In mainland China, as any experienced lawyer will advise their client, a promise or written agreement can end up as little more than a statement by the parties of their relative bargaining power at a particular point in time. That’s how it was with Chairman Mao in the 1940s, when he built a powerful coalition around promises of democracy, only to jettison those principles and partners as soon as he had a stronger hand. And that’s how it is under China’s ambitious new leader, Xi Jinping, judging by the recent treatment of Hong Kong.
Hong Kong is the speck of land which the British empire appropriated from the Qing Empire – at gunpoint – and built into the vibrant city of 7 million people that it is today. Financiers, refugees and communist revolutionaries flocked to the island and adjacent territories because it offered the protection of British laws and institutions at the gateway to the world’s most populous nation, China.
In 1984, premier Zhao Ziyang and prime minister Margaret Thatcher signed a Joint Declaration to set the terms of the 1997 handover of sovereignty, following the expiration of a 99-year lease. That declaration guaranteed a “high degree of autonomy” for 50 years and explicitly protected freedoms of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of travel, of movement, of correspondence and religion.
The protections enshrined in the 1984 Joint Declaration and detailed in Hong Kong’s Basic Law have held up well, judging by its status as the financial capital of Asia and an expatriate community that includes more than 80,000 Australians. The McKinsey Global Institute ranks Hong Kong at No. 2 on its list of globally connected regions, drawing on 2012 data on flows of goods, services and finance.
But the picture has shifted drastically since the new Xi administration entrenched itself from about March last year.
Hong Kong's vibrant media has come under financial and even physical assault. The integrity of Hong Kong’s famed anti-corruption body and police force has been called into question. And the promise of elections with “universal suffrage”– envisaged in the 1984 Joint Declaration and promised in the 1997 Basic Law – has been diluted beyond all meaning, to the point that officials warn that the list of candidates will be restricted to hand-picked “patriots” as defined by Beijing.
This month, for the first time, these accumulating threats to the integrity of Hong Kong’s autonomy and freedoms were pulled together in a high-level public document. The white paper on Hong Kong’s "One Country, Two Systems", released in six languages by the State Council Information Office, is a 22,000-word recital of Communist Party power and Beijing's willingness to use it.
The white paper redefines the 1984 Joint Declaration so that it is no longer a foundational document for Hong Kong’s Basic Law and a solemn commitment to the world. We learn that it was merely an “ingenious design” by Deng Xiaoping to achieve “reunification”. In other words, it was a tactical device that has now been discarded because the goal of sovereignty has been achieved. In case anyone in Hong Kong thinks they are in a position to challenge this interpretation, the white paper delivers a long and monotonous recital of the city’s economic dependency: “It relies on the mainland for the supply of fresh water, vegetables, meat …”
Two-thirds into the white paper it's tone changes to attack. “Many wrong views ... are currently rife in Hong Kong,” it warns, ominously, while pointing to the eternal Communist Party bogey of hostile "outside forces”. The correct view, we learn, is that Hong Kong’s autonomy has always been subject to an array of dominant central government priorities that were not mentioned in 1984. “The continued practice of ‘one country, two systems’ in Hong Kong requires that we proceed from the fundamental objectives of maintaining China's sovereignty, security and development interests …,” it says.
For the first time in any public document, Hong Kong's status as a “special administrative region” is downgraded to one of several “local administrative regions”. Its guaranteed “high degree of autonomy” – which China pledged would remain in place for 50 years – is now “subject to the central government's authorisation”. Hong Kong’s autonomy and freedoms are now a privilege, not a right, that can be withdrawn at any time. Most significantly, Hong Kong’s judges – whose independence underpins all else – are now grouped together with “administrators” who are required to be patriotic and uphold a “correct” view of law.
And so, one-third of the way into its 50 years of guaranteed autonomy, Hong Kong is being absorbed into a Communist Party universe where the party rules above the law and power trumps all else.
We can guess what premier Zhao would have thought of the fact that his country no longer intends to abide by the 1984 agreement that he signed in its name, given that he sacrificed his career and freedom to stand up for law and due process in 1989.
And Zhao’s key political adviser, Bao Tong, who lives under house arrest in Beijing, has stated his views online. He says the 1984 Joint Declaration has been “castrated of all meaning”. If the new white paper is a true reflection of the leadership’s intentions, says Bao, then the idea of "One Country, Two Systems" no longer exists and it would be more honest to simply “tear the  treaty up”.
Every capital in the region is grappling with the question of how to respond to China’s growing challenges to the global rules-based system. But anyone who is tempted by the idea of a “grand bargain” with Beijing should first learn something about Chinese Communist Party history and consult the people of Hong Kong.
John Garnaut is Fairfax Media's Asia-Pacific editor.
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