White paper freak-out continues

Hong Kong is knee-deep in in mouth-froth today as the unconvincingly frantic anti-Occupy Central bombardment continues, and pro-democracy groups tear Beijing’s white paper to shreds, or at least criticize its more disagreeable bits.

It is Security Secretary Lai Tung-kwok’s unhappy duty to intone at ghost-written length in every newspaper about the illegality of civil disobedience. To those of us who had already noticed that the phrase ‘civil disobedience’ includes the word ‘disobedience’ this will not come as a huge shock. As Lai notes, the Occupy Central organizers themselves warn participants that they could be committing various offences, and there’s the additional danger – which moderate activists must be secretly dreading – that radicals could gatecrash the protest and resort to what passes in placid Hong Kong for violence.

Lau Nai-keung, hate-filled scourge of the pro-democrats, describes local political dissidents as ‘ignorant zealots’ for claiming that the white paper’s theme that Hong Kong has no automatic right to any autonomy reflects a shift in China’s policy. Such people, he says, ‘have been under the influence of a massive and protracted exercise in disinformation carried out in Hong Kong, as well as in the Western media’. Confusingly, he imagines us asking why Beijing had not revealed this truth earlier. He isn’t sure. Anyone who reads Lau regularly will know that his deeply personal loathing for pro-democrats (they were all on good terms many, many years ago) tends to override logic and lucidity.

Other pro-Beijing figures partake in assorted jabbering and hand-flapping. Fans of elderly patriotic matrons, for example, will be excited to learn that ex-lawmakers Maria Tam and Rita Fan reassure us that the white paper doesn’t mean China will strip the city of home rule, at least not right now. And ex-Justice Secretary Elsie Leung says the bits about how judges must support the government don’t mean that judges must support the government.

That part of the imperial edict was bound to raise hackles, though – whatever the lawyers say – it is not new. On numerous occasions, Beijing emissaries passing through town have indicated that a judiciary is simply an arm of the executive, its role being to implement official policy just as municipal workers carry out orders to sweep the streets. To them, separation of powers is a Western evil. Similarly, it is obvious to Mainland leaders that judges must ‘love the country’, Communist code for ‘support the one-party state’. They can’t not be patriotic.

How can we reconcile Hong Kong’s system, where the courts (including non-Chinese judges) can and do push the government around at the behest of common citizens, with the Mainland’s one-party state, where a small group of unaccountable black hair-dye users has total control of executive, legislative and judicial functions, not to mention the press, schools, charities, churches and much more? Constitutionally, there are linkages that guarantee the dominance of ‘One Country’ over the Hong Kong part of the ‘Two Systems’. The Central People’s Government can kick out the Chief Executive; it has a veto in the Legislative Council through obedient functional constituency representatives; it can overrule our courts through the ‘interpretation’ mechanism whereby a puppet National People’s Congress committee can change the meaning of the Basic Law. The barristers themselves concede this when their resounding defence of judicial independence in Hong Kong ends on a slightly limp note about how the mechanism should be used sparingly.

To answer the question: we can’t reconcile it. We want to be the place where financiers and investors come because contracts are enforceable and we have a free flow of information, and yet, sooner than a senior official can say ‘we shall be an arbitration hub’, Beijing can actually switch it off. It’s a sort of dual state, like Schrodinger’s cat: so long as you don’t look in the box, Hong Kong’s freedom can be alive. Perhaps it helps if you were raised in the Roman Catholic faith and were accustomed to going around pretending the Holy Trinity makes sense. Otherwise, maybe it’s just best not to think about it.

Although we think it’s all about Hong Kong…

…Beijing’s white paper is also aimed at international audiences, which is why it appeared in seven languages. The intention (as Lau Nai-keung suggests) seems to be to correct misleading impressions the overseas media have formed and spread as a result of over-exposure to Hong Kong’s pro-democracy milieu (and partly because of the publicity-shy and un-cosmopolitan nature of local apologists for the Communist Party cause). Hence the document’s laborious history of China’s longstanding support for Hong Kong through thick and thin. Obviously this is highly selective. For example…

In the early 1960s, Hong Kong people were sending food parcels to family on the Mainland; to the extent China supplied Hong Kong with food at the time, it was to raise hard currency and pretend its own people weren’t starving. As for the ‘first pass yield’, I had to look it up. It means ‘quality’. In other words: ‘the amount of foodstuffs the Mainland sends to Hong Kong that does not poison consumers has maintained at a fairly high level’, which I guess is more or less about right, overall.


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