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Autonomy in Hong Kong may mean less in practice than in theory

Hong Kong’s ‘one country, two systems’ is sometimes referred to as constituting Hong Kong’s autonomy from China. This is, in principle, confirmed under Hong Kong’s 1997 Basic Law.
However, autonomy arrangements can reflect less, and rarely more, than their legal framework implies. Issues in determining the functional status of autonomy arrangements include the terms of the autonomy arrangement, the constitution within which such a law exists, adherence or lack thereof to the rule of law, and the political, economic and military capacities of the respective parties to the arrangement.
This then begs the conditions that apply to these arrangements and the meanings that the terms used to describe them imply. The basic understanding of the term ‘autonomy’, in a political sense, connotes ‘self-government’. However, such self-government within the context of autonomy is not absolute and remains limited to varying degrees by the independent state of which it remains a part.
This in turn usually reflects the circumstance in which a state has agreed to allow a region it otherwise claims as a constituent part a degree of independence. Geographic separation, cultural and linguistic difference and conflict are common contributing factors in the creation of autonomous status. Invariably, however, there is a conflict between the claims of the state and the self-identifying character of the region in question.
In the case of Hong Kong, the territory has an independent executive, legislature and judiciary, although cedes authority in the areas of defence and foreign affairs. Hong Kong is, however, able to develop direct links with foreign states and international organisations across a range of ‘appropriate fields’. This implies that Hong Kong has relative political independence so long as it remains within the framework of China’s political preferences.
Hong Kong does enjoy the right to maintain foreign relations, but these are overwhelmingly in the commercial field. In short, China allowed Hong Kong to retain autonomy from the overarching state primarily because it represented a strong source of investment and income, which China, then as a newly emerging economy, did not wish to jeopardise.
Having begun economic liberalization in 1977, by 1980, China’s economy was valued at just under US$250 billion (purchasing parity terms), jumping to more than $450 billion by $1984 and doubling again by 1990. Political and especially economic stability in Hong Kong were critical to international investment access to China as well as to understanding China as not presenting sovereign risk to investment. Foreign direct investment (FDI) in Hong Kong has also continued to outpace that of China, making it the state’s key economic conduit and largest source of FDI.
However, China’s overarching economy has also grown rapidly, independently of contributions from Hong Kong. From having a gross domestic product (GDP) of less than $1trillion in 1990, that had grown by 19 times by 2017, making China the world’s second largest economy and a key global driver of international economic growth.
There is a view, common among its neighbors, that when China is weak it contracts and when China is strong it expands. China’s more recent economic strength has found expression in its ‘soft diplomacy’ among developing countries of parts of Southeast Asia, the Pacific and Africa. It has also found expression as a harder-edged strategic assertiveness in the South China Sea and the East China Sea.
It is unsurprising, then, that while favoring Hong Kong’s continued economic success, a more assertive Chinese government might be increasingly keen to ensure that Hong Kong stays even more firmly within the Chinese political sphere. This was reflected in the ‘selection’ of Hong Kong’s new chief executive, Carrie Lam, who was elected by less than 1,200 people from a voter base of 3.8 million and was China’s preferred candidate.
This effectively restricted suffrage functionally contradicts the Basic Law. However, the chair of China’s parliament and senior official on Hong Kong affairs, Zhang Dejiang, asserted that China had a right to ‘step in’ to the selection process of Hong Kong leader.
What this demonstrated was that while the Basic Law was often regarded as a ‘mini-constitution’, it was a law that was passed by the National People’s Congress. Hence the Basic Law remained open to interpretation by that body as well as, should the need arise, being able to be rescinded by it.
In that the Basic Law was a document which offered a legal guarantee, this was only the case to the extent that the body which adjudicated on its status was itself able to make judgments independent of any external (in particular political) influence. China’s legal system is not independent of the country’s political leadership and ultimately answers to it.
Uppermost in the minds of China’s political leadership regarding Hong Kong is its capacity to act as an exemplar of political organization which does not rely on a tightly controlled and highly centralized political leadership. This would represent a direct challenge to the authority of the Communist Party of China and its evolving role in the one party state.
In other examples of autonomous regions, central governments have exercised more (or sometimes less) restraint in interfering in or compromising local autonomy. This has reflected either a need to limit the possibility of opening intra-state conflict or, in other cases, because the character of the state is or has become sufficiently liberal to not feel a need to exercise a high degree of central control over the state.
Hong Kong’s autonomy was not a consequence of a settlement of an intra-state conflict and did not reflect the liberal character of a decentralizing state. Hong Kong’s economic prosperity remains important to China, but China is more confident that it can retain its prosperity at the same time as holding Hong Kong close, sometimes restrictively so, to the parent county’s breast.
This is, if nothing else, a clear expression of an increasingly confident and increasingly assertive centralized and centralizing state. Hong Kong’s ‘autonomy’ is now, and will remain, only as good as the central government chooses to allow it to be.