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Keeping Faith with our Values in a Polarised World

【Address to the Heritage Foundation:by Anson Chan】

Many of you here this afternoon know Hong Kong well, and have an understanding of its constitutional position within the People’s Republic of China. For those who may be less familiar I will open with some scene-setting.

Hong Kong visiting delegation, Convenor of Hong Kong 2020, Anson Chan (middle) and Legislative Council Members Dennis Kwok (right) and Charles Mok (left), were met with representatives of the US National Security Council. 

The Sino-British Joint Declaration on the Question of Hong Kong was signed on 19 December 1984 and ratified on 27 May 1985, paving the way for the establishment of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (or SAR) of China on 1 July 1997. The Hong Kong SAR is governed in accordance with its own constitution: the Basic Law, which was enacted by the National People’s Congress of China and promulgated by the President of China.

Reflecting the unique concept of ‘one country, two systems’, the Basic Law provides that:

[Mainland China’s] socialist system and policies shall not be practised in the Hong Kong SAR and the previous capitalist system and way of life shall remain unchanged for 50 years (Article 5);

the Hong Kong SAR shall enjoy a high degree of autonomy (Article 12) except in matters of foreign affairs and defence which will be the responsibility of the Central People’s Government.

Preservation of individual rights and freedoms is key to the concept of ‘one country, two systems’ which under the Basic Law, amongst other things:

mandates the rule of law and the independence of the Judiciary;

provides that the current social and economic systems and life-style in Hong Kong will remain unchanged;

safeguards fundamental rights and freedoms, including those of the person, of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of travel, of movement, of correspondence, of strike, of choice of occupation, of academic research and religious belief;

provides for the right to vote and stand for election.

Fortune Magazine famously headlined the “Death of Hong Kong” in a June 1996 leading article.

In the run-up to the transfer of sovereignty, there were many local Hong Kong and international cynics and doom merchants who predicted that the city’s unique qualities and system of governance would not last long after 1997. Fortune Magazine famously headlined the “Death of Hong Kong” in a June 1996 leading article.

They were wrong. Hong Kong has not just survived, it has continued to thrive. Our economy has benefitted hugely from closer interaction with its vast hinterland. While once booming manufacturing industries – textiles and garments, toys, electronics – have moved into southern China and beyond, Hong Kong has emerged as Asia’s premier ‘connector’ between China and the rest of the world and provider of a wide range of banking, finance, legal, accounting, arbitration and other trade-related services.

Hong Kong is a remarkably safe city, considering its population density. The overall crime rate has been in decline for the past 12 years (with the exception of online and social media scams) and our murder rate is one of the lowest in the world.

Hong Kong has never been, and never will be an independent sovereign entity but it has maintained a distinct and separate status from Mainland China in many aspects of its jurisdiction and external relations. For example, under the terms of the Basic Law, Hong Kong:

has its own freely convertible currency and central bank;

is a free port and separate customs territory;

has its own system of taxation;

exercises independent immigration controls unless these touch on matters of China’s foreign relations;

is authorised to negotiate certain international agreements – such as those pertaining to the exchange of air traffic rights – and to enter into and implement agreements with foreign states and regions and relevant international organisations in economic, trade, financial and monetary, shipping communications, tourism, cultural and sports fields.

Key components of ‘one country, two systems’ because they are fundamental to the special relationship between Hong Kong and the United States. Photo: AP

I have taken some time to elaborate on key components of ‘one country, two systems’ because they are fundamental to the special relationship between Hong Kong and the United States. This relationship in turn has played a key role in Hong Kong’s successful transition from British colony to Special Administrative Region of China. It is given expression in the United States Hong Kong Policy Act. First enacted in 1992, the provisions of the Act, on which the Department of State reports annually to Congress, accord Hong Kong differential treatment from that of Mainland China in important aspects such as trade, commerce and finance, export controls, visa applications, cultural, scientific and academic exchanges and cooperation on law enforcement, including the interception of contraband, prevention of human trafficking and anti-terrorism.

As it happens our visit has coincided with the publication of the 2018-19 Report on the implementation of the US Hong Kong Policy Act, by the State Department’s Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs. At the White House, last Friday, I was privileged to meet with the Vice President and representatives of the US National Security Council. It was an opportunity to express appreciation of the balanced and generally positive assessment of the current state of US-Hong Kong relations in such key aspects as trade, commerce and finance, Hong Kong’s separate participation in bilateral agreements and multilateral forums, protection of US citizens’ interests, cooperation in sanctions and law enforcement, export controls, and academic, cultural and scientific exchanges.

The Report’s affirmation that the US “… continues to have deep economic and cultural interests in Hong Kong” was particularly welcome, as was the overall conclusion that, despite evidence of increasing interference by China’s Central Government in Hong Kong affairs, the degree of autonomy under the ‘one country, two systems’ framework justifies continued special treatment of Hong Kong under the terms of the Act.

In a recent speech, the US Consul General in Hong Kong, Kurt Tong, paid fulsome tribute both to Hong Kong’s tangible assets as a key business and trading partner, namely excellent transport infrastructure, open internet and low taxation, as well as the city’s intangible assets such as maintenance of the rule of law, a resolute determination to stamp out corruption, and protection of intellectual property rights.

However, he also cited concerns about the Central Government’s seeming involvement in certain disturbing developments in 2018. These included, for the first time, the banning of a political party because it advocates independence for Hong Kong, the expulsion of a foreign journalist for hosting a lunch event at which the convenor of that party was guest speaker, and the disqualification of candidates for various local elections, on the basis of suspicions that they may have pro-independence leanings deemed to be in breach of the Basic Law.

 Kurt Tong cited concerns about the Central Government’s seeming involvement in certain disturbing developments in 2018.

During our recent meetings with government officials, members of Congress and other friends of Hong Kong, my colleagues from Hong Kong’s Legislative Council and I have been frank about our concerns at the progressive whittling away of Hong Kong people’s basic freedoms. As put succinctly in the Hong Kong Policy Act Report: “… policies and practices of the Mainland Central Government [have] adversely impacted Hong Kong in multiple areas, and Mainland pressure [has] resulted in new constraints on Hong Kong’s political space”.

In short, the latest Report raises red flags to which the Hong Kong SAR Government should pay full attention. It is therefore a cause of dismay that top officials in the SAR Government are brushing these aside, as of no serious consequence. The fact is that the withdrawal of Hong Kong’s special status under the Policy Act, even if only partially at first, would be a body-blow to Hong Kong’s economy, international standing and perceptions that ‘one county, two systems’ remains a reality.

By way of example, Hong Kong’s trading and logistics industries, of which import/export constitutes the major component, contribute over 20% of the territory’s Gross Domestic Product. That Hong Kong remains a trusted trading partner of the United States is vitally important, not just to the large local and overseas companies and financial institutions with headquarters or regional offices in the city, but to the many thousands of small and medium sized businesses that are the back-bone of our economy and people’s livelihood.

Despite concerns, you may rest assured that the Hong Kong SAR Government’s trade policies, including export licensing of strategic commodities and customs and excise controls, are scrupulously enforced and backed up by increasingly sophisticated screening technology and sharing of intelligence.

Given the backdrop of current inter-governmental tensions between the US and China, prior to my arrival here in Washington I feared that there may be some in the US Administration and Congress who wonder whether Hong Kong continues to matter. Suffice to say, following our wide-ranging exchanges, my colleagues and I will return home heartened by the sincere interest in, and concern for Hong Kong’s future under ‘one country, two systems’ shown by all we met with.

In my view, it has never been more important for the US Government to continue to support Hong Kong’s freedoms and lifestyle, not only because they are crucial to America’s own strategic interests but because they are unique to China. They embody core values that we must hope can increasingly gain traction on the Mainland.

 At the White House, last Friday, I was privileged to meet with the Vice President and representatives of the US National Security Council.

One particular issue we raised during our meetings at the White House was our concern at the Hong Kong Administration’s intention to enact legislation that will provide for fugitive offenders in Hong Kong to be returned, on a case by case basis, to jurisdictions (including Mainland China) that have no formal extradition/rendition agreements with Hong Kong.

Our concerns are shared by the legal profession in Hong Kong, by human rights activists and local and overseas business groups and chambers of commerce. The latter fear that the introduction of such arrangements will greatly affect confidence in Hong Kong as a safe place to do business, or even just visit as a tourist.

The American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong has expressed strong reservations, pointing to the gross disparity between the Hong Kong and Mainland Judicial systems, including the lack of an independent judiciary, lack of fair public trial and lack of access to legal representation.

The Hong Kong Administration is currently considering all views received. I urge all those who support "one country, two systems" and do business in Hong Kong to monitor developments on this front and to speak up before it is too late.

Faithful implementation of “one country, two systems” matters not just to the 7.3 million people living in Hong Kong. It matters to the U.S. and liberal democracies everywhere. I hope that more friends of Hong Kong, whether from the Administration, Congress, or the corporate sector will visit the city to understand what is going on. Talk to government officials, politicians and business interests and speak up when things are not right.

I would like to close on a more personal note. My family moved to Hong Kong when I was just eight years old. Hong Kong has been my only home, ever since, and I have been proud and privileged to be able to serve my community in senior roles in the Hong Kong administration, both before and after the return of sovereignty in 1997. Since retiring, I have devoted the past 18 years campaigning publicly for the election of Hong Kong’s head of government and legislature by universal suffrage, something long promised to Hong Kong people in the Basic Law, but still depressingly out of reach.

Since retiring, I have devoted the past 18 years campaigning publicly for the election of Hong Kong’s head of government and legislature by universal suffrage. 

Democratic governance, despite its imperfections, is ultimately the only means of ensuring that those in authority are accountable to those they govern. Failure to implement this has contributed fundamentally to the polarisation of Hong Kong society that culminated in the 2014 occupation of the streets by the so-called Umbrella Movement. Beijing and Hong Kong’s SAR government regularly stress the importance of social harmony. But governments cannot mandate social harmony. It can only be achieved through policies that are just and inclusive, policies that respect the needs and wishes of the majority and not just vested interests and privileged elites. The more a government attempts to suppress dissent and ride roughshod over sincerely held values and opinions, the more those being suppressed will push back.

In Hong Kong we are blessed with young political activists who have fire in their belly and the courage to stand up and be counted. In their fight for a decent future, they need every support, not least a staunch commitment to the maintenance of ‘one country, two systems’ and the values it embodies. The Heritage Foundation has an unsurpassed record of endorsement for the economic philosophy that has underpinned Hong Kong’s success as a global business hub. We look forward to your continuing support as the city faces up to the challenges ahead.

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