It is not just local people who should be worried by the process
the Chinese government is using to replace Hong Kong's chief executive. It is
all those who believe that China is moving toward acceptance of the rule of law
in domestic and international dealings.
There is nothing new in the reality that
little can stand in the way of a top-level decision by the central authorities.
What is striking is that the process shows that Beijing does not care to go
through the formal legal procedures in imposing its will. "Tremble and obey"
remains the guiding principle, and black will be deemed white as readily as
capitalists are now deemed Communists.
Having persuaded the hapless but
ever-patriotic Tung Chee-hwa to retire for health reasons 28 months before the
expiry of his term, Beijing has decided that his successor should have only two
years in office and that there should be another selection process in 2007.
Constitutional lawyers in Hong Kong had
unanimously held that the Basic Law governing the territory provides for a
five-year term. It addresses the issue of a chief executive's early departure
but nowhere provides for modification of the five-year term. But now Beijing
believes it is politically convenient to have a two-year incumbent, so the law
has been "interpreted" by its lawyers to mean that the new chief executive will
only complete his predecessor's period of office.
Of course, there would be nothing wrong
in such a provision, and Beijing has cited the U.S. Constitution as a precedent.
But that is not what Hong Kong's Constitution, the Basic Law, says. The National
People's Congress now in session could have been asked to amend the Basic Law.
But no. It is deemed immutable, so an "interpretation" is needed, even though it
makes a mockery of the meaning of words.
Hong Kong is left in a Catch-22
situation. Its government has tamely accepted the new interpretation. It could
be challenged in the courts in Hong Kong. But even if a challenge succeeded
locally, the issue would end up back with the National People's Congress, which
would then revert to Beijing's interpretation.
Democrats here are divided on whether it
would be counterproductive to mount a challenge, or whether it should be done as
a matter of principle. Whatever they think of the bypassing of the law,
political groups generally see advantages in a two-year term for Beijing's
appointee, Donald Tsang, a lifetime bureaucrat and faithful servant of the
colonial and now the Chinese government. Pro-democracy groups hope that by 2007
the franchise for the Election Committee, which chooses the chief executive,
will have been widened from its current 800 trusted appointees to something more
democratic. The pro-business, mostly pro-government Liberal Party has candidates
of its own whom it would prefer to Tsang. For now, Beijing's mind is made up,
but perhaps by 2007 Beijing and local opinion would favor someone else.
As for Beijing, it knows that a two-year
term will keep the hitherto pliable Tsang on a short leash. But that will be a
problem for him if he wants to make a real break from the Tung era and pursue
policies that are more obviously in Hong Kong's interests rather than those that
are simply seen as expressions of patriotism. As a Catholic, Tsang has also been
at odds with his bishop, an outspoken opponent of past government subservience
Tsang also needs to end government
collusion with a few big business groups.
Perhaps President Hu Jintao recognizes
that new policies, not just a new face and a more experienced administrator, are
needed in Hong Kong. Or he may not.
In any case, Hong Kong must now face the
unpleasant reality that its chief executive, with neither political clout in
Beijing nor a democratic mandate at home, has less authority than the mayors of
China's big cities.
Shanghai has huge clout in the Politburo.
Hong Kong had almost none under Tung and could have even less under Tsang, who
lacks the mainland business and family connections that got Tung the job. That
would matter less if Beijing had not become more determined than it was in the
early days after the handover to interfere in Hong Kong and hasten the
integration of its system into the One Country.
China's riding roughshod over the Basic
Law and promises of autonomy deserves to be noted by all who put faith into
formal agreements with China, whether in trade or diplomacy. It is certainly
being noticed in Taiwan, where almost no one now believes One Country, Two
Systems à la Hong Kong is an acceptable formula for reunification. The slogan
remains, but the Basic Law, which is supposed to implement it, has been
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