Of my 45 years in Hong Kong, 34 have been spent in the public service, most of the rest with one foot in the media. It follows that I like many other long-time residents take a close interest in public affairs. All of us who love this city so passionately naturally feel let down by the marked deterioration in the content and style of public discourse in recent years. People on all sides of the political spectrum seem no longer able to have a civilised conversation on issues of the day, tending rather to hurl personal insults at each other and cast doubt on the integrity of opponents at every opportunity however slight the cause.
I have wracked my brains to try to identify the root cause and come up with possible remedies. In a complex situation there are probably several different sources of the discord, and there is no magic wand. But one area I would like to examine today concerns what I consider to be a complete misreading of the significance of 2047.
The pan democrats seem to regard it is the end of the road, so we must cram into our laws and electoral system all the safeguards we can because after that date all the gloves will be off and we will be at the mercy of the central government. Meanwhile we must oppose pretty much every move the local government tries to make in the interim.
For their part, pro administration forces seem to see the year as bringing safety at last from the ravages of the barbarians. We just need to hold out another 30 years without meaningful political reform and we’ll be rescued.
Both sides are wrong because both have subscribed to the great myth that 2047 is the year the Basic Law expires. I have news for all of them: it does not. The Basic Law is a piece of permanent legislation enacted by the National People’s Congress. It will endure unless and until it is repealed. That does not mean to say it cannot change either by amendment or interpretation meanwhile but the point is there is no sunset clause in the legislation itself.
It is true that one clause – Article 5 – gives a promise that the capitalist system and way of life will remain unchanged for 50 years (from 1997). But it is silent about what will happen after that time. In whose interest is it that there should be an abrupt change then? Surely it is more likely there will be a series of gentle manageable changes as both the SAR and the mainland evolve.
An example of the small adjustments that will arise is the co-location arrangement at the West Kowloon terminus of the high speed rail. Nobody could foresee in the late 1980s/early 1990s when the Basic Law was being finalised that such a situation might eventuate. But when it did, the obvious thing to do was devise a pragmatic solution, which is what the two governments have done.
Some of the opposition has been hysterical in nature. One candidate for Bar Association chairman said he was standing for election to stop exercise of mainland law on “Hong Kong soil”. I have news for him: there is no such thing. All the soil in Hong Kong is Chinese, as it is a state asset. Responsibility for management (only) has been delegated by the Central People’s Government to the SAR government under Article 7.
One columnist in this newspaper even talked of an exchange of sovereignty and of the mainland acquiring a bridge of sovereign territory within Hong Kong. I have news for him too: there is only one sovereign power in all of China, including of course Hong Kong, and that is China. That has been the case arguably since time immemorial and certainly since 1 July 1997.
But if I have been hard on the opposition, that does not mean the pro administration people or officials in the two governments can be smug or complacent. Do they really think frustrating the overwhelming public desire for greater democratisation and a faster pace of introducing universal suffrage can be maintained indefinitely? Did none of them study science in school? Do they know what happens if you clamp the lid of the kettle tight and light the gas?
I would urge both sides to try to see some merit in the other’s point of view and seek common ground. Rather than seeing co-location as implementing mainland laws in Hong Kong (contrary to Article 18), instead see it as a small adjustment to the boundary so that the basement is no longer part of the delegated management area. Rather than seeing abolition of functional constituencies and universal suffrage as imports of wicked Western ways in a plot to subvert China, instead see them as the next stage in the full liberation of the Chinese people (and a lot less wicked than that other famous import, Marxist-Leninism).
Above all, start showing some respect for each other, and indirectly to all of us. The future does not come to a halt in 2047, it stretches endlessly before us and what we will get is what we build together starting from now.