Maximum flexibility, rigid framework: China's policy towards Hong Kong and its implications.

Author:Tsang, Steve
Position:Contemporary China: The Consequences of Change

Hong Kong is a subject that provokes strong yet mixed feelings among policy makers in the People's Republic of China (PRC). It is both an emotional and a pragmatic issue. The aging top leaders who took an active part in the communist revolution look forward to the return of Hong Kong from the British as the final chapter in their lifelong anti-imperialist struggle -- one of the principal objectives of the communist movement. The policy makers who were raised under the red flag have been brought up to believe that Hong Kong was the last major vestige of nineteenth century Western imperialism that humiliated China, something which should and would in due course be eradicated.(1) The future of Hong Kong is thus an emotional subject that often provokes an intensely nationalistic response. At the same time, Chinese policy makers are acutely aware of Hong Kong's economic value to the PRC, which has increased rather than decreased in importance as the Dengist economic reforms progress. Their response to these conflicting demands echoes the immediate post-1949 approach devised under Mao Zedong. In the rhetoric of the Chinese leaders in the 1980s and 1990s, it is their "historic" and "sacred" mission to remove all remnants of China's humiliation by the West and use Hong Kong to set an example for Taiwan and Macao for the ultimate re-unification of the country. However, the needs of the economic reforms lead to a compromise. It involves the adoption of a policy popularized as "one country, two systems" under which this great capitalist enclave will become the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) of the PRC in 1997. Capitalist Hong Kong will be permitted to maintain the "status quo" (as it existed in 1984) for fifty years and enjoy "a high degree of autonomy." provided this will continue to be seen by the Chinese Communist leadership as economically beneficial and not harmful to its claim of sovereignty over the territory.

This paper begins by outlining the structure of the PRC's relevant policy-making apparatus. It then examines the forces which determine the PRC's policy towards Hong Kong and explains its nature in terms of maximum flexibility within a rigid framework. Finally, it assesses the implications of the PRC's Policy for Hong Kong.

Structure of the PRC's Policy-Making Apparatus

Since the future of Hong Kong is one that involves sovereignty and national dignity, it is a matter of great importance to top PRC leaders. The effect is that there can be no major policy decisions or changes over Hong Kong without the approval of the top leaders. In structural terms this means the Politburo of the Communist party. In practice, policies over Hong Kong often rest with the Party's Central Foreign Affairs Leading Small Group (Zhongyang Waishi Lingdao Xiaozu.(2) Its current head is Jiang Zemin, a member of the Politburo's Standing Committee and general secretary of the Party. The official head of this Small Group has not, however, always been the ultimate arbiter of policies over Hong Kong, since Deng Xiaoping, as paramount leader, retains the final say when he is physically well enough to do so.(3) This means that all major decisions over Hong Kong are in fact made by the top leaders, which in turn restricts the flexibility of senior PRC officials or diplomats -- a fact keenly observed by the British in the Sino-British negotiations between 1982 and 1984.(4)

Below the top leadership, there are three ministerial level offices which are directly involved in determining policies over Hong Kong. They are the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office (HKMAO) of the State Council and the Foreign Ministry, both in Beijing, and the Hong Kong and Macao Work Committee of the Communist Party in Hong Kong. The latter was elevated to full provincial status in 1983,(5) and thus holds the same bureaucratic rank as a ministry.(6) Its head is also the director of the Hong Kong branch of Xinhua News Agency and is the PRC's de facto representative in Hong Kong. Although the bureaucratic rank of the three offices are the same, their relative importance in the policy-making process has varied.(7) Since the director Of HKMAO or the foreign minister is often also either a vice-premier or a state counselor and usually at least a member of the Party's Central Committee, the HKMAO and the Foreign Ministry generally have precedence over the Work Committee. Indeed, the secretary of the Work Committee (a regional office) is supposed to answer to the Director Of HKMO (a central organ). However, between 1983 and 1990, when Xu Jiatun headed the Work Committee, he had at times by-passed HKMAO and reported directly to the Politburo with the latter's encouragement.(8) Making use of the fluid power relationship in Beijing and his own access to Deng Xiaoping, Xu at times out-maneuvered the others and appeared even more influential than the HKMAO, which had earlier played the pivotal role when it was headed by Liao Zherigzhi from 1978 to 1983. Xu's successor, Zhou Nan, does not have the same standing and clout in the Party. Although both he and Lu Ping, who heads HKMAO, are members of the Central Committee, Zhou appears less influential than Lu. At the moment, the most powerful figure at the ministerial level is Foreign Minister Qian Qichen, who is also a vice premier and a member of the Politburo.

In Hong Kong itself the Work Committee, which functions under the cover of the Xinhua News Agency, is in principle the coordinating umbrella organization for party and state organs in the territory. The need for the Communist party to operate underground is a legacy of 1949, when the Hong Kong government outlawed all political parties affiliated with foreign governments.(9) As a coordinating body, the Work Committee includes in its membership local heads of various representative offices of PRC agencies such as the Bank of China, China Resources Corporation, the China Merchants Group and China Travel Service.(10) The Ministry of Public Security (Gongan Bu), which is responsible for the security of PRC offices in Hong Kong, the Ministry of State Security (Guojia Anquan Bu), which is charged with intelligence work, and various branches of military intelligence also operate under the cover of the Yinhua News Agency.(11) However, in practice different ministries, agencies, provinces and regions have also set up their own offices or stationed intelligence officers in Hong Kong. In other words, they belong to different xitong, which can be defined as organized leader in the Standing Committee of the Politburo.(12) According to Xu Jiatun, cadres who came from different xitong from the PRC did not always follow his direction in Hong Kong.(13) The most reliable figure on the number of communists in the Hong Kong region is that given by Xu, who reported a network of 6,000 members in Hong Kong and Macao, of whom half had been sent from the PRC.(14)

The lack of a clear chain of command has served to create confusion, friction and often rivalries among various agencies and officials at different levels.(15) In his memoirs, Xu Jiatun recalls that his deputy secretary, Li Jusheng, who belonged to a different xitong but officially represented the Work Committee in the Sino-British negotiations of 1982 to 1984, kept all knowledge about the negotiations from him.(16) Xu had to get the information from meetings in Beijing. Xu's memoirs confirm that rivalries among cadres responsible for Hong Kong could be intense, bitter and in his case, were actually instrumental to his own downfall in 1990. Policy recommendations over Hong Kong thus sometimes fall prey to rivalries and power struggles among senior officials and do not always reflect sound advice.

The lack of an effective central coordinating body in Hong Kong also makes it possible for individual cadres to work for several agencies separately without informing their superiors in Beijing. Thus, what the PRC government believes to be collaborative evidence from different intelligence sources sometimes comes from the same informant who "supplied intelligence to different offices and took money from them separately."(17) The problem is made worse as competition and rivalries among various agencies and senior officials often lead to a reluctance to contradict views held by their superiors unless their own interests are at stake.(18) Top leaders in Beijing, who have little or no first-hand experience in or understanding of the situation in Hong Kong, are therefore often even less well informed than they realize. Given the concentration of decision-making power in their hands, this leads to policies that are made by top leaders who, because of the sketchy information provided them, often have an incomplete understanding of Hong Kong.

The PRC's policy towards Hong Kong

The PRC's basic policy towards Hong Kong as it now stands was laid down by Deng Xiaoping in the early 1980s, and has not been changed in any fundamental way. According to Deng, there are three issues. First and foremost is the question of sovereignty, which he considers "not a subject that can be discussed."(19) The other two issues concern the way in which the PRC will administer Hong Kong in order to maintain its prosperity after 1997, and arrangements with the British to ensure a smooth transition to be completed by 1997.(20) Deng's words on sovereignty i whereas his directives for the other two issues point An attempt to reconcile the two gave rise to the country, two systems" which provided for capitalist Hong Kong to maintain its status quo as existed in 1984 for fifty years Within the wider political framework of a socialist PRC.(21)

Deng's and, indeed, the PRC's emphasis on sovereignty in fact merely reflect the views of PRC leaders who have considered it "an unassailable element" of their policy towards Hong Kong since 1949.(22) As much as the Chinese leadership wishes to ensure the stability and prosperity of Hong Kong, it will make no concession...

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