In local affairs, Beijing is not Brussels

Updated: 2013-10-11 07:02

By Nicholas Gordon(HK Edition)

  Print Mail Large Medium  Small 分享按钮 0

Beijing is not Brussels. An obvious statement, some might say, but in relation to Hong Kong, it is actually a revealing comparison. It turns out that the center of the European Union has more power to influence the lives of French, German or Polish citizens than Beijing has over Hong Kong citizens. By being exempt from national regulation, and by possessing the power to set up its own policies, Hong Kong has more power to control its own society than some states do.

Hong Kong's freedom from external regulation percolates down to the very nuts and bolts of how people live their lives in the city. Regulations over product and food safety are tighter than on the mainland, which explains the masses of mainland tourists trying to bring baby milk powder and other foodstuffs across the border. Hong Kong has its own anti-trust regime, its own privacy ordinances, and labeling requirements; in just about every aspect of economic and social life, Hong Kong has jurisdiction.

Even the words we use prove the strength of Hong Kong's autonomy: Mandarin may be the official language of the mainland, yet Hong Kong's official languages are English and generic Chinese - or, to be more specific, Cantonese.

The central government cannot just pass a law and have it affect Hong Kong; instead, to implement the policies it prefers, Beijing has to work through local political actors (who often put their own spin on said policies). Whether or not you agree with the policies Beijing wants for Hong Kong, one should recognize that, at most, Beijing is limited to indirect measures in influencing Hong Kong's development.

This is very different to how we normally understand what it means to be a state. For most other states, to be sovereign is to have unparalleled supremacy over all local policies. But the mainland's laws are not supreme in Hong Kong. What is more interesting, at least from my standpoint as one who studies international relations, is that Beijing has given up this power voluntarily, as part of the handover agreement with Britain that led to the Basic Law.

Compare this with other systems, and it becomes apparent how unique this situation is. Federal states in the US, compared to many other systems, have a lot of freedom vis-a-vis the national government, but their autonomy pales in comparison to Hong Kong. Individual state governments can pass whatever law they want, but laws passed by the federal government trump any and all state law. This is not necessarily a good thing: until quite recently, Washington refused to recognize any same-sex marriage in a state that had legalized it, even in those states where a majority of the local population supported gay rights. Such a scenario, where a national law supersedes a local one, is specifically barred in Hong Kong's Basic Law.

Perhaps a more interesting comparison can be made between Hong Kong and the various EU member states. Brussels, often to the surprise of citizens of EU states, controls a great deal of local policy. There are the large, macro-scale regulations - controls on monetary policy and the euro - but Brussels reach extends to how people live their lives on a day-to-day basis.

You can see this in food and drink regulations, where there are strict guidelines over what labels can be applied to products. Producers of food and drink, who have been using the same recipes for centuries, are suddenly unable to name their products under their normal names, due to some violation of a regulation from Brussels. One English wine-seller faced the prospect of selling his products as a "fruit-based alcoholic beverage," as only wine made from European grapes could be called wine. And, to pick an even more egregious example, Brussels prevents anyone producing sparkling wine outside of the Champagne region in France from calling their products "champagne".

Many of these regulations may have been implemented for entirely justifiable reasons: after all, Hong Kong has much stricter regulations on food safety, labeling and hygiene than the mainland does. However, the main point is that one could make the surprising observation that, in terms of practical, day-to-day matters, or, in other words, in a de facto sense, Hong Kong may have more authority to determine its own affairs than member states of the EU, despite being an integral part of China.

This is not to say that Beijing is disinterested in Hong Kong's affairs. It does have a vision about what Hong Kong should be (though it may care less than people think). However, we should always keep in mind that Beijing is actually limited in how it can implement its policies, and has designed this system by choice. After all, Beijing is not Brussels; perhaps, when it comes to Hong Kong, it really doesn't want to be.

The author recently graduated with high honors from Harvard University and is doing an MPhil in International Relations as a Clarendon Scholar. His writings have appeared in some leading regional and local publications.

(HK Edition 10/11/2013 page9)