Tuesday, October 7, 2014
One Country, Two Systems
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Several years back, during an interview with the Dalai Lama, I questioned the Tibetan leader on the 17-Point Agreement signed in 1951 between the Lhasa government and Beijing. It seemed clear that whatever the Chinese then offered to the Tibetans was not implemented on the ground by Beijing. My question was therefore: “If tomorrow you [the Tibetans] signed an agreement with the Chinese, do you think that they will respect this agreement more than they did with the 17-Point Agreement?”
The Tibetan leader explained his views: “I think that there is more possibility today [that they will respect a new accord]; since the 17-Point Agreement was signed in 1951, the world has very much changed and China too has changed. Unless the clock is taken back, and China returns to what it was in 1950, I feel that there is more hope today.”
He added that he was quite certain that ‘international pressure’ could force China to keep its promises.
This statement is worth looking at in the perspective of the recent ‘pro-democracy’ incidents in Hong Kong. During the ongoing ‘Occupy Central’ movement, tens of thousands of Hongkongers have taken to the streets of the former British colony to exert pressure on Beijing to keep what they perceive were the Communist regime’s promises. The BBC rightly questioned: ‘Hong Kong protests: Did China go back on its promises?”
The latest news is that Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying refused to step down following an ultimatum from students demanding his resignation. Leung however announced that he had appointed his deputy, Carrie Lam to lead a team of senior officials to meet with student leaders. Though some students reacted angrily to the chief executive’s speech, others called for calm and asked for time to negotiate. But what will happen if the police uses riot gear, teargas and rubber bullets? It is difficult to predict. How was this point reached?
In 1997, after years of negotiations, the UK returned Hong Kong to China; the colony was promised ‘a high degree of autonomy’ for the next 50 years. It sounded similar to the ‘genuine autonomy’ asked for by the Dalai Lama. But in 2004 already, Beijing warned that it had to approve changes to Hong Kong’s election laws. Today, for the protesters, it is not a question of change, but of interpretation of the Basic Law. For the pro-democracy activists, in the scheme ‘One Country, Two Systems’, the second part was more important than the first. This is not the case in Beijing, which believes ‘One Country’ is the paramount feature.
On 31 August, the National People’s Congress (NPC) asserted that only after approving candidates, it would allow direct elections in 2017. The ‘Occupy Central’ movement brought the differences between the different parties to the fore. Alan Hoo, chairman of the Basic Law Institute, a well-known pro-Beijing lawyer told the BBC News that China had not broken any promise: “I think that its position is grossly misunderstood. Firstly, it’s not a promise. It is a legal obligation, a constitutional obligation that they put in the Basic Law.”
Of course, Article 45 of the Basic Law specifically refers to ‘one person, one vote’. “The ultimate aim is the selection of the chief executive by universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee,” says Hoo.
However, according to the announcement of the NPC’s Standing Committee, candidates for chief executive must gain the support of a majority of a ‘nominating committee’ (packed with Beijing supporters); further, only two or three candidates can contest. In other words, Beijing’s blessing is necessary. The young demonstrators sing another song, “Give us real universal suffrage”.
CY Leung, the current chief executive, announced that the nominating committee will be modelled on the existing election committee, loyal to Beijing, which selected him in 2012. Former Hong Kong governor Chris Patten now accuses Beijing of not keeping its commitments “by hiding behind flexible legal language”.
For the Communist regime in Beijing, it is not only a question of semantics. If the model ‘One Country, Two Systems’ fails, it would have serious repercussions for other parts of the Middle Kingdom, in Tibet and Xinjiang of course, but also Taiwan which has recently been offered a similar scheme (though Taipei immediately declined). Interestingly, one observes a change of pattern in the protest movement. The New York Times reported the case of a 17-year-old student, Joshua Wong who has been at the forefront of a student movement for democracy in Hong Kong ~ “Mr Wong is troubling confirmation for the authorities that the first generation in Hong Kong to grow up under Chinese rule is by many measures also the one most alienated from Beijing’s influence. He was born less than nine months before this former British colony’s handover to China in 1997, and raised here at a time when the party has tried mightily to win over the people and shape them into patriotic Chinese citizens. His prominence in the protest movement also embodies a shift in politics. [It] has confounded the local government and infuriated its Communist supervisors in the mainland.”
This is what worries Beijing: another generation will take over the struggle. Can there be another Tiananmen in the making? In April 1989, the Communist Party’s mouthpiece, The People’s Daily, published a front-page editorial denouncing the students in the Square, using the word ‘chaos’, a notion violently objected to by the students. The same newspaper now says that Hong Kong would “fall into chaos if the protests were not dealt with according to law.”
Some argue that Hong Kong and Tiananmen cases are different. The former British colony comes under ‘One Country, Two Systems’, which supposedly guarantees freedom of speech, of assembly and of religion and a free press. All this is enshrined in the Basic Law, which governs Hong Kong since 1997.
The South China Morning Post, however, recently reported that President Xi Jinping dismissed the notions of Western-style political reform for China and affirmed the importance of one-party rule in China. Can there be Two Chinas? One Communist and one democratic?
Once again, the Tibet and Taiwan issues are closely related to this. On 1 October, the foundation day of the People’s Republic of China, Zhang Xiaoming, director of the central government’s liaison office in Hong Kong, told the media with a smile: “The sun rises as usual.” How long will it remain a valid statement?
At the same time, Xinhua violently attacked the Hong Kong protesters: “In the name of true universal suffrage, they attempt to deceive the public. Through the illegal ‘Occupy Central’, they attempt to paralyse Hong Kong’s business districts in order to blackmail China’s central government and the government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. If they really want to express their requests, they should be peaceful, rational, and lawful. They should not be so blatant in undermining the rule of law, stability, and order.”
An editorial stated that the students were acting as a pawn of the Western anti-China forces. This is certainly not the best way to handle such a delicate issue.
In the meanwhile, the Dalai Lama has announced that unofficial discussions were on for pilgrimage to Wutai Shan, the sacred mountain in Shanxi province: “It’s not finalised, not yet, but the idea is there… informally, I expressed my desire,” he said.
Such a visit would of course entail a huge security risk for the Tibetan leader, and would it solve the problem of ‘genuine autonomy’ for his people? Probably not, but it is worth watching the unfolding of the Hong Kong saga to see what China really means by ‘one country, two systems’.