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Public disorder is unacceptable to any authority

By Regina Ip | China Daily Global | Updated: 2024-06-19 09:02
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The Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank, recently published a report on the state of autonomy in Hong Kong. The report ended with a mildly positive hope that Hong Kong's "spots of resilience", meaning its relative openness and inclusivity, might be preserved through the United States' adoption of "strategic engagement" with Hong Kong. The premises for coming to this conclusion have much that needs to be challenged.

The report dwelled at length on the political change and the intense focus on national security, which have come about after Beijing enacted the National Security Law for Hong Kong in June 2020. In enumerating the alleged "diminution of freedom" in various spheres of activity, the report turned a complete blind eye to the sufferings of the people of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region during the prolonged violence in 2019 and 2020, and the attacks on government institutions, which would not be tolerated by any competent authority.

Events that unfolded in the US after that — the severity with which the US authorities went after "election deniers" who stormed the Capitol Hill on Jan 6, 2021, and the speed with which police forcibly cleared US campuses of pro-Palestinian protesters — drive home the reality that public disorder that challenges the rule of law, let alone attempts at subversion and secession, is unacceptable to any authority. It would have been irresponsible of Beijing to sit idle and allow Hong Kong to be engulfed by seemingly unending circles of hatred and intimidation.

The second reality, which the report overlooked, in discussing the degree of autonomy enjoyed by Hong Kong, is the fact that Beijing has always intended Hong Kong to be, according to Article 12 of the Basic Law, "a local administration of the People's Republic of China, which shall enjoy a high degree of autonomy and come directly under the Central People's Government".

People who have a smattering of knowledge of China's history and political tradition would know that the nation has always been an administrative state. It has been highly centralized since the rule of Qin Shi Huang, or the First Emperor of the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC). China's administrative structure today — comprising 23 provinces, five autonomous regions, four "direct-administered municipalities" and two special administrative regions — reflects the historical developments over time, but is in essence not dissimilar to the administrative structure of China upon unification by Qin Shi Huang, also the first emperor in the Chinese history.

At the time of Sino-British negotiations on the future of Hong Kong in the early 1980s, electoral democracy was unknown in China and alien to its political tradition. It is unimaginable that Beijing would have agreed to grant popular democracy to Hong Kong after 1997. No agreement on political reform in Hong Kong after 1997 was reached, as evidenced by the lack of any reference to the introduction of "democracy" in the Sino-British Joint Declaration on the future of Hong Kong.

The Sino-British Joint Declaration has become the favorite weapon of US and British authorities to clobber China for alleged breach of its "treaty obligations" to Hong Kong. In fact, the joint declaration, comprising no more than 1,183 words, three annexes and an exchange of memorandums on nationality, is literally a pair of linked statements by which China declared it would recover Hong Kong and "resume the exercise of sovereignty over Hong Kong with effect from 1 July 1997", followed by a terse statement by Britain that "it will restore Hong Kong to the People's Republic of China with effect from 1 July 1997".

In the third statement, China declared its basic policies toward Hong Kong. In subparagraph 4 of this statement, China made clear that "the chief executive will be appointed by the Central People's Government on the basis of the results of elections or consultations to be held locally". This statement papered over a rift over constitutional development in Hong Kong after 1997, which was never resolved by the end of the Sino-British negotiations.

Those who blame China for not honoring its alleged promise of democracy to Hong Kong should bear in mind that it was Britain which put democratic development on hold on two occasions. The first occasion was after World War II, which is well documented in the book Democracy Shelved by British scholar Steve Tsang Yui-sang. The second instance was in the late 1960s, after riots in Kowloon prompted a review of the need for greater popular participation in governance. The British leaders decided that Hong Kong would be better served by rational, nonpartisan technocrats than irresponsible demagogues.

It was Beijing which agreed to vastly expand the electoral element in the legislature after 1997.Unfortunately, the democratic experiment proved to be a disastrous impediment to effective governance and eventually a hotbed for anti-China movement.

Many rely on the reference to Hong Kong's high degree of autonomy except in "foreign and defense affairs" to substantiate their allegation that Hong Kong's autonomy has been whittled down by Beijing. They ignore the fact that China has declared from the outset, in the Sino-British Joint Declaration and in the Basic Law, that upholding national unity and territorial integrity is the prime objective of China's resumption of exercise of sovereignty over Hong Kong.

Under the Basic Law, Beijing wields decisive powers over a wide range of constitutional arrangements, such as the appointment of principal officials, the power to apply national laws in Hong Kong, a power which has been exercised sparingly, and the power of interpretation of provisions of the Basic Law.

Lest there be any undue pessimism about the "high degree of autonomy" enjoyed by Hong Kong, it should also be noted that Article 4 of the Basic Law provides clearly that the rights and freedoms of the residents of the Hong Kong SAR and of other people in the region shall be safeguarded in accordance with the law. This commitment is reiterated in Article 4 of the National Security Law for Hong Kong, and in section 2(b) of the Safeguarding National Security Ordinance enacted by Hong Kong on March 19. The commitment to maintaining the capitalist systems practiced in Hong Kong is equally ironclad.

As the scholars in the US think tank observed, Hong Kong remains "the freest part of China" where the flow of information and ideas is relatively uninhibited, and international business is well protected by law. It is a city where Westerners can live happily, do business and raise their families, and many have done so and chosen to stay. The US should accept Hong Kong as it is, a special administrative region under the direct authority of the central government, with adequate rights and freedoms preserved, and not an imagined community with more rights than granted by its sovereign power.

The author is convener of the Executive Council of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and a legislator.

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