The political spotlight fell briefly this month on two cities half a world apart, to reflect contrasting images of Beijing’s Hong Kong dilemma. Washington D.C. and the former Portuguese colony of Macau make for unlikely partners in this exercise. But together they illustrate the two competing dimensions of the Hong Kong problem that must be reconciled if a solution is ever to be found combining Hong Kong’s political ideals and Beijing’s idealized image of what Hong Kong should be.

Hong Kong’s last British governor, Christopher Patten, recently told a Washington, D.C. audience that Hong Kong had not been given what it thought it had been promised by Beijing when Hong Kong was transferred from British to Chinese rule in 1997.

He was speaking by video link from London at an event hosted by the United States government’s Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC). The May 3 forum addressed the question, “Will the Hong Kong Model Survive?” and was billed as an assessment of those promises after two decades of life under Chinese rule. *

Three other guest speakers had flown to Washington from Hong Kong for the May 3 event. They were veteran democracy campaigner Martin Lee Chu-ming (李柱銘) and his most famous young successor Joshua Wong Chi-fung (黃之鋒), plus Lam Wing-kee (林榮基). Lam is one of the Hong Kong booksellers caught up in the cross-border legal case last year that did as much as anything else to shake Hong Kong’s confidence in its autonomy.

The view from Washington

The original “one-country, two-systems” model included many promises. British negotiators had insisted that these all be written down in black and white for future reference and legal assurance, and this the Chinese did.

The promises were written into a new Basic Law constitution promulgated by Beijing in 1990. It says that Hong Kong’s way of life shall remain unchanged for 50 years from 1997 and universal suffrage elections would be introduced. It also promised a high degree of autonomy, judicial independence, that local people would be running Hong Kong, and much else.

Patten’s comments were the most provocative. He pointed to the apparent abduction from Hong Kong of one of the booksellers and most recently of a Chinese businessman. Both were wanted for interrogation by mainland law enforcement authorities. Patten said their cases were symptomatic of Hong Kong’s eroding autonomy.

He called on China’s current president, Xi Jinping (習近平), to reassure Hong Kong that his government remains committed to the promises made by China’s then paramount leader Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) in the 1980s.

Deng’s promises were those made first to the British and then written into the Basic Law. They were intended, as the saying went in those days, to put Hong Kong hearts and minds at ease before 1997. Patten noted that they are not at ease today (Ming Pao, Apple, May 4).

The Washington scene was calculated to provoke howls of protest from Beijing: a selection of its most prominent adversaries gathered together on enemy turf, the much-proclaimed source of Hong Kong’s continued resistance and Beijing’s innermost fears about subversive challenges to its authority. Beijing typically blames either London or Washington or both for all its Hong Kong political headaches (May 2 post).

Sure enough, for days afterward, Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing media railed at the most recent affront. One headline proclaimed: “The Feeble Old Traitor Begs for American Interference in Hong Kong.” The reference was to Martin Lee (Ta Kung Pao, May 4). Another declared that “Martin Lee and Joshua Wong Sold Out Hong Kong in Return for Glory.” (Wen Wei Po, May 4). Yet another: “Patten’s Anti-China Heart is Still Beating. He continues to Incite Hong Kong Youth.” (Ta Kung Pao, May 5).

In Beijing, the Foreign Ministry dismissed the CECC hearing as another instance of misguided foreign meddling in China’s affairs. All the promises made to Hong Kong were being properly kept. Claims to the contrary derived either from ignorance or prejudice (China Daily, SCMP, May 5).

Soon afterward, however, the spotlight shifted and fell on Hong Kong’s neighbor, Macau. The former Portuguese colony was returned to Chinese rule in 1999, two years after Hong Kong made the same transition.

The occasion in Macau was an inspection tour by the third most powerful man in Beijing’s ruling Communist Party hierarchy. Zhang Dejiang (張得江) is responsible for overseeing both of the new ex-colonial Special Administrative Regions: Hong Kong and Macau.

Macau as role model

In Washington, speakers addressed the question, “Will the Hong Kong Model Survive?” From the other side of the question, they served an unintended purpose by illustrating all that’s wrong in Hong Kong as Beijing sees it.

This allowed Zhang’s commentary throughout his May 8-10 visit to serve as the rebuttal by showcasing all that’s right about Macau’s new life under Chinese rule. The two Speical Administrative Regions (SARs) have the same one-country, two-systems model and the promises made to both were, almost, the same.

The contrast between them could not have been more striking. For Hong Kong, the mood was somber and foreboding. Macau was all sunshine and smiles, the template for what Beijing evidently expected its SARs to be and still does: communities living in easy acceptance of mainland-style political ways and means … with few protests, demands, or political challenges.

For those unfamiliar with the setting, Macau is 40 miles east of Hong Kong, across the Pearl River Estuary. The population at 650,000 is much smaller by comparison with Hong Kong’s 7.3 million. Macau’s economy depends on tourism and gaming with gambling casinos the main attraction. These were established long before the Portuguese left and have developed further under the post-1999 administration.

The Portuguese colony always maintained a much smoother relationship with Chinese authorities than did British Hong Kong. And unlike the British who had hopes of staying on indefinitely, Portugal entertained no such ambition. In fact, Lisbon officials had reportedly offered to return Macau to China at least twice before the deed was finally done in 1999. **

Zhang Dejiang’s visit was preceded by press teasers advising Hong Kong to stand by for a “major announcement” (SCMP, Apr. 29). But he came and went without making any such breaking-news headlines. Instead, the message was conveyed each day, at every stop along the way, with Zhang’s itinerary seemingly chosen to illustrate Hong Kong’s fallings by comparative example.

On arrival at the airport, Zhang was greeted by Macau Chief Executive Fernando Chui Sai-on (崔世安) and extended best wishes from Beijing. Zhang said he had come to encourage, to inspect, and to experience first-hand Macau’s work in implementing the central government demands (Ta Kung Pao, May 9).

Later in the day as he began his rounds, he said one-country, two-sytems is a success in Macau. It works willingly as a Special Administrative Region and effectively implements the central government’s “comprehensive jurisdiction” (全面管治權) (Ta Kung Pao, May 9).

The phrase was one that had caused much consternation among Hong Kongers when they read the central government’s June 2014 White Paper. This document preceded and prepared the ground for Beijing’s Aug. 31, 2014 decision on electoral reform, thereby setting the stage for the Occupy movement that broke out soon after.

The White Paper explained, in effect, that Hong Kong had not yet grasped the essence of its relationship with Beijing and was expecting a degree of autonomy that the post-colonial sovereign had not granted.

Whether Beijing had never intended to grant such autonomy or was reneging on pre-1997 promises became a matter for debate, yet to be concluded. Probably it was never intended, but that’s another story. In any event, the Aug. 31 decision dismissed all the Hong Kong public’s electoral reform proposals that they had been invited to submit. Beijing mandated instead its own restrictive mainland-style design.

As for Macau, it accepts Beijing’s interpretation of the relationship evidently without reservation. Zhang praised Macau for accepting the central government’s comprehensive jurisdiction and for guaranteeing a high degree of autonomy all at the same time. What exactly he meant by high degree of autonomy was not reported (Wen Wei Po, May 9).

The next day, May 9, Zhang had a busy schedule. In the morning, he spoke to a gathering of about 100 community leaders. His speech was full of praise for Macau’s accomplishments. He told the audience they must cherish Macau’s experience, strengthen its foundations, and promote development (Wen Wei Po, May 10).

His next stop was Macau’s Legislative Assembly where he, in effect, rounded on all the things Beijing doesn’t like about Hong Kong by praising Macau’s positive example on each point. He praised legislators for safeguarding national security by passing the same legislation that Hong Kong has kept on the back burner since the 2003 protests. Macau also has a Basic Law and its Article 23, like that of Hong Kong, mandates national security legislation.

Zhang noted that Macau had made good use of national development trends to improve its own economy although much more needed to be done on that score. Hong Kong has balked at the same kind of cross-border economic and infrastructure projects that Macau has accepted without complaint.

For the future, Zhang expressed three hopes. First, legislators should take their oaths-of-office seriously, respect the nation, the law, the executive-led system, and so on. Second, legislators should focus on the needs of economic development. Third, they should maintain the proper patriotic spirit and respect legislative procedures by rejecting disruptive behavior like filibustering and violence (Ta Kung Pao, Wen Wei Po, May 10).

No need to explain what put all those ideas in his head. Certainly not the behavior of Macau’s legislators who have no need of such admonitions.

Macau’s assembly has 33 members including 14 who are directly-elected, and 12 indirectly-elected by Functional Constituencies, as in Hong Kong. An additional seven members are appointed by the Chief Executive … as were all Hong Kong’s colonial-style Legislative Councilors before reforms began in the mid-1980s.

From the Legislative Assembly he moved on to Macau’s Court of Final Appeal where he made several more pertinent points, not all of which were directed at Hong Kong. He said that although Macau lived under the one-country, two-systems model, judges must respect both the national constitution and Macau’s Basic Law. The rule-of-law should be maintained along with social order. Legal authorities should protect the legal interest of all, control various kinds of criminal activities, and resolve every case according to the spirit of the law, fairly and justly (Ta Kung Pao, Wen Wei Po, May 10).

He also stopped by the women’s association where he praised their patriotic cultural activities (Ta Kung Pao, May 10). His audience of Macau-based representatives from mainland organizations, offices, and enterprises was at least twice the size of the Macau representatives audience (Wen Wei Po, May 11).

Only one key sector remained and it was saved for last. Actually, Macau’s young people don’t need lecturing either, except for perhaps a few who might be tempted by the example of Hong Kong’s rebellious younger generation. At the University of Macau, Zhang spoke to an audience of about 100 invited educators and student leaders and went out of his way to praise national patriotic education.

Hong Kong’s proposed new national education curriculum was shelved after protests by students, parents, and teachers in 2012. But Zhang didn’t need to mention Hong Kong’s resistance since everyone got the point when he said that in Macau everyone — the Chief Executive, the government, and education workers as a whole — all firmly supported the correct direction of education policy, which underscores the great patriotic tradition of Macau compatriots.

He also said Macau is a universally recognized success in implementing one-country, two-systems, a “role model” in that regard. It has proven the model works and it has a great future. And education has been a key factor in that success story (Ta Kung Pao, Wen Wei Po, China Daily, May 11).

Zhang Dejiang’s visit provided the perfect occasion to moralize on every point where Macau excelled and Hong Kong is failing to meet Beijing’s expectations as to what a good one-country, two-systems model should look like.

In praising Macau, Zhang also left no doubt as to who’s boss and who he thinks has the ultimate right to judge. Not Washington, London, or Hong Kong, but only Beijing.

The key to the difference lies in Patten’s assertion that Hong Kongers didn’t get what they expected. But both Hong Kong and Macau were promised the same thing — within the same one-country, two-systems framework. Beijing is also treating them the same, or trying to. It’s just that Macau is running smoothly and Hong Kong is not.

The other half of the equation, of course, is that Beijing didn’t get what it bargained for either. Beijing thought Hong Kong was like Macau: an a-political colonial backwater. To date, Beijing’s only solution for this miscalculation is to try and force Hong Kong into the one-country, two-systems Macau mold — while blaming Patten and Washington for the mismatch.

Beijing seems to be hoping its solutions will eventually prevail and Hong Kong’s resistance will fade. At least that’s the scenario Beijing’s surrogates are projecting.

Meanwhile, for the next year or so, the field should be cleared to test Beijing’s assumptions. London will be bogged down by Brexit. And Washington will be distracted by the Democrats’ determination to impeach President Trump. That should give Beijing some breathing space to see if Hong Kong dissent is really just the work of outside agitators. If it isn’t, Beijing might actually feel obliged to start recalibrating its solutions.

The challenge for Martin Lee’s successors during that time will be to demonstrate how committed they are to their cause, and how determined to continue resisting the intrusion of mainland political ways and means.

The News Lens has been authorized to republish this article. The piece was first published by Suzanne Pepper here.

Editor: Edward White



** Lo Shiu-hing, Political Development in Macau, pp. 22-3, 31-2; Pepper, Keeping Democracy at Bay, pp. 150-51.