Opinion – Beijing’s Integration Plan on HK, Macau and Taiwan

The decisions of the Fourth Plenum of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and their elaborations by Shen Chunyao, the director of the Legal Work Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPC), showed that Beijing has already put forward a comprehensive plan on Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan.

The objectives are clear: the “one country, two systems” in Hong Kong and Macau remains the linchpin of Beijing’s “peaceful reunification” of Taiwan later, even though at this juncture the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in Taiwan rejects both the “one country, two systems” and the 1992 consensus reached between the CCP and the Kuomintang (KMT).

First and foremost, the Fourth Plenum of the CCP on October 31 unprecedentedly made six points on Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan: (1) the “one country, two systems” is a “great innovation” of not only China’s socialist system but also CCP leaders’ attempt at achieving “peaceful reunification”; (2) “one country, two systems” in Hong Kong and Macau needs to promote their economic prosperity and stability and to maintain the “advantage” of facilitating “peaceful reunification”.

Then, (3) Hong Kong and Macau’s stability needs to be governed “strictly” in accordance with the PRC constitution and the Basic Law; (4) the legal system of national security and its implementation need to be established “comprehensively”; (5) the “one country, two systems” has to be maintained, improved and perfected; and (6) the Taiwan comrades will have to be “united through policy arrangements and measures” so that “Taiwan independence” will be opposed.

Second, Shen Chunyao’s elaborations of the decisions on November 1 were very significant in five aspects: (1) the improvement of mechanisms of the PRC constitution and the Basic Law of both Hong Kong and Macau has to be done through “patriotic” comrades governing the two places with high standard; (2) the perfection of the mechanisms of not only Beijing’s appointment and dismissal of the Chief Executive and principal officials but also the central government’s powers; (3) the consolidation of the implementation capability of the special administrative regions in protecting national security.

Then (4) the perfection of integrating Hong Kong and Macau into the Greater Bay Area so as to deal with the deep social contradictions, to improve the people’s livelihood, and to retain social stability; and (5) the consolidation of Basic Law education, national education, and Chinese culture and history so that Hong Kong and Macau comrades will have “stronger national consciousness and patriotic spirit.”  

The six main points and five-point elaborations above show that Beijing does have a comprehensive and deeper integration plan on Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan. On November 4, the PRC government issued 26 policy measures that can and will benefit Taiwan in the process of socially and economically integrating with the mainland.

These measures embrace “equal treatment” to the Taiwan people in a whole range of areas, including the participation in technological development, 5G investment, aviation development, logistical and transport, capital accumulation, import and export insurance, youth start-up companies in the mainland, youth employment, consular protection, agricultural cooperation, eligibilities in buying apartment units, cultural and sports participation in the mainland, and student applications for subsidies from the PRC government.

These 26 policy measures represent an extension from 31 new measures that were taken and publicized on February 28, 2018. All the new 26 policy measures have strong elements of Beijing’s united front work on Taipei at a time just two months away from the Taiwan presidential election in January 2020.

Third, on November 4, the PRC President Xi Jinping met Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam in Shanghai, praising, supporting and trusting her work in Hong Kong. Xi added that Lam’s foremost task is to stop the violence and maintain the well-being of the Hong Kong people.

Xi’s high-profile meeting was followed by Vice Premier Han Zheng’s meeting with Lam on November 6, when the third meeting of the Coordination Committee on Greater Bay Area (GBA) was held and when 16 additional policy measures of integrating Hong Kong into the GBA were announced. Han remarked that Lam had tried everything possible to stabilize the Hong Kong situation. According to Han, the executive, legislative and judicial branches in Hong Kong have the joint responsibility of restoring public order.

He added that Beijing continues to support Lam, her government and the police. Clearly, PRC leaders attempted to quash the outside rumors that Carrie Lam’s position is insecure. 

Some media and commentators in Hong Kong have quickly pointed to the likelihood that Carrie Lam would continue to be the Chief Executive, and that Beijing would not replace her in the short run.

Indeed, this early judgment may have ignored the fact that Chinese politics are often secretive, that PRC leaders might have put up a good public relations exercise, and that the high-profile support of Lam means that Beijing is eager to maintain elite unity in Hong Kong in the short run, to prevent some business elites from trying to delegitimize Lam by all means, and to look for Lam’s possible successors in a quiet and low-key manner. The meetings of Xi and Han with Lam appear to entrust her to establish the foundation of Beijing’s integration plan on Hong Kong in the coming months.

Some commentators in Hong Kong have been swift to point to the likelihood of enacting Article 23 of the Basic Law, although Article 23 had long been legislated and promulgated in Macau as early as March 2009. Democrat and barrister Martin Lee wrote in Apple Daily on November 6 that Beijing will implement “direct rule” over Hong Kong, because the central government will perhaps appoint its trusted principal officials in the territory.

If direct rule over Hong Kong is defined as the utilization of legal tools for Beijing to stabilize Hong Kong, there are at least three scenarios for the central government to impose its comprehensive integrative plan on the territory.

The first scenario is that Beijing can and will perhaps issue another White Paper on Hong Kong, bearing in mind that the 2014 White Paper had already emphasized the central government’s “comprehensive jurisdiction” over the territory. Any new or updated White Paper would likely elaborate on how Hong Kong’s stability would be governed “strictly” in accordance with the PRC constitution and the Basic law, how the national security system of laws and implementation would be established, and how the “one country, two systems” would be perfected.

Most importantly, the detailed arrangements on how Beijing approves and dismisses the Chief Executive and principal officials would likely be laid out, including the procedures in which the Chief Executive and any principal officials may tender their resignations to the central government. There were rumors that Chief Executive Carrie Lam offered to resign in July 2019, but the resignation was rejected by the central authorities. Regardless of whether such rumors were true or not, there may be a possibility of the central government laying out the detailed procedures of the Chief Executive and principal officials who may offer to resign in the future. 

Furthermore, the ways in which principal officials are operating may be improved and reformed. At present, principal officials are accountable directly to the Chief Executive under the Principal Officials Accountability System, although their appointments need to be approved by Beijing. Perhaps the central government in Beijing demands an additional layer of accountability, namely holding principal officials accountable not just to Chief Executive but also to Beijing. In other words, principal officials may also have to report to Beijing regularly, as with the current practice of the Chief Executive who needs to go to Beijing and present a report annually.   

The second scenario is that the NPC Standing Committee would exercise its power of interpretation of the Basic Law to enforce and clarify the decisions reached by the Fourth Plenum. In this scenario, there may be a possibility that the PRC’s relevant laws would likely be enforced in Hong Kong so that the Hong Kong government would implement them accordingly. Or alternatively, the circumstances under which PRC laws would be implemented would be spelt out clearly, such as when Beijing would declare a state of emergency in Hong Kong.

Some Hong Kong commentators speculated that if the national security law of the PRC were brought into Hong Kong, Article 23 would perhaps not have to be legislated. In theory, if the NPC Standing Committee interprets the Basic Law in detail by aligning Article 23 of the Basic Law with specific laws of the PRC, the “automatic” implementation of Article 23 of the Basic Law would become a realistic possibility.

The third scenario is that, no matter whether scenario one or two would occur, the next Chief Executive would be expected to be a stronger leader who will have to implement, together with his or her principal officials, the decisions of the Fourth Plenum. Specifically, patriotic and national education will be accelerated in Hong Kong, unlike Macau where such education has already been entrenched and implemented.

Moreover, the deeper integration of both Hong Kong and Macau into the Greater Bay Area is encouraged and accelerated. If Hong Kong does not do so, it would lose out economically in the long run, especially as the ongoing protests are bringing about a gradual and an inevitable decline in its economic performance, because many mainland tourists are frightened by all the violent news on Hong Kong and avoid visiting there.

Beijing’s plan on Macau is also very clear: Macau has to integrate socially and economically with the GBA. The territorial integration of parts of Hengqin into Macau is underway so that Macau is going to have more physical space for its development in the coming years, and that Macau’s economic diversification would be deepened.

The aforesaid moves point to Beijing’s determination to use “one country, two systems” to appeal to Taiwan for reunification. Beijing clearly understands that Taiwan’s resistance to “one country, two systems” is strong. As such, the 26 policy measures have been adopted on top of the 31 packages that were implemented in February 2018. Economic pragmatism is the key for Beijing to deal with the question of Taiwan’s future.

Overall, Beijing remains confident of its comprehensive integration plan on not only Hong Kong and Macau but also Taiwan. Macau is already a successful model of “one country, two systems,” in the minds of PRC leaders. The challenge for Beijing’s leadership is to stabilize Hong Kong in the short run, to delineate all the legal mechanisms of protecting the PRC’s national security and of appointing and dismissing principal officials, and to merge Hong Kong deeper and economically into the Greater Bay Area in the long run.

Taiwan remains Beijing’s ultimate objective. As such, the Hong Kong chaos are, in the minds of Beijing, only a temporary obstacle that can and will be resolved by the central government together with a much stronger local leadership and administration.