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Hong Kong as Potential International and Internal Risk for Beijing

February 1, 2012

China is a country with a lot of problems of what political scientists call “stateness. ” That is to say, the state itself is not a subject of broad consensus, with respect to both its geographic boundaries or to its membership. There are a lot of examples of important parts of China that are not 100 percent committed to the official concept of China. We all know what they are: Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, and some of the populations on other borders—the Korean border, the Thai border, and the Burma border—Hong Kong and Macao are other examples. Although each is unique in its character, together they are examples of this problem of the unsettled nature of the Chinese state.

It seems to me that, among these different cases, Hong Kong is in some ways much less dangerous for Beijing. It is obviously very small and economically dependent. It doesn’t have the kind of realistic breakaway option that is possessed, above all, by Taiwan, but which is also possessed—although the possibility is more remote—by areas like Tibet and Xinjiang. They could conceivably break off. Hong Kong doesn’t have that option. Also, from an identity point of view, the Hong Kong people are more willing to accept a “People’ s Republic of China” (PRC) identity than is the case with some of these other instances, partly because they are, or they see themselves as being, Han and, I think, partly because they know that they really don’t have another option. So these are ways in which the Hong Kong case is less threatening than some of these other cases. However—and this is really my main point—the Hong Kong case does present significant risk for Beijing on two bases; one is internal, and one is international.

The internal one is that the Hong Kong people do have, after all, a separate identity, which is extremely valuable and important to people who live in Hong Kong. They have an identity of a free people, of a rule-of-law people, of a people living under some kind of democratic principles even though full democracy has not yet been realized. And although they’re willing to live within the PRC, they treasure the separate systems concept, the Special Administration Region (SAR) status that has been given to them by Beijing.

From time to time, this sense of a separate identity of Hong Kong shows itself with tremendous political force. It happened in 1989, and in 2002–2003 with opposition to the Article 23 legislation.1 It happens now, at a lower level of intensity but still continuously, with the annual Victoria Park demonstration on June Fourth, with the presence and activity of the Falun Gong movement, with the free press that is there, and with the pro-democracy movement that is there. So for China, the risk that is presented by this is that all of those elements could, under some triggering circumstances, get out of control and present a challenge that would be costly for Beijing to control, and which, if not controlled, could lead to a deflation of Beijing’s authority not only in Hong Kong, but over these other areas that have imperfect loyalty to the PRC concept, and even, in the extreme, to a challenge to the government’s authority within the Han areas on the mainland themselves. Indeed, pro-democracy movements in Hong Kong could strengthen pro-democracy sentiment in the Han areas of the mainland. So the existence within the PRC of an imperfectly controlled Hong Kong with its separate political culture presents a continuous, if low-level, risk to the Chinese regime.

The second aspect of risk connected to Hong Kong is the existence of a distinct and, in a way, even uniquely high-level, legitimate international interest in the state of affairs in the SAR. When it comes to Xinjiang or Tibet, the international interest is, from a legal point of view, very weak. Xinjiang and Tibet are internationally recognized as parts of the PRC. No foreign government has any right under international law to intercede there, except, arguably, to complain about, or to intercede verbally with Beijing about, violations of international human rights law. With respect to Taiwan, the situation is a little more complicated since the United States has unilaterally asserted an interest in the way in which the Taiwan issue is settled.2 But the Hong Kong case is unique, so far as I know, in the legal status of foreign interests, because the retrocession of Hong Kong to the PRC was undertaken under an international treaty, the UK-China Joint Declaration, which committed China—in the form of a commitment to another sovereign state—to honor certain principles [in the UK-China Joint Declaration] in its treatment of its own sovereign territory.3 This is an unusual and even, so far as I know, unique case in which a sovereign state has made a treaty commitment to another sovereign state that limits its ability to treat its own sovereign territory in a certain way. That is what the Joint Declaration does. In addition, the United States, in its characteristically unilateralist way, has asserted its own interest in the fate of Hong Kong. In 1992, Congress adopted something called the U.S.-Hong Kong Policy Act—the McConnell Act—which states a national interest on the part of the United States in Hong Kong’s political stability and human rights. I can’t claim that that act has strong grounding in international law, but it is an unusual instance of one state expressing a national interest in the state of affairs within the sovereign territory of another state, and its only parallel that I can think of is the U.S. commitment to Taiwan.

Also, of course, as you know, Hong Kong is a separate reporting entity to the UN Human Rights Committee under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and to the Committee on Economic and Social Rights under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). Beijing allows Hong Kong to be a separate human rights reporting entity, and this makes Hong Kong’ s human rights a separate matter of concern for the relevant UN human rights mechanisms.

Fourth, there is, of course, a huge expatriate presence in Hong Kong, which creates, much more so than in Xinjiang and Tibet, a special level of foreign attention to the state of affairs there.

Fifth, I would say, complicating the picture is that the people in Taiwan keep a close eye on how things go in Hong Kong.

And so Hong Kong represents a kind of focus point of potential international risk for Beijing.

The next-to-last point that I want to make is that, considering all of these risk elements, Beijing has so far handled the Hong Kong issue skillfully in my judgment, with a few blips that you people in Hong Kong are, certainly, much more sensitive to and cognizant of than I am. Article 23 was a misstep, the Tung Chee Hwa term in office as the SAR’s first chief executive following Hong Kong’s return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997 had many problems, and the right of abode issue was one that may have been handled less than ideally.4 Yet in a macro perspective, the Hong Kong problem has never gotten bad enough to bite Beijing. I think that there are several reasons for that that I am aware of, and others that I may not be well aware of.

One of the first reasons is what’s contained in Christine Loh’s book, Underground Front: The Chinese Communist Party in Hong Kong,5 Which is the way in which Beijing has, behind the scenes, managed its relationships with the elites in Hong Kong, so that Beijing’s control of the administration and of the leading political parties is deft enough that it hasn’t created any strong opposition. Secondly, Beijing has, somehow—and this is always a question I ask when in Hong Kong, how this works, I still don’t feel that I understand it—tolerated extensive non-governmental organization (NGO) activity—including this NGO, Human Rights in China—and what looks to me on the outside like a good level of press freedom, academic freedom, publication freedom, travel freedom. For example, I, personally, am able to visit Hong Kong without any problem. Beijing has been able to have the wisdom to see that this situation is in its interest, actually, that it can tolerate it without cracking down as it does on the mainland, that it can really run a separate, more tolerant security model in Hong Kong, and that it works.

A third factor is their support for the economic prosperity of Hong Kong. They’ve seen, I think, what’s clear to anybody, that economic prosperity in Hong Kong is required for stability, and they have done what they had to do to contribute to that and have succeeded in doing so thus far. These three things—management of elites, toleration of freedom, and economic prosperity—have prevented situations from arising that would have made the potential foreign concern with Hong Kong flare up.

My concluding point is, however, that Beijing needs to continue this skillful management of Hong Kong. This is always challenging because the potential threats that Hong Kong presents to Beijing are never going away, they are still there.

Editors’ Notes

1. Article 23 of the Hong Kong Basic Law requires the HK SAR to enact laws prohibiting treason, secession, sedition, and subversion against the Central People’s Government. On September 24, 2002, the HK government released its proposals, but refused to release a White Bill showing the actual language for the proposed anti-subversion law. After protests and massive demonstrations on July 1, 2003, and resignations by two HK Cabinet members, the proposed bill was withdrawn and has been shelved indefinitely. ^

2. The U.S. Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act in 1979 to, among other things, maintain U.S. capacity to “resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan.” In 1982, the U.S. further agreed to the Six Assurances, including assurances that the U.S. had not altered its position on the PRC’ s sovereignty over Taiwan and that it would not pressure Taiwan to enter negotiations with the PRC. Taiwan Relations Act, Public Law 96–8, 96th Cong (April 10, 1979), ^

3. In the UK-China Joint Declaration, signed in 1984, the governments of the PRC and Great Britain agreed to several policies that would be stipulated in Hong Kong’ s Basic Law and remain unchanged for fifty years, ending in 2047. These included assurances that “the current social and economic systems in Hong Kong will remain unchanged, and so will the lifestyle,” and that “[r]ights and freedoms, including those of the person, of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of travel, of movement, of correspondence, of strike, of choice of occupation, of academic research and of religious belief will be ensured by law in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. ” Joint Declaration of the Government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the Government of the People’ s Republic of China on the Question of Hong Kong (1984), ^

4. The Hong Kong Basic Law, which went into effect on July 1, 1997, specifies conditions for the right of abode eligibility (the equivalent permanent residency in Hong Kong), which has remained a contentious issue in Hong Kong and, in 1999, occasioned further controversy over Hong Kong’ s judicial independence. That year, after protests against a Court of Appeal ruling that would have immediately increased the number of permanent residents by 300,000, the Hong Kong government asked the Standing Committee of the National People’ s Congress for its interpretation of the right of abode provisions. The NPC overturned the ruling, and the Court of Final Appeal upheld the NPC interpretation.^

5. Christine Loh, Underground Front: The Chinese Communist Party in Hong Kong (Hong Kong: Hong

Kong University Press, 2011), ^


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