An Early End to the Masquerade

In a “White Paper” released on June 10 [full text in Chinese HERE], China’s State Council sought to clarify the terms of the “one country, two systems” principle that has governed the special administrative region since it was returned to China in 1997, an apparent response to plans by Hong Kong’s Occupy Central movement for an unofficial referendum this month on universal elections. “The high degree of autonomy enjoyed by the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region is not complete autonomy,” the paper said, “nor is it a separation of powers – rather it is a right to administration of regional affairs granted by the central authorities.”

By Chang Ping (长平)

It was in the run-up to Hong Kong’s “return” to China that President Jiang Zemin started trumpeting the idea of “ruling the country according to the law.” Of course, everyone knew that when it came right down to it, the Chinese Communist Party called the shots, that power superseded the law. But all of us — legal scholars, rights defenders and the media — started enthusiastically joining in this game we called “constructing rule of law” (法治建设).

We all entertained the happy fiction that this government which in fact was fundamentally opposed to constitutionalism and rule of law, was actually committed to making systemic improvements.

We regarded Hong Kong’s independent system of laws as a model for China’s “construction of rule of law.” We all thought “one country, two systems” was a clever strategy, because we trusted in this foundational fiction, that the Chinese Communist Party was committed to the kind of progress we hoped for. Many of us thought Hong Kong pointed the way to China’s future. Deng Xiaoping’s promise, “fifty years without change” (五十年不变), was enough — we were certain, after all, that the mainland’s political system would by then be a thing of the past.

In our fondness for these fictions, we overlooked the fundamentally aggressive nature of authoritarian power. Under authoritarianism, power is built on plunder, and there is no way it can be checked effectively. If there have been authoritarian regimes in the past that have maintained peace with other political systems, this was not because they were by their nature peace-loving but because they didn’t yet possess the means of dominating the other through aggression. If it is within their power to deny it, there is no way they will allow independence or autonomy.

At the same time, a democratic society governed by rule of law can’t possibly tolerate being positioned within an authoritarian motherland.

Just like the project of “constructing rule of law,” the idea of implementing “One Country, Two Systems” in Hong Kong was from the very beginning a masquerade, nothing more. All of the players are wearing masks. They can’t see the true nature of their dancing partners — nor do they really care to see. They can’t see through the mask, but they prefer the process of wishful thinking as they dance across the floor. From time to time, the hosts of the masquerade plan an unmasking for when the music stops, but many dancers scream with fear once they’ve seen the true identity of their partners. So the most intelligent thing to do is to keep the music going and avoid the inevitable, hoping beyond hopes that somehow the dancing itself will soften your partner’s steps, making them more graceful and amenable.

The Chinese Communist Party, its power swelling, has grown impatient with the masquerade. But a lot of people in Hong Kong and in China still hope the game can continue. They can’t bear to see the identity of their partner unmasked.

It wasn’t very long after Xi Jinping came to power that the mask of rule of law came off. He moved aggressively to restrain freedom of expression and lock up political dissidents. Even though the mask is off, there are still those who can’t face the truth. Xi only took his mask, they imagine, as a ploy to frighten those who dance to a different tune. Once his position is secure he will return to the masquerade.

This game of denial forms the backdrop of the State Council’s recent release of the “White Paper” on Hong Kong and the “one country, two systems” policy. I don’t agree with those who think the “White Paper” is directed at Occupy Central and the political reform referendum it has planned for later this month. In any case, Occupy Central is not the chief reason for the release of this “White Paper.” Without Occupy Central or this referendum, the mask would still have to come off. The masquerade would have to end. It’s possible that Occupy Central was the last straw — but it was not the decisive factor.

Those who think that somehow the calls issued by Occupy Central crossed the line and infuriated the central government, upsetting the apple cart of the “one country, two systems” policy, I just want to say, take a good hard look at how long intellectuals, journalists and rights lawyers inside China have danced the masquerade — and what do they have to show for it?

The brutishness of the “White Paper” caught many people by surprise, but a few still managed to keep the game going, seizing on that baffling phrase in the “White Paper” that says, “Devotion to the nation is a basic political ethic those in leadership positions must uphold.” This political ethic of “devotion” is outmoded. But even so, looking at the history of the Chinese Communist Party, this hasn’t meant obedience to the country’s rulers, but rather opposition to authoritarianism and the building of a “new China.”

Can we really continue playing this game? Isn’t it time to end the masquerade?

[This essay was originally published in Chinese on the website of Hong Kong’s Apple Daily.]


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