China, Hong Kong

China and Hong Kong in Asian Affairs March 2015: Comment

Kenneth C. Walker, an academic and former diplomat who sits on the Editorial Board of the Asian Affairs Journal, takes issue with articles on Hong Kong and China in the March 2015 issue of Asian Affairs. He puts a different point of view here, and Dr Stephan Ortmann, author of the article on the Democracy Movement in Hong Hong, makes a reply below.

Ken Walker:

I was surprised by some points in two articles in the March 2015 issue of Asian Affairs.

In Stephan Ortmann’s article on Hong Kong I wondered how he could have formed the view that the Chinese “were able to dictate most of the conditions” in the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration. China’s decision to “resume the exercise of sovereignty” in 1997 and the main principles of its policy on Hong Kong were stated in the 2nd and 3rd paragraphs of the Declaration. But Annexes which are integral to the Declaration set out in detail measures to protect Hong Kong’s system and the freedoms enjoyed by its citizens. It was well-known at the time that these measures resulted from intensive negotiations in which the input of the senior British diplomats representing Hong Kong’s interests was crucial. Moreover, it is obvious from the amount of detail that the wording could only be the result of intricate negotiations to protect Hong Kong’s interests. Hence my surprise at Dr Ortmann’s view.

Dr Ortmann rightly says that the Joint Declaration did not provide for “full democracy”. Clearly, there was no chance of achieving that.  The Declaration says that Chief Executive shall be selected by elections or consultations held locally and appointed by the central government, and that the legislature shall be constituted by elections. These provisions, and the later elaboration of them in the Basic Law, have limitations which, in the case of the proposed arrangements for electing the Chief Executive, were the main target of the Umbrella protests. In this context, I wonder whether readers will agree with Dr Ortmann’s view that in dealing with the protests the Hong Kong Government “was forced to resort to repression” or whether they will have gained the impression that in the face of the long-lasting demonstrations the authorities exercised a certain degree of restraint, influenced by respect for the rule of law. While there were occasions when the police used tear gas and pepper spray against protestors and some disturbing cases of harassment of their leaders, individuals’ rights seem to have been properly protected by the judiciary so far.

In the article by Sophie Ibbotson and Max Lovell-Hoare the events which they describe clearly represent a significant trend of expanding Chinese economic involvement in Central Asia and elsewhere.  But those events all seem to be overt commercial and/or aid transactions.  In this case I was surprised by the authors’ choice of the title ‘China’s Expansion by Stealth’, which seems inappropriate.

I might add that the authors have evidently missed the prompt denial by the Ukrainian side of the extraordinary report claiming that a project had been agreed for the Chinese to lease 3 million hectares (30,000 square kilometres) of land in the Ukraine.

Dr Stephan Ortmann (in reply):

While there was much debate on the way the declaration was worded, it is clear that the conditions were not greatly affected. Even those “concessions” to the British are kept vague enough to allow for significant interpretation. Of course, China did not want a sudden change which would risk the situation in Hong Kong but to allow for a gradual change, which we are witnessing now with the decline in civic freedoms.

Clearly, on the other hand, the Basic Law and the Joint Declaration were interpreted by democracy activists as a promise for democracy in the future. That has driven the movement for a long time and is still a motivator now.

The “rule of law” was tested in a number of ways before and during the Umbrella Movement. First of all, the White Paper on “One-Country, Two-Systems” issued by the Chinese government prior to the protest movement suggested that judges had to be “patriotic.” Secondly, the inability or unwillingness of the government to clear the illegal protest possibly because of Chinese intervention suggests that they could not implement the law (at least temporarily). Instead, they resorted to extralegal means such as hiring thugs to create chaos (probably with the intent of using it as a pretense). This, however, failed. Also, the use of violence by the police backfired (especially when it was done in a “black corner”). When the protests were eventually cleared, it was because of the court orders, which highlighted the legitimacy of the courts in contrast to the chief executive.

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