Fourteen years ago, on July 1, 1997, the British colony of Hong Kong was returned to Chinese sovereignty after an interlude of 156 years. It became the Hong Kong Special Administration Region of the People’s Republic of China under the formula ‘one country, two systems,’ and was supposed to enjoy a high degree of autonomy.
Since then, July 1 has been a public holiday known as HKSAR Establishment Day. Ironically, though, for the past decade July 1 has become an annual day of protest against both the Hong Kong administration and the Chinese government. Only adding to the irony, July 1 is marked in China as the birthday of the Communist Party, which was founded in Shanghai in 1921.
The tradition of protest marches stems from 2003, when the administration of Tung Chee-hwa, Beijing’s choice as Hong Kong’s first post-1997 chief executive, sought to enact national security legislation to implement Article 23 of the Basic Law. The law was promulgated in 1990 by China’s National People’s Congress as Hong Kong’s mini-constitution.
Under Article 23, Hong Kong is obliged to enact laws to prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion, theft of state secrets and other political offenses. Before the handover, fear of Chinese Communist rule – especially after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 – spurred a massive exodus from Hong Kong, with about 10 percent of its five million population seeking safe havens abroad, mostly in Canada, the United States, Australia and Britain.
Those who remained feared the loss of their rights and freedoms, and attention focused on Article 23, with its political offences.
The Tung administration tried to steamroller the bill through with passage slated on July 9, 2003. An unhappy populace, galvanized by fear of loss of basic rights and freedoms, poured into the streets in a huge protest on July that year.
In fact, many of the protesters probably had economic hardship on their mind as well. Hong Kong had been hit hard by the Asian financial crisis in 1998, followed by the global economic downturn in 2001 and SARS in 2003. This resulted in loss of jobs, negative equity and a declining economy.
As a consequence, half a million people marched, shouting slogans calling for democracy and opposing the proposed legislation. The ensuing political earthquake caused pro-establishment legislators to drop their support for the national security legislation, and Tung had little choice but to withdraw the bill.
Since then, each July 1 has been marked with a march calling for democracy. And since then, no chief executive has dared put forward Article 23 legislation.
Beijing, meanwhile, has reversed its original hands-off approach of respecting Hong Kong’s autonomy, and has instead involved itself deeply in Hong Kong’s domestic affairs. Indeed, Beijing is so deeply involved in Hong Kong’s internal affairs that last year Hong Kong’s Democratic Party talked directly to Chinese officials about amendments to Chief Executive Donald Tsang’s political reform package, rather than holding discussions with Tsang administration officials.
Chinese officials repeatedly rejected calls for full democracy. First they said no to suggestions that universal suffrage be implemented in 2007-2008; they said no again to 2012. Finally, Beijing said yes, but deferred universal suffrage elections for the chief executive to 2017, and 2020 for the legislature.
This is where things stand today, with the chief executive to be elected next year being—at least in theory—the last one chosen by an election committee.
As for the legislature, unlike under the British, all members are now elected. However, half the legislators are elected by so-called functional constituencies, such as professional bodies, trade unions and business groups.
China’s alternative approach toward Hong Kong was reflected by the visit last week to the territory of Wang Guangya, the new director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office of China’s State Council. Wang, a senior diplomat who used to be China’s ambassador to the United Nations, wooed the populace like a Western-style politician, visiting markets, sampling egg tarts and bemoaning the shortage of low-cost housing.
In this, he was the exact opposite of his predecessor, Liao Hui, who in his 13 years in office never paid a public visit to Hong Kong, mixed with the population nor answered questions from the media or the public. Wang, in contrast, was approachable, likeable and open. He’s certainly one of the more attractive personalities in Beijing responsible for handling Hong Kong matters.
One reason why Wang’s predecessor was almost invisible was Beijing’s previous fear of appearing to be interfering in Hong Kong’s internal affairs. Before 2003, China was confident that Tung would run Hong Kong well. But after the massive protest, Beijing decided it had to play a much bigger role, and should be seen to be doing so.
There’s little pretence now that Hong Kong can make major decisions on its own, especially where democracy is concerned. Beijing is calling the shots.
Oddly, this has also resulted in restraints being removed on the Hong Kong side. In the early years after the handover, there was a strong desire to keep Beijing at arm’s length, even where it had a legitimate role. Thus, under the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s Court of Final Appeal is supposed to ask the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress to interpret relevant provisions of the Basic Law concerning the relationship between Beijing and Hong Kong in adjudicating cases.
However, when such a case came up in 1999—involving the right of mainlanders with Hong Kong parents to live in the territory—the Court decided to make its own interpretation. Subsequently, the Tung administration asked Beijing for a reinterpretation and the Court’s opinion was overturned. Still, until this year, the Court didn’t ask the Standing Committee for an interpretation.
This changed last month. The Court of Final Appeal in a case involving the Congolese Government asked the Standing Committee for an interpretation of the Basic Law as to whether foreign governments enjoy absolute immunity in Hong Kong courts.
Under the common law that prevailed in Hong Kong before 1997, foreign governments only enjoyed restricted immunity, which doesn’t apply to commercial dealings. The Chinese foreign ministry, however, has written three letters to the Hong Kong judiciary on this issue. These letters emphasize the ‘consistent and principled position’ of the Chinese government, which is that ‘a state and its property shall, in foreign courts, enjoy absolute immunity, including absolute immunity from jurisdiction and from execution.’
Since the Standing Committee is a political body, its interpretation of the law is unlikely to deviate from that of the Foreign Ministry. Thus, Hong Kong’s highest court, by asking for an interpretation, was in reality accepting the Chinese government’s position.
This is something that it wouldn’t have done 12 years ago. Today, with a population that much better understands Hong Kong’s relationship to the Chinese government, the Courtevidently feels comfortable enough to submit itself to the authority of the National People’s Congress.
As for how the Hong Kong public feels, aside from the marches calling for democracy and for the annual candlelight vigils to commemorate the victims of the Tiananmen Square crackdown, it’s clear that at least a segment of the public now feels relatively comfortable about the relationship with Beijing.
This even extends to some young Hong Kong men wanting to serve in the Chinese military. Hong Kong residents are exempt from conscription, but Gen. Chen Bingde, Chief of the General Staff of the People’s Liberation Army, said in an interview earlier this month that Hong Kong people are welcome to join the armed forces.
Interestingly, the general’s remarks weren’t met with hostility, phrased as they were as China being willing to accommodate Hong Kong sentiments.
Similarly, when Wang Guangya met with young people during his visit, he was asked if Hong Kong people could join China’s diplomatic service. The questioner was evincing interest in a diplomatic career. Hitherto, the only way Hong Kong people could become diplomats was to migrate to Canada and join the Canadian diplomatic service.
But now, it appears, new opportunities may open up as Hong Kong’s relationship with China settles down into a more normal state – regardless of whether or not it is still ‘one country, two systems.’
Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. Now based in Hong Kong, he writes a regular column on Chinese affairs. His articles have appeared in Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, World Policy Journal, China Quarterly, Current History, the Washington Quarterly and other publications. Follow him on Twitter: @FrankChing1