This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Sino-British Joint Declaration on Hong Kong, a diplomatic agreement that ensures the political and economic autonomy of the former British colony – the idea of “one country, two systems” – upon handover to communist China.
But a recent official document from the Beijing government suggests that it may have a looser interpretation of “autonomy” than that agreement stipulated, to the alarm of many in Hong Kong.
This white paper places Hong Kong in the position of all other municipal and provincial administrative regions, where “China's central government has comprehensive jurisdiction” over them. The paper also makes “love of country” as the main criteria for Hong Kong's administrators, including judges and judicial officers.
Many judges in Hong Kong are not Chinese nationals, making it a strange requirement for them to pledge their love to another country. While Chinese nationality is a requirement for top officials in the administration according to the city's constitution known as the Basic Law, it is never a requirement for judges. The Hong Kong Bar Association, a statutory body for barristers, criticized the paper for undermining judicial independence in Hong Kong and stressed that the judiciary should not carry out any political missions of the government.
According to the “one country, two systems” principle in the Sino-British Joint Declaration, Hong Kong's previous capitalist system and its way of life would remain unchanged for a period of 50 years until 2047. The Basic Law specifically states that Hong Kong will be independent in its judiciary system and “the common law, rules of equity, ordinances, subordinate legislation and customary law shall be maintained”.
Sources from the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs told the press that Chinese Premier Li Keqiang planned to secure a signed document declaring the Sino-British Joint Declaration a success during his visit to the U.K. Such a document, according to Martin Lee Chu-ming, a founding member of the Hong Kong Democratic Party, would stop the international community from further commenting on the Hong Kong affair. He urged the U.K government not to sell Hong Kong out for a Sino-British trade deal.
By the end of Li's visit, the British government did not sign any joint document on the success of the Sino-British Joint Declaration, but Prime Minister David Cameron made a brief statement on the city. Evan Fowler commented on the diplomatic response in his column for House News:
The mood in Britain, in Europe, and in America, is increasingly anti-interventionist. There are too many other crises around the globe at present for [Hong Kong]’s political status to be a priority in Western capitals. […] Britain has not implied that it supports China's line on Hong Kong. Its support is for the promotion of “prosperity and stability of Hong Kong”. It is worth noting that this is “of Hong Kong”. […] Should Britain feel that China is denying this, Britain reserves the right to call China out as is its right under the Joint Declaration.
Public opinion in Hong Kong largely sided against the white paper. In mainland China, however, party mouthpieces claimed that all sectors from Hong Kong welcomed Beijing's white paper. Tibetan writer Woeser retweeted an image circulating online to counter the lie:
— འོད་ཟེར།唯色Woeser (@degewa) June 12, 2014
A widely circulated image on Facebook: “Withdraw your white paper”! The mouthpieces of the party dare say, “All sectors from Hong Kong welcomed the central government's white paper: Clarification of misunderstanding”.
The Chinese characters for “withdraw” (收) and “cover” (皮) when put together in Cantonese means “f**k off”.
Au Kar-lun, a former journalist, interpreted the political intention behind the white paper in his column for House News:
Back then, the stress on “two systems” and the emphasis on the right of Hong Kong to enjoy autonomy was to ease Hong Kong people's anxiety and keep them in Hong Kong. Today, the “strong country” emphasizes “one country” as the precondition and that the central government has power [over Hong Kong]. One country is above two systems, power in their hand. The power we have is a gift [that you have to receive with a bow in gratitude], rather than a promise. Do you understand?
這洋洋數萬字寫的就是從中央的視角談談如何直接管治香港。政治方面完全收緊對香港管治權的控制，一國先於兩制，沒有所謂剩餘權力（residual power），即是說有什麼中港紛爭都由中央決定，香港人只可以做中央容許的事。[…] 這份文件除了政治宣言以外，亦列出了中央對香港的經濟及民生論述。中共的恩主心態低調地宜揚著：「要不是97年亞洲金融風暴我救了你們，之後不斷在金融（人民幣）、貿易（CEPA）、旅遊（自由行）給你著數，你早就玩完了！」[…] 請問香港有否高度自治、港人治港？請問這份白皮書有否諮詢過香港人、有否從香港社會出發？請問港府同內地政府簽協議有沒有香港人的同意？[…]不難想像，香港政府已經搶出來說這是「新基本法」，香港人的自治權蕩然無存。
The thousands of words talk about how to govern Hong Kong directly from the central government's point of view. It strengthens its political control over Hong Kong and places one country above two systems. There is no residual power, which means the central government has the power to decide all cross-border issues. Hong Kong people are allowed to do whatever the central government allows us to do. […] Apart from making a political statement, the document also talks about Hong Kong economy and society. The central government is presented as a benevolent ruler: “We have saved you from the 1997 Asia financial crisis. Without introducing the beneficial policies in finance (RMB exchange center), trade (Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement) and tourism (individual tourist visa to Hong Kong), Hong Kong will be over. […] Does Hong Kong have a “high degree of autonomy” and “Hong Kong people running Hong Kong”? Did they even care to consult Hong Kong people when writing the white paper? Is the paper written from the perspective of local society? Do the Hong Kong people have a say in all the arrangements signed between the Hong Kong government and the mainland Chinese government? […] It is not hard to imagine that the Hong Kong government has taken the white paper as the “new Basic Law”, meaning there is no more autonomy in Hong Kong.
Charles Mok quoted his friends poem that comments on the white paper as well as included a political cartoon:
— Charles Mok 莫乃光 (@charlesmok) June 13, 2014
My good friend Fong Su's words on the white paper: “The north wind is so fierce in June, dark clouds cover Hong Kong. The white paper carries thousands of words. Great danger behind the black hands. The one country is always pretending, the two systems will never be genuine. The Basic has no Law, autonomy has vanished.”