On April 4, Ho Kwan-luo (何昆洛), a student at the Hong Kong Institute of Education, wrote an op-ed on the newspaper Mingpao, arguing that the government has betrayed the Basic Law. In the piece, Ho explains that Hong Kong and China are drifting apart, and that the promises made by Beijing in the 1980s regarding Hong Kong’s autonomy in administering its own internal affairs have been broken.
Ho wrote that his generation grew up in the transition period between the British colonial era and the establishment of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. In the 1990s children were taught in school the fundamental tenets of the Basic Law, the city’s ‘mini-constitution’, summed up in the ‘three golden rules’: “one country, two systems” (一國兩制), “the Hong Kong people rule Hong Kong” (港人治港), and “a high degree of autonomy” (高度自治).
In particular, the principle that “the Hong Kong authorities shall be responsible for all administrative affairs except for defence, foreign policy and other matters defined in the Basic Law as responsibilities of the Central Government”, came to be viewed as common knowledge, familiar even to those who didn’t understand the details of the Law.
However, Ho believes that Hong Kong and China are drifting apart instead of getting closer. Time is showing that there is a wide gap between principles and actions, which fuels worries that the Basic Law might have been “usurped”.
According to Ho, after the handover a shift in the official narrative has occurred. While before unification the concept of Hong Kong’s autonomy was emphasized, after 1997 politicians began stressing Beijing’s “essential right to appoint” Hong Kong officials. Ho’s research demonstrates that this exact phrase was used in public statements 39 times by the first Chief Executive, Tung Chee hwa; 106 times by his successor, Donald Tsang; and 473 times by the incumbent leader, C Y Leung.
Ho further mentioned the proposals to implement Article 23 of the Basic Law as yet another example of the government’s attempt to broaden the scope of Beijing’s jurisdiction and redefine Hong Kong’s autonomous status.
“After the Umbrella Movement two years ago,” Ho wrote, “many forgetful young people believed that John Tsang [one of the Chief Executive candidates in the 2017 elections] could unite Hong Kong.” Despite his popularity, however, John Tsang was defeated by Carrie Lam, the candidate favoured by Beijing. Lam was elected with 777 votes by a committee of 1,194 pro-Beijing members.
“Sooner or later the dreams of this generation will be shattered,” Ho warned. “2047 will be the year in which the ‘1990s generation’ will know their own destiny,” he added, referring to the fact that the “one country, two systems” arrangement is due to end in 2047. Beijing has yet to clarify what will happen afterwards, and whether Hong Kong will be incorporated into the mainland’s political system.
On April 6, Chief Executive C Y Leung fired back at Ho Kwan-luo in a statement released on his official website:
The reality is that both the Sino-British Joint Declaration and the Basic Law contain clauses specifying that the Chief Executive “shall be appointed by the Central People’s Government” [and that] principal officials shall be nominated by the Chief Executive and appointed by the Central People’s Government.
According to the statement, the Chief Executive must enjoy the full confidence of the Central Government because “Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy is even higher than that enjoyed by other cities of the interior [of China]”. As a result, Beijing would not entrust the Chief Executive with ample powers if it didn’t have confidence in him or her.
If Hong Kong did not enjoy such high degree of autonomy, and if such autonomy “was equal to that of a foreign city”, then there would not be any clause to the effect that the Central People’s Government must appoint officials. Therefore – the statement concludes – “the essential authority [of the Central People’s Government] to appoint [officials] and Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy are two sides of the same coin.”
Pro-democracy groups in Hong Kong view Beijing’s restrictions on the city’s autonomy as a betrayal of what they perceive as the original intent and scope of “one country, two system”. However, the Basic Law is not as liberal as some people seem to believe. For instance, Article 18 of the Basic Law states:
In the event that the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress decides to declare a state of war or, by reason of turmoil within the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region which endangers national unity or security and is beyond the control of the government of the Region, decides that the Region is in a state of emergency, the Central People’s Government may issue an order applying the relevant national laws in the Region.
It appears that Beijing had already made preparations in case an uprising such as the 1989 Tiananmen student demonstrations should occur in Hong Kong. As a result, when the Umbrella Revolution broke out, officials warned that the People’s Liberation Army might step in to end the protest.
The Basic Law is a carefully crafted document that gives Hong Kong more freedoms than any other part of China, yet at the same time emphasizes that the authority of the Hong Kong government originates in and is subordinate to the Central Government. The Chinese Communist Party never wanted Hong Kong to become a full democracy.
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