The conjunctural circumstances in Hong Kong are only accelerating the pace of change in global public and private governance. Given how this bout of acceleration was more or less unexpected by all the parties concerned, a global conversation on Hong Kong is being held. That conversation involves also a dialogue between Chinese intellectuals and the leadership. This latter dialogue is of a breadth and a depth comparable to those of the dialogue provoked by the recrudescence of the US-China Trade War. The CPE recently observed how this kind of dialogue possesses various aspects and dimensions. Some of those dimensions are obviously internal - an example is the Central Government symposium held in Shenzhen earlier in August. Some other dimensions are external. Through its translations of Albert Chen's commentaries on the situation in Hong Kong, and other primary sources, the CPE has documented some of the most valuable external dimensions of that dialogue.
A further addition is an insightful article that appeared on the August 20 issue of the Hong Kong daily newspaper Lianhe Zaobao. The article is entitled “The capital/city of protest: Who Rules Hong Kong?” and is authored by Professor Zheng Yongnian. The full text of the article is reproduced below in Chinese and in English. The English translation was provided by the Google artificial intelligence. Readers are welcome to improve it and use it as the see fit.
Professor Zheng Yongnian has a long and distinguished curriculum. He is the Director and a Professor at the East Asian Institute at the National University of Singapore, a prolific commentator on diverse aspects of contemporary China, and the author or editor of at least 20 books on Chinese politics. His works can be rightly considered the forge of many theoretical and analytical concepts that have given their essential quality to several analyses of China produced in Asia, on the European continent and beyond.
Professor Zheng Yongnian's article interrogates the situation in Hong Kong from Singapore, but using theories and concepts anchored in Xi Jinping's Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics in the New Era. Therefore, it provides a useful "window" on-going processes of Sinification of concepts in governance generally understood, and on the gradual development of governance principles and concepts created autonomously by the People's Republic of China. Providing a full account and a detailed description of all the concepts, policies, Chinese constitutional principles and ideas that compose the framework of this brilliant article is beyond the goal of my brief comment. The core driving force behind behind the article, however, is the principle of "One Country, Two Systems", both in its more general dimension, and as the principle exists in Hong Kong.
The use of this and other concepts in the article provides a powerful inspiration to all those who are interested in the law and the governance of the People's Republic of China. Because it invites a deeper reflection on the situation in Hong Kong, but also on one of the issues that are fundamental to governance more broadly understood — the interpretation of foundational texts and concepts.
In the context of this brief comment, "interpretation" should not be understood as limited to the activity of constitutional or legal interpretation. We know how the PRC constitution is non-justiciable. And, in Western academic circles, the treatment of the CPC Statute, Charter, or Constitution as a source of binding principles and norms still raises more than a few eyebrows. Even though empirical reality proves that, when the going gets tough, even the staunchest opponents of this perspective treat the principles of the CPC (Statute, Charter, Constitution) as a force that can constrain the action of at least some public and private entities.
I am using "interpretation" in a broader sense, as referring to the activity whereby at least one meaning is attributed to linguistic signs.
"One Country, Two Systems" became one of the constitutive principles of the Communist Party of China in 1992, when the Preamble to the Statute of the CPC was amended to include wording about 一个国家， 两种制度. The Preamble, and the paragraph containing language about "One Country, Two Systems" were amended closer to us in time. Also, interpretive linkages were established between "One Country, Two Systems" on the one hand, and various other concepts and units of meaning in the CPC Statute, the PRC Constitution, and State legislation. This network of meanings is well-known, and needs not be described here. For the goals of this commentary, it suffices to say how the principle of "One Country, Two Systems" has retained its original essence. But, over time it has also transformed in ways that are useful to achieve certain broader governance goals of the PRC.
A natural question to ask at this point would be the question "how is One Country Two Systems interpreted?" But perhaps the question of how One Country Two Systems (or any other principle) is interpreted and how it changes over time is not the right question to ask. The question of "how is X interpreted?" is a question that can be asked only after other questions have been asked, and have received an answer in the affirmative.
When we ask "how X is interpreted" we assume that the following exists:
1. at least one theory of interpretation, or two or more competing (or co-existing) theories of interpretation
2. methods of interpretation that either derive by one or more theories of interpretation, or provide the building blocks of theories of interpretation that are constructed ex post, to justify certain interpretive choices.
3. a group of persons who can provide interpretations that are generally accepted as authoritative, and are therefore adopted and followed in practice
4. a group of persons who "innovate" the theories and methods of interpretation
5. a group of persons who share theories and methods of interpretation, thereby contributing to their diffusion and their growth beyond themselves
6. the awareness that the terrain of interpretation is a terrain strewn with traps, with roads that may lead to nowhere, looped streets, cul-de-sacs, and surprises hidden behind every corner.
So question of "how is One Country Two Systems interpreted?" is a question that does not lead us very far. Because this is a question we are unable to answer. We do not possess a factual, direct knowledge of internal processes of governance. At best, we can glimpse at the received light that is reflected by external debates. But, even the most complete collection of external debates would provide limited information. In the absence of this knowledge, we can always formulate hypotheses about at least some of the points I have sketched out above. I am confident each one of the questions I suggested in listing those five points about interpretation can be answered in the affirmative.
To my (limited) knowledge, codified rules on the interpretation of the Constitution (or Statute) of the CPC do not exist. The fact no "handbook on the interpretation of the dangzhan" exists does not exclude the existence of non-codified, unwritten rules on interpretation. Certainly, in order to be able to elaborate the entire system of intra-party regulation, officials have encountered, and successfully solved, problems that required attributing a specific meaning to precise words in the dangzhan or elsewhere. Therefore, a know-how on how to interpret principles in the CPC Statute exists. This know-how is dictated by logic and by common sense. If one attempts to observe the PRC system from its own internal perspective, then at minimum any interpretation of any part of the dangzhan must: contribute to advancing the governance goals of the CCP; exist within the hermeneutic framework provided by the accepted meaning of the Four Basic Principles; avoid contradiction with any other part of the dangzhan, and so on.
If a method to interpret ideological principles exists, then a question worth asking is whether that method and its rules were created in an entirely autonomous way in the PRC, or whether they benefitted from processes of exchange. The leadership of the Communist Party of China may have created a set of rules that prescribe how the dangzhan is to be interpreted. Those rules may exist outside of any form of communication with any other system that needs interpretation in order to function as a system of regulation. This hypothesis would, however, be very difficult to accept. No system exists in isolation. Alternatively, we could imagine that rules on interpretation are a hybrid between rules and methods created in the PRC, and the rules of constitutional interpretation used in other systems of governance. The first constitutional system that comes to mind is obviously the constitutional system of the United States. Given the intensity of scholarly exchanges between the United States and China, it is natural to imagine how US constitutional interpretation may have provided at least some inspiration to the interpreters of the dangzhan. A second possible candidate would be the methods of interpretation adopted in the European Union. Yet the interpretation of EU law involves the interplay of different constitutional systems and traditions, which can at times be confusing.
But perhaps, if one were to look for a viable source of inspiration for what can only be the art of interpretation, one should conduct her search based on the insights of The Chinese Communist Party as Organizational Emperor: Culture, Reproduction and Transformation. In this path-breaking book, Professor Zheng took the distance from arguments portraying the Communist Party of China as a conventional political party. He rather suggested how the Party is closer to a traditional institution. The Machiavellan Prince, albeit reframed in Gramscian and hence Marxist terms, provided a useful model/analogy for this argument. Yet by the XV Century Italy had already given up any ambition to become a non-nation state.
The peninsula saw the existence of several independent republics, marquisates, duchies, and kingdoms, each one of which had a cultural, intellectual, linguistic, artistic, literary and political heritage that lives on until today.
Therefore, if one among the possible source of inspiration for theories and methods of interpretation of the CPC (Statute, Constitution, Charter) is to be sought, methods of interpretation and of legal reasoning in the Roman Empire might be worth exploring.