Autonomy redefined

Category: Asia, China, Hong Kong
By V G Kulkarni

China’s White paper lays down the limits of democracy in Hong Kong

The organisers expected about 100,000 people to use their smartphones or tablets to vent their cyber-steam. But on day one of the informal expression of their political preference, more than four times that number exercised their choice. By the end of day three, the tally stood at more than 700,000, or about one-fifth of all the registered voters. Welcome to the unofficial demonstration of democracy, Hong Kong-style.

This popular referendum is part of a grass-roots movement to choose the method of selecting Hong Kong’s next chief executive – more accurately choosing the candidates who would be allowed to run for that office, the highest position in the territory’s government.

Under a convoluted system of Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, evolved after the British handed the colony over to Chinese rule in 1997, the Beijing government appoints a committee of 1,200 people called the election committee. These chosen worthies are mostly pro-China social notables, businessmen and professionals who nominate a few candidates for the election of the chief executive. The voters have to choose one from among them to govern the place.

The recent unofficial referendum – lasting from June 19 to June 29 – wants Hong Kong’s 3.5 million registered voters to have a say in choosing the candidates as well as the winner in the election. No way, say the authorities. Beijing has made no secret of its view that it will not tolerate deviations from the existing procedures. Incumbent Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying has added his voice that none of the referendum’s options would be legally permissible. The movement conducting the cyber-poll, Occupy Central With Love and Peace, has vowed that if the authorities did not come up with a plan for free and fair elections, it would peacefully occupy the city’s main business district.

The pro-Mainland press in Hong Kong has already denounced the referendum as a farce and a fraud. The movement’s offer that if the authorities doubted the cyber-poll, the government could hold a referendum of its own to ascertain the popular will, was conveniently ignored by the authorities. Ironically, the Hong Kong government is currently in the midst of a year-long consultation process with the public over the implementation of universal suffrage for the election of the chief executive in 2017. But in that process, there is no scope for any deviation from what Beijing thinks is the proper course. In the event, as a pre-emptive response to calls for more democracy, Chinese authorities came out with a white paper on Hong Kong on June 10.

The white paper’s hard line shocked many in Hong Kong who have all along assumed that a high degree of autonomy was assured in the Sino-British Joint Declaration of the 1980s. But the white paper ignored the treaty obligations and stated blandly that as a unitary state China’s central government had comprehensive jurisdiction over all local administrative regions, including Hong Kong. Hence autonomy was not an inherent power but one that derived from the authority of the central government; there was no such thing as “residual power” enjoyed by the Hong Kong government.

Stating that Hong Kong’s “democracy must serve China’s sovereignty and security”, it went on to stress that the chief executive “must love the country and love Hong Kong”; the same “love” criterion would apply to all officials and judges. Under the Western-style rule of law that Hong Kong practices there is no way to adjudicate “love”. And who will decide if Hong Kong’s judges are patriotic enough? As the ultimate arbiters of the Hong Kong Basic Law or mini-constitution, it would be communist cadres in the Standing Committee of the Chinese National People’s Congress. In the Chinese system where judges, legislators and administrators are all officers of the party, independence of the judiciary is immaterial, if not non-existent.

There is no evidence that 14 years of semi-democracy and rule of law in Hong Kong have hurt China’s interests. So why is Beijing adamant on imposing its will on unwilling Hong Kong? The white paper and the Mainland media hype surrounding it harp on “meddling by foreign forces”. Anytime US, British and European officials comment on democracy in Hong Kong, Chinese officials promptly protest over their meddling in China’s internal affairs. And as if on cue, the national media chimes in by raising the issues of sovereignty and security – the themes reflected in the white paper as well, although hardly anyone in Hong Kong questions either Chinese sovereignty or advocates independence for the former British colony.

China wants to make Hong Kong’s “one country, two systems” a success by bolstering the city’s economy while at the same time keeping democratic ambitions manageable. Beijing would like to showcase Hong Kong to convince the 23 million people of Taiwan that prosperity and reunification are possible under a benign Beijing. Probably the Mainland regime is willing to take a knock or two from Hong Kong’s activists to achieve its long-term goal.