White paper shades Hong Kong independence grey

It’s all over the news here. The Chinese government has published a White Paper that says Hong Kong is Chinese. But that’s not really news. It’s been unquestionably true since British rule ended in 1997. What is news is the fact that China has chosen to articulate its authority, and its articulation of just how Chinese it expects Hong Kong’s government and judges to be.

Y’all are under our authority, y’hear?

China hasn’t commented specifically on Hong Kong’s sovereignty since 1997 when Britain’s 99 year lease on the New Territories expired and it handed Kowloon and Hong Kong’s islands back to China. It did so in exchange for an agreement that Hong Kong’s legal system, appreciation of individual rights, and general capitalist architecture be preserved for at least fifty years. Since, Hong Kong has been governed by its Basic Law – a kind of constitution – and has continued on its merry capitalist, Western investment friendly way with the rule of law and an independent judiciary.

The reasoning behind the White Paper’s timing isn’t certain, but it’s a fair bet it might have something to do with recent pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. More than 100,000 Hong Kongers recently gathered to mark the twenty fifth anniversary of Tienanmen Square, an occasion which went conspicuously unmarked by their mainland brethren.

“The high degree of autonomy of the HKSAR (Hong Kong Special Administrative Region) is not full autonomy, nor a decentralized power,” says the White Paper. “It is the power to run local affairs as authorized by the central leadership.” And it goes on with a corrective tone claiming Hong Kongers are “confused or lopsided in their understanding” with the “one country, two systems principle”.

What it means to be part of China

The clock is ticking slowly towards the expiration of the fifty year Sino-Anglo agreement to preserve individual rights in Hong Kong. It’s anyone’s guess whether Chinese liberalisation will mean that agreement is redundant by 2047. But in the meantime Hong Kong’s independent political status, in practice, seems to be getting murkier.

There’s a requirement that any Chief Executive candidates sign a pledge affirming their “love for Hong Kong”. At first blush that doesn’t seem that significant. God knows, American presidential candidates get worked up about whether or not they wear flag pins. But “love for Hong Kong” is widely interpreted as code for “love of Beijing” here, and the suggestion has had pro-democracy protestors here up in arms.

Now there’s the idea, as articulated in the White Paper, that Hong Kong judges, as members of the government, have a duty to make rulings that, before all else, recognise the interests of China. That’s got the legal community here pretty worried. Judges bowing to Beijing in their rulings seems a subversion of the British common law system Hong Kong maintains, and of their judicial independence.

The Hong Kong bureaucrat we heard on TV side stepped the issue. We don’t tell judges what to do, he argued, so it’s up to them whether or not to accept the obligations the White Paper implies. Okay, on one level that preserves judicial independence, but on another it completely undermines it. Wouldn’t the political savvy Hong Kong judge, weary of the prospects of further intervention from Beijing, therefore take the White paper recommendations to heart?

Hong Kong makes the China Lonely Planet, whereas Taiwan doesn’t, and that’s about as sophisticated as our analysis of its sovereignty is likely to get in the four days we’ll spend here. But, safe to say, it’s a complex issue, and one that continues to evolve.

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