they need to do it - that is what self-determination means.

    No one is coming to save us, the future is in our hands.

    by koNko on Sat Jun 14, 2014 at 06:36:23 AM PDT

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