HONG KONG: 'We need to work towards consensus'
Karin Palmquist

In April of this year, China ruled that the citizens of Hong Kong would not be able to directly elect their next chief executive in 2007 and all lawmakers in 2008. On July 1, on the seventh anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong to China, half a million people took to the streets of Hong Kong in protest.

This was not the first protest of that scale. Last summer, street protests against an anti-subversion bill drew half a million people and sparked demands for wider democracy. Beijing responded by extending a series of economic favors to Hong Kong, trying to quell demands for political reform by boosting the economy. A free trade pact was signed between Hong Kong and the Mainland and visa rules were eased to allow more Chinese tourists into Hong Kong. 

DiplomaticTraffic.com asked Hong Kong's commissioner in the United States, Jacqueline Ann Willis, about the public sentiment in Hong Kong and what these protests mean for relations between Hong Kong and China.

"Mainland China has always been extremely supportive of Hong Kong since the reunification," Jacqueline Ann Willis said. "As you know we went through the Asian financial crisis, the global economic downturn, SARS, and throughout we have had the support of the Mainland. As far as Hong Kong's constitutional development, we want an open and transparent debate. We need to move forward. Hong Kong needs to make changes. We need to improve governance. That has been accepted. The decision that was made by the NPC [National People's Congress] said universal suffrage would not happen in 2007-08. This decision came as a disappointment to some people in Hong Kong. The polls taken immediately showed that people were very unhappy. At the same time, you need to be aware that the Mainland has been very responsive to that reaction. They have shown a genuine desire to engage in real dialogue.

"I think that as far as the people that went out to march, the tension has gone. That is very important. People are much more hopeful. We are a very pragmatic society. There is a desire to make real progress. We know that we still have ample opportunities within the parameters set up. China did not say, 'You will not have universal suffrage.' We just won't have it in 2007. What we need to do is work towards getting all institutions in place so that we are ready for universal suffrage. The immediate goal is of course the elections this year. By then we will have the third phase of Hong Kong's constitutional development. The Basic Law set out the first three terms of the Election Council. The third phase, which will happen this September, is very important because this time we will have real elections. Thirty seats will be elected through geographical constituencies, and the other thirty seats will be elected through the functional constituencies, and each of the constituencies has an electorate." 

But how willing are the people of Hong Kong to wait for universal suffrage beyond 2008?

"There is no consensus," the commissioner said. "There are 6.8 million people in Hong Kong. Those who took part in this year's march, which was a significant number, made a very clear statement on the need for better governance. This is something that we as a government understand very clearly and it provides a focus for what we need to do. What we don't have a consensus on what these changes ought to be.

"We need to have a consensus in the community before we can make legislative changes for 2007-08. We need two-thirds majority in the legislative council to make legislative changes. Then we need the chief executive [to agree], and the third part is the Mainland China. It is by constitutional design under the Basic Law that China has a constitutional role and responsibility to oversee Hong Kong's constitutional development.

"We need to work towards a consensus front within the parameters that have been given to Hong Kong. This is something that is a real challenge for Hong Kong. Hong Kong people don't want confrontation. If you look at the polls, which give a stronger signal than the march, you'll see that the people do not want a confrontation. It is time for all of us to step back. We need dialogue and we need to build consensus.

"There is an opportunity for us for 2007-08 to look at what changes can we make… in terms of the election of the chief executive. For this year's election we're electing 30 geographical seats and 30 functional seats. Should we increase the number of seats so that more people can participate? How do we engage more people? The geographical seats are easier because you can split Hong Kong into [equal areas].

"For some of the functional seats the member is elected by every person belonging to that functional institution. There are some functional seats that are not open to every person that belongs to that functional institution. Is that an area that should be changed? I think this will be a major debate. The worst part is that we can't get two-thirds majority for change. We have no consensus. We all know Hong Kong people want change. The government wants change. China has accepted we should change. So we must build up that consensus."

Hong Kong is an economic force much greater than its relative size. How has the handover to China and the "One Country, Two Systems" policy affected Hong Kong's economy?

"Mainland China has been very good for Hong Kong. The Mainland was always there during the Asian crisis, when we were attacked by hedge funds. There could have been systematic damage to our economy, but we never had to turn to China," Commissioner Willis said.

On June 29 of last year, Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) and the central government of the People's Republic of China, signed the Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement (CEPA), with the objective of strengthening trade and investment cooperation between Mainland China and Hong Kong and promoting joint development of the two sides, through the elimination of trade tariffs, the elimination of all discriminatory measures, and through the facilitation of trade and investment promotion.

Since January 1, 2004 Hong Kong goods go into China free of tariffs. The agreement covers 374 items, or 90 percent of all goods produced in Hong Kong. CEPA is a living agreement that can be revised and added to and there is a provision to include the remaining goods and services by January 1, 2006. Any company can ask for free trade inclusion, as long as its goods meet the country of origin requirements.

"Ever since China started to open her door, Hong Kong businesses have gone into China," the commissioner said. "Hong Kong has reinvented itself, diversified, over the decades and our economy has become more integrated with that of China. After 1997 the integration quickened. That is to Hong Kong's advantage, because China is such a major market. And for China, Hong Kong is a place to raise funds. When China joined the WTO, Hong Kong realized it needed a free trade agreement. I think this agreement will invigorate Hong Kong's economy. Hong Kong is now the second largest recipient of FDI in Asia, China the largest.

"The CEPA includes 18 areas of services, like professional management services, lawyers, accountants, tourism and telecom - all areas Hong Kong is good at. This gives Hong Kong a new role. It provides a new platform for Hong Kong companies. It really shows the benefit of being one country, and it also shows that the 'One Country, Two Systems' really works. Where else in the world do you have a city with the equivalent of a FTA with a central government?"

The reunification with China has sent Hong Kong's tourism industry booming. Of Hong Kong's 20 million tourists last year, 11.6 million came from Mainland China. The Mainland Chinese have surpassed the Americans and the Japanese as the largest spenders.

"In the beginning, people couldn't come as independent tourists. They had to have an invitation of be part of a group," Commissioner Willis said. "We negotiated with affluent cities and Mainland tourists came, eager to spend money on watches, brand name goods and gold. When you walk in to a shop now, shopkeepers speak to you in the Mainland language."

By all accounts, Hong Kong's economy seems to have benefited from the reunification. But how about the political ramifications? How has being part of China changed people's perceptions of Hong Kong?

"The United States is concerned about Hong Kong's autonomy," the commissioner said. "China has not interfered, but how do we deal with perceptions? When there are problems in US-China relations we are always concerned about spillover. We're a pawn, an easy target. This is a challenge for us."

Biography of Miss Jacqueline Ann Willis, JP
Hong Kong Commissioner, USA
As the Hong Kong Commissioner to the United States, Miss Willis is the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Government's most senior representative in North America.

She directs all the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Government's economic development, trade policy and constituency-building activities in the U.S., and supervises the work of the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Offices in Washington, D.C., New York and San Francisco. Miss Willis took up her post as the Hong Kong Commissioner on February 16, 1999.

Miss Willis was born and educated in Hong Kong. Upon graduation from the University of Hong Kong, she joined the Hong Kong Government as an Administrative Officer. As part of her training and career development, in 1976 she was sent to the University of Oxford to attend a course on Administrative Development designed for the Hong Kong Government and in 1987 she was seconded to the Department of Health and Social Security of the United Kingdom Government for one year.

Miss Willis has worked in a wide variety of positions within the civil service. Her more recent postings include Deputy Secretary for Health and Welfare (1992-1994) where she had policy responsibility for social welfare matters including social security and Deputy Secretary for Education and Manpower (1994-1996) where she had policy responsibility for tertiary education, vocational training and retraining and in addition policy responsibility for labour matters.

Before taking up the post of Commissioner, USA, Miss Willis was the Commissioner for Labour (1996-1999) in Hong Kong. As the head of the department she was responsible for promoting good labour relations, providing employment services, enforcing employees rights and benefits and promoting and enforcing safety and health at work.