China’s leaders have had a lot to say in recent months about Hong Kong: what they like and what they don’t, and what they want to do about it. The most authoritative version of the Hong Kong problem as Beijing sees it came from the number one leader himself. Xi Jinping is both President of the People’s Republic and General Secretary of its ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

In the latter capacity he has just presented, on October 18, his official report to the party’s 19th National Congress, where he spelled out his vision for the future. He calls it “Socialism with Chinese characteristics for the New Era.”

These National Party Congresses are held once every five years. As it happens, they coincide with the five-year terms of Hong Kong’s top leaders. Our new Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, has just given her inaugural Policy Address outlining goals and plans for Hong Kong’s next five years.

They were carefully phrased to avoid too much overt dovetailing with Beijing’s aims, but the reflections and parallels were only discreetly downplayed, not hidden. Now we have a fuller view, putting Hong Kong in its place from a national perspective, and in one sense it comes as a welcome relief.

File photo: Anthony Wallace/AFP.

The old euphemistic references to “one country, two systems,” with a “high degree of autonomy” are euphemistic no more. They haven’t disappeared but they’re so thoroughly overshadowed that no one can ever again take literally the promises about “Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong” and “50 years without change” that eased everyone across the 1997 finish line when Hong Kong reverted to Chinese rule.

That phase has ended. Beijing is now, finally, spelling out definitions and directions and there is no longer any need to wonder about 2047. It will pass unnoticed if recent experience and Xi Jinping’s plans are any indication.

All the promises written into Hong Kong’s Basic Law constitution were given a 50-year guarantee, spelled out in its Article 5. Hence the old pre-1997 “50 years without change” slogan. It lulled everyone into a sense of comfortable security by allowing them to read their own definitions into the promises of autonomy, universal suffrage elections, judicial independence, free speech, and so on.

That doesn’t mean Hong Kongers must now succumb and give themselves over to the “one country, one system” formula that Xi Jinping’s speech projects. But it does mean that if they want to salvage any part of the political way of life they thought they had been promised by the 1997 agreements, the struggle will be even more difficult than first thought. It will be more difficult because those aims must now be pursued against the weight of Beijing’s direct oversight and intervention.

Xi Jinping. File photo: Kremlin.

Beijing’s new clarity also means everything that has happened in Hong Kong since 1997 should be viewed as preparatory, laying the groundwork so to speak, by creating the political experience, precedents, and adversarial traditions the British might have left behind but didn’t. Hong Kongers had no experience of creating a movement for political change, much less agitating for political change within a communist dictatorship. Now they do.

Putting Hong Kong in its place

Xi Jinping is still thinking in terms of the Chinese Dream he introduced at the start of his first term as General Secretary. The dream is about national rejuvenation … his way of saying he wants to “make China great again.” In this story line, Xi is harking back to a time before European colonists reached Asian shores.

The rejuvenation he speaks of has been, he says, the dream of all Chinese since the First Opium War (1840-42). Imperial China lost that war to Imperial Britain and lost among other things, a small nameless island that was to become Hong Kong.

The ensuing century of humiliations did not end until the Japanese invaders were defeated at the end of World War II and CCP forces won the 1945-49 Chinese Civil War. Looking forward, according to Xi’s narrative, only continuing strong party leadership can guide China onward and upward in its drive to modernize and build a truly great nation. He wants the Chinese people to be prosperous, their nation strong, its influence global, and he thinks this can be accomplished by 2050.

Xi told party congress delegates that his report should be read and studied both for its spirit and content, both as a political manifesto and as a guide for action … the better to strengthen party leadership for the work ahead. A massive study campaign is to be launched toward that end for all the CCP’s 89 million members.

The Special Administrative Regions (SARs), Hong Kong and Macau, were drawn neatly into Xi’s national narrative, with emphasis to reflect Hong Kong’s errant ways, although they were not identified in so many words. As party congress reports go, Section 11 on SAR and Taiwan affairs is said to be unprecedented in length and importance.

This much attention has not previously been devoted to them. But this section is not the most significant. That accolade is reserved for point number 12 in the new 14-point list of the party’s theoretical governing principles, its new ideological canon in the era of Xi Jinping..

Fast forward to integration 

Party leader Zhang Dejiang gave a major speech last spring in which he announced that, contrary to much critical speculation both international and here in Hong Kong, not only did Beijing intend to continue honouring the post-1997 “one country, two systems” SAR formula. It was to be perpetuated indefinitely and given “theoretical status.” That meant it would be written in stone by being elevated to the level of ruling CCP orthodoxy.

File photo: Lukas Messmer/HKFP.

Although not widely known at that time, last May, Zhang Dejiang was previewing Xi Jinping’s new theoretical governing principles. Point 12 is titled “Uphold ‘One Country Two Systems’ and Promote National Unification.”

It says: “The combination of the Center’s comprehensive jurisdiction over the Hong Kong and Macau SARs, with the guarantee of their high degree of autonomy, must be maintained in an integral way. The ‘one country, two systems’ policy will not change or waver and ‘one country, two systems’ must not be distorted in practice

Point 12 also contains a declaration on Taiwan: to uphold the one-China principle, promote peaceful relations across the Taiwan Straits, deepen economic and cultural cooperation between the two sides, encourage compatriots to oppose all separatist activities, and struggle together to realise the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.

The term “comprehensive jurisdiction” with reference to Beijing’s authority over Hong Kong, caused great consternation here when it was first used in Beijing’s June 2014 White Paper. Beijing’s idea was to prepare Hong Kong for Beijing’s August 31, 2014 (8.31) decision on electoral reform. But instead of acceptance the two documents triggered an uproar. Together they precipitated the Occupy Movement that blockaded major city thoroughfares for 79 days between September and December 2014.

The term was then, and is now, being used to underscore Beijing’s constant lament that Hong Kong and the outside world still do not correctly understand the arrangements and promises that eased Hong Kong’s transition to Chinese rule. The concept of comprehensive jurisdiction is meant to impress upon all concerned that Hong Kong enjoys only as much autonomy as Beijing is willing to grant.

Section 11 of Xi’s report elaborates on the theoretical principles. It repeats all the old comforting slogans with one exception: there is no mention of “50 years without change.” Otherwise, “one country, two systems,” and “Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong” with a “high degree of autonomy” are all included. They are proclaimed to be part of the great success story whereby Hong Kong has remained prosperous and stable since 1997. They are to continue with the proviso that all must be implemented in strict compliance with the Chinese constitution and the Basic Law.

Furthermore, the development of the SARs is to proceed in close coordination with that of the mainland so that they can become part of or meld with the great national development enterprise. Toward that end, promoting cross-border cooperation is a major goal. Key points of emphasis are cooperation between Hong Kong and Macau, Pearl River Delta cooperation, and the new Greater Guangdong, Hong Kong, Macau Bay Area initiative.

Carrie Lam and Xi Jinping. Photo: GovHK.

Plus there is another major condition. In implementing the principle of “Hong Kong people running Hong Kong” a great force of patriotic talent must be developed. This is necessary to strengthen among compatriots the sense of national identity and love-of-country … so that all can join together in the great historic responsibility of national rejuvenation. More specifically, when implementing the principle of “Hong Kong people running Hong Kong,” such patriots must serve as the mainstay.

Following injunctions on relations with Taiwan, Section 11 concludes with a rousing affirmation of national sovereignty and denunciation of all separatist inclinations wherever they might be: “We absolutely will not allow anyone, or any organization, or any political party, at any time, or in any form, to separate from Chinese soil even a single piece of Chinese territory.”

Finally, after 20 years of trial and error, Beijing has declared what should have been revealed long ago … but for the trauma it would undoubtedly have caused. In particular, “a high degree of autonomy” didn’t mean what most people originally thought. Whether Beijing’s current interpretation was already fixed before 1997 may never be known … unless some heretofore unseen documents or reliable memoirs reveal their secrets.

Some say Beijing’s present decision-makers are deviating from the original course China’s then paramount leader Deng Xiaoping laid down in the 1980s. More likely, the course has not deviated but has simply been allowed to emerge one step at a time as implementation proceeded. A wise strategy from Beijing’s perspective, simulating an old-style revolutionary takeover without the violence … but deceptive and costly all the same.

Whatever the case, many questions still need answers. The most obvious is what Beijing now means by a theoretical construct that combines its “comprehensive jurisdiction” with the still promised “high degree of autonomy.”

Hopefully, 20 more years of fruitless marching and rallying and demonstrating will not have to pass before Beijing explains exactly where and how this autonomy can be safely exercised.

Suzanne Pepper

Suzanne Pepper is a Hong Kong-based American writer and Hong Kong resident with a long-standing interest in Chinese politics. In her book, 'Keeping Democracy at Bay: Hong Kong and the Challenge of Chinese Political Reform', Pepper addresses debates surrounding democracy and dictatorship. Her blog follows the developing story of Hong Kong’s democracy movement as it struggles to maintain its coherence amid the growing pressures of integration within the Chinese political system.