21 August 2019
'One country, two systems' can be interpreted from two opposing perspectives. The continued political turmoil engulfing our city largely stems from the conflict between these two standpoints. Photo: HKEJ
'One country, two systems' can be interpreted from two opposing perspectives. The continued political turmoil engulfing our city largely stems from the conflict between these two standpoints. Photo: HKEJ

The future of ‘one country’ and ‘two systems’

I remember it was during my first year in university that the Sino-British talks over the future of Hong Kong began, and my graduate thesis was on the principle of “one country, two systems”.

Over the years, my study of this subject has never stopped.

Seeing that so many problems have arisen from the implementation of “one country, two systems” since the handover in 1997, I pointed out a long time ago that the principle can actually be interpreted from two opposing perspectives.

Simply put, it can be understood either from the point of view of “one country” or “two systems”.

From the perspective of “one country”, the implementation of “two systems” is simply a means to an end, which is to retrieve the sovereignty of Hong Kong to restore “one country”.

Allowing Hong Kong to be governed under a different political and economic system is just a politically expedient solution to the sovereignty issue.

In contrast, for those who interpret the principle from the point of view of “two systems”, “two systems”, rather than “one country”, is the end itself.

Accepting Beijing’s sovereignty over Hong Kong is just a politically expedient move to preserve the special characteristics of our city.

The continued political turmoil and social tensions that have been haunting Hong Kong since the handover stem to a very large extent from the differences and conflict between these two perspectives.

Despite the fact that there is a world of difference between the mainland and Hong Kong in terms of values and the ways we look at our past, our differences are not necessarily destined for a head-on collision.

“One country” and “two systems” could have coexisted peacefully if Beijing had handled our differences more properly and reasonably.

Owing to Beijing’s hard-line approach to managing its relationship with the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, the mutual distrust between the two sides has continued to grow over the years.

After the Occupy movement, the relationship between Beijing and Hong Kong has basically hit rock bottom, and there isn’t any sign of improvement within sight.

Since the balance of power between “one country” and “two systems” is completely asymmetrical, a kind of underdog mentality prevails among the people of Hong Kong.

The Communist Party’s frequent stubbornness and heavy-handedness in dealing with Hong Kong affairs only strengthen the impression among our fellow citizens that our leaders in Beijing enjoy throwing their weight around.

Hence, the more Beijing wants to tighten its grip on Hong Kong, the more backlash and resistance from us.

That begs another question: why does Beijing want to tighten its grip on our city bit by bit instead of allowing us the autonomy promised under the Basic Law?

The Communist Party leaders might be doing so out of national security concerns, as it has always remained Beijing’s worst nightmare for Hong Kong to be used as a bridgehead by hostile foreign powers to subvert the dictatorship in the mainland.

Therefore Beijing is convinced it must make sure that Hong Kong is always governed by patriots and party loyalists whom it trusts 100 percent and that the city must not be allowed full democracy, because it may provide an opportunity for foreign enemies to infiltrate our political system.

As a result, the popularity of the city’s administration has remained low over the years, and tensions between Beijing and Hong Kong have continued to intensify.

In other words, unless Beijing ditches its Cold War mindset and starts to practice true democracy across the mainland, the prospect of our democratization is anything but promising, because if there is no true democracy in mainland China, it is unlikely that we will have our own.

It might be too early to tell whether President Xi Jinping’s rise to power spells the dawn of China’s political reforms, and whether his nationwide crackdown on corruption will earn him a place in history, but one thing is for certain: the future of “two systems” is inseparable from that of “one country”.

The degree to which Xi is willing to push for democracy in the mainland will have a decisive impact upon the future of our democratization process.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Dec. 19.

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

– Contact us at [email protected]


Associate Professor of Law at the University of Hong Kong

EJI Weekly Newsletter

Please click here to unsubscribe