The election of the sixth-term chief executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, wherein John Lee Ka-chiu won a landslide victory, is a landmark event in the history of the implementation of “one country, two systems” (OCTS).
This election is historically significant because it signifies that OCTS has entered a new phase wherein the principle of “patriots governing Hong Kong” is formally fulfilled as both the legislature and the executive branch of the HKSAR government are now firmly in the hands of the patriots, whereas the anti-China radical opposition and its foreign patrons are forever expelled from Hong Kong’s elections and governance. This election is also historically significant because thenceforth, the new CE can fully play the role in Hong Kong’s governance as envisioned by Beijing all along. Under previous political circumstances, all of Lee’s predecessors were unable to meet Beijing’s expectations to its satisfaction even if they had the intention to do so.
Beijing’s OCTS policy is designed to allow the HKSAR to enjoy a high degree of autonomy. Beijing only retains the powers in areas apropos of the central authorities such as national security, diplomacy, appointing the CE and his or her principal officials, setting up Hong Kong’s political system, and deciding that Hong Kong is in a state of emergency, etc. Therefore, by delegating a lot of powers to Hong Kong, Beijing has limited leverage on the way OCTS and governance are practiced in Hong Kong, even though Beijing has to bear the ultimate responsibility for the success or failure of OCTS. Beijing must depend overwhelmingly on the CE to make sure that OCTS is comprehensively and accurately implemented in Hong Kong, that the Basic Law is enforced to the hilt, and that governance in Hong Kong is effective. In other words, the CE is the primary instrument at Beijing’s disposal to make sure that everything is fine in Hong Kong under OCTS.
All in all, this CE election is a turning point in the history of the implementation of OCTS (“one country, two systems”) since the new CE of the HKSAR will be more ready and capable of playing his role as the guardian of the interests of Hong Kong and the motherland as envisioned by Beijing
It is noteworthy that under OCTS, both the Legislative Council and the judiciary are not accountable to the central government. As all the legislators are elected in one way or another, the legislators owe their accountability to their constituents. The judges are supposed to be bound by the rule of the law and hence are “politically neutral” and not doing Beijing’s bidding. As the “sole” linkage between Beijing and the HKSAR, the CE has to be bestowed a status much higher than the legislature and the judiciary, as well as given vast powers in policymaking, resource allocation, and personnel appointments. Article 43 of the Basic Law stipulates that “the Chief Executive of the Hong Kong Special Administration Region shall be the head of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and shall represent the Region. The Chief Executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region shall be accountable to the Central People’s Government and the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region in accordance with the provisions of this Law.” Here, while the CE’s accountability to Beijing is clear, his or her accountability to the HKSAR needs some explication. As far as I know, accountability to the HKSAR is not tantamount to accountability to the Hong Kong people; otherwise, it would have been spelled out clearly. It should more appropriately be interpreted to mean that the CE should be responsible for the success of the OCTS enterprise in the HKSAR.
Accordingly, if Hong Kong were an independent nation, the CE would combine the lofty statuses of “head of state” and “head of government”. Under OCTS, the CE is not only responsible for the effective administration of Hong Kong but also is held accountable for the successful implementation of OCTS and the Basic Law. This means that in practice, if the CE finds that either OCTS or the Basic Law has been violated or has come up short, he or she has to take remedial measures or, if necessary, seek assistance from Beijing. More specifically, if the CE is of the view that the legislature or the judiciary has done something not in conformity with the Basic Law, he or she has to take action against them or report the matters to Beijing for disposition. On the other hand, if Beijing determines that the HKSAR government has to do something to put OCTS back on the right track, Beijing can order the CE to adopt the appropriate measures. Article 48(8) stipulates that the chief executive of the HKSAR has “to implement the directives issued by the Central People’s Government in respect of the relevant matters provided for in this Law”.
Since the CE is of crucial importance to Beijing in the successful implementation of OCTS, it is no wonder that the way the CE is selected has to be taken seriously and no chances will be taken. Even though Beijing retains the substantive power to appoint the CE, he or she still has to be elected in Hong Kong in the first place. Beijing does not want to find itself in a situation in which it has to reject the person duly elected in Hong Kong. Beijing, therefore, has to make sure that the electoral committee for the CE is populated by patriots. According to Article 45 of the Basic Law, even if ultimately the CE is to be popularly elected, “a broadly representative nominating committee”, with the patriots in charge, has to be in place to weed out the anti-China individuals from the list of candidates.
Nevertheless, despite all these preventive or preemptive measures, before the drastic revamping of Hong Kong’s electoral system in 2021 by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, the internal and external hostile forces, enjoying strong public support, were still able to participate in Hong Kong’s elections and governance even after Hong Kong had become part of China. While these people have no chance to win the CE election, their presence in the legislature, the media, the schools and the community still empower them to affect the governing behavior of the CE. Consequently, all of John Lee’s predecessors were unable to meet satisfactorily the expectations and even execute the orders of Beijing. The patriots in the legislature and the community were held in thrall to the internal and external hostile forces and were inhibited from fully supporting Beijing and the HKSAR government. The failure of the HKSAR to enact local legislation according to Article 23 of the Basic Law is a glaring example of the inability of all the CEs to fulfill Hong Kong’s responsibility to protect national security, leaving Hong Kong to become a base of subversion of sorts. By the same token, even if a CE found that some parts of OCTS or some articles of the Basic Law had been infringed upon, he or she dared not rectify the situation by himself or herself, and, likewise, was reluctant to seek help from Beijing for fear of being accused of courting Beijing’s “interference” in Hong Kong affairs. Examples of this abound, such as the failure of the CE to request the central authorities to overturn the Court of Final Appeal’s interpretation of the relevant Basic Law articles on the right of abode in 1999, to seek the views of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress on whether Article 74 applied to the private member’s bills, or whether the oaths taken by some newly elected legislators were constitutionally valid. The hesitancy of the HKSAR government to promote national education in the schools or to push ahead with forging closer economic ties with the Chinese mainland are other salient examples. The weaknesses and incapacities of John Lee’s predecessors deeply rankled and worried Beijing. However, since Beijing did not find it desperately necessary to take unilateral actions except in a few very serious instances for fear of criticism, this undesirable state of governmental inaction was allowed to remain for more than 20 years since Hong Kong’s return to the motherland.
The turmoil and violence that roiled Hong Kong in the past decade, and the wanton interference of external hostile forces in Hong Kong affairs, in particular, had changed fundamentally Beijing’s calculus toward Hong Kong. The enactment of the National Security Law for Hong Kong and the drastic revamping of Hong Kong’s electoral system represent Beijing’s determination to reshape Hong Kong’s political landscape. The highlight of Beijing’s new policy is the “permanent” banishment of internal and external hostile forces from Hong Kong’s governance and the political scene.
The election of the sixth-term CE hence is held in a completely different political context. The CE, John Lee, will no longer be held in the thrall of the external and internal hostile forces. The “public opinion” behind these forces will no longer be that appalling. He will be loyal to the central government and will act in tandem with Beijing, while staunchly supported by a more united, powerful and capable patriotic camp. He will obey faithfully the directives and guidance of Beijing. He will rally the patriotic forces to take on the challenges of the external and internal hostile forces. He will make sure that OCTS and the Basic Law are comprehensively and accurately implemented. He will be prepared to solicit Beijing’s help in coping with problems that are beyond the control and capability of the HKSAR. He will accelerate the integration of the economies of Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland. He will adopt measures to widen the industrial base of Hong Kong. He will reinforce Hong Kong’s capabilities to safeguard national security. He will steadfastly and courageously promote national education in the schools and the community. He will pursue institutional and policy reforms to enable government to enhance the well-being of the people and build a more just and fair society. All these are tall orders that had not been completed by his predecessors. Now, with the support of Beijing and the patriotic camp, the chances of making achievements today are much better than in the past.
All in all, this CE election is a turning point in the history of the implementation of OCTS since the new CE of the HKSAR will be more ready and capable of playing his role as the guardian of the interests of Hong Kong and the motherland as envisioned by Beijing. And Beijing will find Lee a reliable person to ensure that OCTS will be implemented by the original design.
The author is a professor emeritus of sociology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and vice-president of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macao Studies.
The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.