Hong Kong takes a prominent role in NPC deliberations

Updated: 2015-03-27 07:11

By Tim Collard(HK Edition)

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One result of the unfortunate events in Hong Kong in the second half of 2014 has been an increased level of emphasis on the city's future by the central government in Beijing. This was demonstrated at the recent National People's Congress (NPC) session, where two of the top leaders very clearly articulated their views.

In the first place, Premier Li Keqiang restated the three basic principles of China's resumption of sovereignty over Hong Kong: "One Country, Two Systems", a "high degree of autonomy", and "Hong Kong people governing Hong Kong". This was undoubtedly intended to reassure Hong Kong that the central government's position remained unchanged and had not hardened as a result of the confrontational activities of some SAR citizens. Li also expressed full confidence in Leung Chun-ying's administration and its governance of Hong Kong.

Yet there are clearly shadows over the relationship. Zhang Dejiang, chairman of the NPC Standing Committee and leading official on Hong Kong-related affairs, declared ominously that "it would be hard in the short term to eliminate the effects of 'Occupy'" on the Beijing-Hong Kong relationship. He also issued warnings concerning any speculation about the idea of "independence", stressing that safeguarding national security and development interests was a "clear red line" which could not be crossed. This indicated that even the mere discussion of such ideas was outside the boundaries of acceptability. Setting out exactly where those boundaries are can be seen as an important pointer toward a search for constructive ways forward within such limits. Although recent negative effects on the relationship may be hard to counter in the immediate future, it is essential they are eliminated soon. Zhang's remarks then continued in a more positive vein.

It is interesting that Zhang carefully referred to China's "national security and development interests". The implication of this is that national security is not seen as a consideration compared with the interests of the individual, but should go hand in hand with economic and social development, with the aim of reducing disaffection and instability by improving the economic conditions under which people live. This wider approach has stood the mainland in good stead over the last 30 years. Growth and rising prosperity have contributed greatly to social peace and order at a time of rapid transition; Beijing clearly hopes the same can be true for Hong Kong.

A key factor here will be an improvement in economic integration between Hong Kong and the high-performing technological centers emerging in Guangdong. It has already been established that Shenzhen has pushed well ahead of Hong Kong in terms of technological innovation. Financial Secretary John Tsang referred to this in last month's Budget, although the SAR government was unable to take all the steps it would have hoped. But the NPC made it clear that the mainland is eager to cooperate with further integration and promotion of further mainland-Hong Kong interdependence.

Later this month a new Free Trade Zone (FTZ) will open in Guangdong, following the 2013 launch of a FTZ pilot project in Shanghai. As well as integration and cross-border collaboration, the intention is to combine mainland innovation with Hong Kong's international financial know-how to create a business environment which functions according to international standards. This will promote integration of the mainland not only with the HKSAR but with global financial structures.

These economic development initiatives are aimed, inter alia, at creating opportunities for young Hong Kong citizens and successive generations. Zhang Dejiang said one of the lessons drawn from "Occupy" was that more attention needed to be paid to the education and aspirations of young people. The clear intention is to provide the young with constructive outlets for their energies, distracting them from negative expressions of discontent. Both central and Hong Kong governments have noted the opportunities available in the burgeoning technological enterprises north of the border. As well as contributing to social stability, this will also benefit their economies.

Thus the prominent position accorded to Hong Kong at the NPC session offers opportunities as well as warnings. It cannot be a bad thing for Hong Kong to figure so largely in the thinking of the central government: The constitutional development of the territory over the next few years is a tricky issue which has to be got right. For this, the right political, cultural and economic foundation needs to be created. The alternative could well be too dreadful to contemplate.

The author is a former UK diplomat specializing in China. He spent nine years as an analyst in Beijing. He now works as a freelance writer and commentator.

(HK Edition 03/27/2015 page12)