A few weeks ago, the Chinese government issued a white paper on Hong Kong, the former British colonial territory that was handed back to Beijing in 1997.


The document didn’t contain anything new. Instead it reiterated core principles behind the city’s “one country, two systems” government. Under the terms of the handover, Hong Kong is supposed to retain a high degree of autonomy from mainland China, except in the areas of defence and foreign policy.

What was unusual however was the fact that China felt the need to release the first ever formal paper on the subject. It was also translated into seven languages just to make sure everyone else gets the message.

The message? Well it is pretty simple. As a unitary state, China is in charge – it’s the boss – and it has comprehensive jurisdiction of administrative regions like Hong Kong. The city’s autonomy is entirely at the discretion of the folks in Beijing.

Here it is in bureaucrat-speak: “The high degree of autonomy of (Hong Kong) is not an inherent power, but one that comes solely from the authorisation by the central leadership.”

Why then did the Chinese feel the need to say it – and say it now? Well that’s where it gets interesting.  Increasingly, the people of Hong Kong are unhappy and they want Beijing to do two things for them.

First, they want the city’s autonomy respected in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary. It is now widely believed that mainland officials actively shape government policy and lean on Hong Kong’s media when they have the audacity to criticise. Beijing’s tentacles are stretching, say critics, from the streets to the boardrooms – and even to the churches. Today, news agency Reuters reported that Catholic priests are being monitored by China’s security service.

Secondly city residents want to hold an open, democratic election for the territory’s next leader. Since 1997, the “chief executive” has been selected by a committee of Beijing-approved worthies. China has promised that in 2017 the next leader will be elected by “universal suffrage.” However, the Chinese government insists on picking the people allowed to stand for that election, so it’s not really democratic at all.

Unsurprisingly, the authors of the white paper sees it differently. They are sincere about Hong Kong’s democratic development, but insist but it must be done in a way that serves the country’s interests in stability and security: “The chief executive to be elected by universal suffrage must be a person who loves the country and Hong Kong.”

To western ears, that’s a pretty confusing sentence. For Hong Kong residents, it’s a pretty maddening one – and speaking of which, half a million or more people are expected to spill out on to the streets today in a mass retort to that “controversial white paper”. The protesters are hoping their Beijing-based masters get the “message” and leave them alone.

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