Hong Kong and Macau will develop and progress together with mainland China as they seize opportunities under the nation’s trade and integration plans, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said on Tuesday as he delivered his annual work report.
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But unlike in the previous two years, the state leader did not use the phrase “promoting democracy”. And while he pledged to resolutely protect national sovereignty and oppose any separatist schemes seeking Taiwan’s independence, the premier did not touch on pro-independence acts in Hong Kong.
The economic plans Li referred to were the “Belt and Road Initiative” and the “Greater Bay Area” project, which aims to turn the two cities and their nine mainland Chinese neighbours into a financial and technology hub.
The Greater Bay Area Plan
The Pearl River Delta in China's south has grown from an agricultural area in 1980 to Asia's largest and most populous urban area.
Giving the first annual work report of his second five-year term, which started last year, Li promised to support Hong Kong and Macau’s chief executives and their governments.
“We will continue with the comprehensive and accurate implementation of the policies of ‘one country, two systems’, the people of Hong Kong governing Hong Kong … and a high degree of autonomy for both regions,” he said at the opening of the annual session of the National People’s Congress in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.
The event was attended by about 3,000 deputies from around the country, as well as foreign diplomats.
Under the one country, two systems principle, the two former colonies were guaranteed a high degree of autonomy after they returned to Chinese rule in the late 1990s. Li had not used the phrases “people of Hong Kong governing Hong Kong” and “a high degree of autonomy for both regions” in his report last year, sparking some concern.
Elaborating on Hong Kong and Macau on Tuesday, Li said: “We have every confidence that Hong Kong and Macau will develop and thrive together with the mainland and maintain long-term prosperity and stability.”
This was the first time Li had highlighted that the two cities would maintain prosperity and stability as they “thrive together with the mainland”. In previous work reports, the premier had stated that Beijing was confident the two cities would maintain prosperity and stability as they boosted their competitiveness and developed with mainland China.
In last year’s work report, the premier mentioned that Beijing would support Hong Kong in developing its economy, improving lives, promoting democracy and fostering harmony. These phrases were not in this year’s report.
Li added: “We will support the two regions in seizing major opportunities presented by the Belt and Road Initiative and the Greater Bay Area development strategy, giving better play to their strengths and deepening mutually beneficial cooperation with the mainland in all fields.”
Starry Lee Wai-king, a delegate of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), China’s top political advisory body, said the premier dropping the phrase “promoting democracy” from his report reflected the priorities for Hong Kong’s development.
“It is to match with social needs. It is appropriate for Hong Kong to focus on economic development and improve livelihood, and that has aligned with Beijing’s requests to the government,” she said. “I believe that matches public expectations.”
Lee said she believed the government might reboot political reform in the city only when internal conflicts were relieved and there were improvements with the issue of social mobility.
She added that she hoped the city could grasp the development opportunities ahead in the Greater Bay Area.
Other Hong Kong delegates said there was no need to worry about the omission.
When asked if the change meant there was no hope for Hong Kong achieving universal suffrage, NPC deputy Wong Yuk-shan said: “I don’t think so … as the report is focused on national development. Achieving a democratic, modern country with socialist characteristics … is always a goal of our country.”
Fellow NPC deputy Ip Kwok-him said that while phrases such as developing the economy and promoting democracy were omitted this year, it did not mean that those things were not needed.
“Under one country, two systems and the Basic Law, democracy and the economy will continue to be promoted … Beijing laid down its decision on the city’s political reform in 2014. If there’s consensus about that, we can promote democracy,” he said, referring to the stringent framework for political reform that triggered the Occupy protests.
Asked if Hong Kong could “progress with the mainland” amid the country’s economic slowdown and trade uncertainties, Ip said: “The US-China trade war would affect Hong Kong … but Hong Kong also has its unique role in international trade. So I think we need to stay alert but not be too worried.”
Tam Yiu-chung, the city’s sole delegate to the NPC Standing Committee, Beijing’s top legislative body, said he believed the omission of “promoting democracy” from the report did not indicate a major change but noted that the country was putting all its energy and focus into economic development.
As China was expected to be facing a slowing economy, Tam said, he believed Hong Kong’s economy would be affected as well, with undermined investor confidence.
“That’s why the Greater Bay Area has been promoted to find a way out with new development opportunities. We should not just sit back and wait,” he said.
This year’s work report came a month after the State Council rolled out its long-awaited bay area blueprint, fulfilling a promise the premier made in last year’s report.
In a reference to the nation and the two cities’ constitutional documents, Li reiterated that Beijing would “act in strict compliance with China’s constitution and the Basic Laws of the Hong Kong and Macau special administrative regions”.
He added: “The governments and chief executives of the two regions have our full support in exercising law-based governance.”
On the subject of Taiwan, Li said: “We will resolutely oppose and deter any separatist schemes or activities seeking ‘Taiwan independence’ and resolutely protect China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
But unlike what he did in 2017, the premier did not touch on separatist activities in Hong Kong.
NPC deputy Ip said he believed that the premier did not mention separatism in Hong Kong because the movement lacked support in the city.
Fellow deputy Raymond Tam Chi-yuen, formerly Hong Kong’s constitutional affairs minister, said: “I believe the report did not mention Hong Kong independence because the city’s government handled the issue in accordance with the law.”
Last year, the city’s Security Bureau invoked the Societies Ordinance in banning the pro-independence Hong Kong National Party, citing national security grounds. The party filed an appeal with the Executive Council, which ruled that the ban be upheld.
In a meeting with Hong Kong CPPCC delegates on Monday, Vice-Premier Han Zheng praised Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor for the ban.
On Sunday, Wang Yang, chairman of the CPPCC, said delegates were encouraged to oppose Hong Kong independence as he delivered his first work report.