Hong Kong's Autonomy Crumbles

Hong Kong's autonomy is crumbling by the day as bumbling by an inept and unelected government has invited mainland interference. On June 28 the government announced two major policy retreats, partly it seems in the hope of reducing turnout at ant-government rallies planned for July 1, a holiday that commemorates the end of British colonial rule in 1997.

But these retreats came not as the result of a response to public opinion or the views of experts but to the views of Beijing's Liaison Office in the territory, an offshoot of central government's Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office. In one case the U-turn followed just a day after the Liaison Office publicly indicated a need for a change in a proposed law. The second followed less public pressure from the same source. The government of Chief Executive Donald Tsang thus compounded its policy errors by being seen to be simply a cipher, incapable of making its own decision without prompting from Beijing.

The first case concerned a proposal to change the electoral law to end by-elections for Legislative Council seats so that if any legislator resigned, died or retired his place would be filled by the next closest loser in his constituency. This proposal was itself using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. It followed the resignation last year of several pro-democracy legislators who wanted to use the subsequent bye-election, in which they all stood, as a de facto referendum on political reform. This was a minor embarrassment to the government but scarcely a warranted clumsy and controversial response.

The proposed change in the law resulted in a barrage of objections including from the Bar Council and Law Society, representing the two branches of the legal profession, as well as from pro-democracy groups who generally enjoy popular support. But the government refused to budge and was, as ever, loyally supported by the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong (DAB) the Communist party's local surrogate.

However, when word came from the Liaison Office that the row was damaging harmony, the government and the DAB jumped to attention. An amendment was rolled out which, it was hoped, would silence the critics. There would still be no by-election but the seat would go to the next candidate from the same party on the list.

This is not likely to end the matter as it is argued that by-elections are a proper part of the system and anyway there are not necessarily other party members on the list for a particular constituency. It may face legal challenges. However, the issue may go quiet for a while – at least until after July 1.

The second U-turn involved a restriction on the access of mainland mothers-to-be to Hong Kong hospitals. The government has announced an annual quota of 34,000, of which only 3,400 would be at public hospitals. There is wide local support for some limits given the overcrowding of maternity wards. Mainland wives account for about 40 percent of all births in Hong Kong. But there is also sympathy for the mainland wives of Hong Kong residents who would be affected by the quota as well as "maternity tourists" who give birth there either because of the medical standards, or because of the right of abode for all locally born people, or both. Now the government is to make some as yet unspecified relaxation of the system for the mainland wives of Hong Kong residents.

While seeming to make a reasonable response to modify an overly rigid rule, the government stands accused of responding not to local feelings but to the Liaison Office, which is supposed to keep its nose out of local issues. In the maternity quotas case, the Liaison Office might have some claim to be looking after mainlanders interests. But it has no business at all interfering on the bye-election issue.

It is part of Beijing's dilemma over Hong Kong. It wants weak leaders who will do as they are told. But it then finds that they prove so unpopular that it feels it has to publicly intervene to change the territory's policy. This it did in 2003 when it forced the ouster first of the Secretary for Security Regina Ip for raising public ire to a fever pitch over a proposed law on sedition, and then in 2005 when it removed amiable but incompetent Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, replacing him with lifetime bureaucrat Donald Tsang.

But Tsang's administration has been particularly inept over the past few months and has a long record of being indecisive. Screw-ups and U-turns have probably ended the chances of chief secretary for administration, billionaire princeling Henry Tang, from succeeding Tsang whose term ends next year. But they also show up Beijing's problem in finding someone who is both competent and respected in Hong Kong and who can be seen locally to stand up for its interests without being seen as difficult for Beijing to tolerate.

Meanwhile legal autonomy also ebbed recently with a narrow decision by the Court of Final Appeal to refer to the National Peoples' Congress the issue of whether Hong Kong courts have jurisdiction in a commercial case involving a sovereign state, in this case the Democratic Republic of Congo. Under Hong Kong British legal precedent, sovereign immunity does not apply in such cases while China does not concede any limit to sovereignty. The NPC is almost certain to rule that Hong Kong does not have jurisdiction. (It doesn't help Hong Kong that a mainland state company would also be loser if the claim against the Congo succeeded).

The case did involve complex legal questions but the Hong Kong government has itself partly to blame for the erosion of local autonomy which resulted. Instead of leaving the case entirely to the concerned parties, the government in deference to Beijing argued before the Court of Final Appeal against Hong Kong's jurisdictional right. That may well have swung the matter, which was decided on a 3-2 majority verdict.

But no one can accuse Beijing of going out of its way to interfere. Sometimes it appears that way simply because senior Hong Kong officials want to impress it with displays of "patriotism" by being "more Catholic than the Pope". Other times, like now, it stems from exasperation at the incompetence of out-of-touch officials. Hong Kong's problems are lack of leadership and a dysfunctional political system, not overt interference.