Self-Determination in Hong Kong Is a Non-Issue
Song Zhe, Commissioner of the Chinese Foreign Ministry in Hong Kong
Some people in Hong Kong lately have been advocating for, or talking about, “self-determination.” In my view, from the perspective of international relations and diplomacy, their argument is confused and misleading.
In international law, the term “self-determination” carries special meaning. Its inception and use concerned, in theory, “national self-determination,” and can be traced back from the U.S. Declaration of Independence in 1776 to Vladimir Lenin’s “The Right of Nations to Self-Determination” in 1914 and U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s proposed rights of oppressed nations in his Fourteen Points following World War I.
After World War II, a series of international legal documents reaffirmed the “right to self-determination.” These include the Charter of the United Nations and subsequently the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples, as well as two international covenants on human rights. Thanks in part to these principles, a group of colonial countries in Asia and Africa were able to achieve independence.
In practice, “self-determination” refers to the rights of people in colonial countries seeking independence. But the U.N. General Assembly also set clear restrictions on this right, declaring that “any attempt aimed at the partial or total disruption of the national unity and the territorial integrity of a country is incompatible with the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations.”
After the Cold War, “self-determination” was increasingly abused and confused with the concept of “secession.” Certain regions within some countries asked for secession in the name of “self-determination.” Yet such requests have no legal basis in international law. They neither received the support of the majority of people in the countries concerned nor were widely recognized by the international community.
Regardless of whether it means “independence” or “secession,” “self-determination” is completely irrelevant to Hong Kong. In historical terms, Hong Kong was under the effective jurisdiction of the Chinese central government, without interruption, before the Opium War. In legal terms, Beijing resumed sovereignty over Hong Kong on July 1, 1997, and it is clearly stated in China’s Constitution and Hong Kong’s Basic Law that Hong Kong is an inalienable part of China.
In cultural terms, the people of Hong Kong and the mainland share the same origin. Bound by blood ties, they both belong to the Chinese culture. Since there has never existed a Hong Kong nation, and Hong Kong is not a colony under foreign rule, there is no issue of “self-determination” in Hong Kong.
Two other topics relating to “self-determination” have also caused confusion. One concerns the “post-2047 arrangements,” and the other is “democratic self-determination.”
According to the Basic Law, the “one country, two systems” principle will remain unchanged for the 50 years following 1997. This means that Hong Kong’s lifestyle and capitalist system is to remain in place for a set period. Yet the “one country” aspect is to remain for good.
What needs to be discussed regarding the “post-2047 arrangements” is the kind of political, economic and social system that will be adopted in Hong Kong under the prerequisite of “one country.” This falls into the purview of a high degree of autonomy mandated by Beijing, not “democratic self-determination” as has been claimed by some.
During Hong Kong’s 150 years under British rule, its people never exercised rights as masters of the city. It was only after the return of Hong Kong to the motherland in 1997 under the “one country, two systems” principle that Hong Kong began to be administered by its residents with a high degree of autonomy.
Such autonomy is unique and not practiced by subnational units within many federal countries. For example, Hong Kong enjoys the power of final adjudication and pays no taxes to the central government. Even in the U.S., no state is entitled to such a privilege.
If someone continues to advocate “self-determination” in Hong Kong, he or she might not have a correct understanding of the term. To them, I hope this article will help clarify the concept.
But there are also others who are deliberately confusing this concept as a way to stir up trouble. I am afraid that such an attempt will lead Hong Kong onto a dangerous path and undermine the fundamental interests of the country and Hong Kong.
For Hong Kong, the most pressing task is to remain focused on improving its economy and livelihood, bringing into full play its advantages. It is our hope that Hong Kong will embrace new opportunities while developing together with the rest of the country. To play up certain erroneous ideas is in no one’s interest.