21 February 2020

Say goodbye to one country, two systems

Three decades ago, as China negotiated with Britain over the future of Hong Kong, paramount leader Deng Xiaoping proposed that Hong Kong’s capitalist system and way of life remained unchanged for 50 years after the handover. The mainland’s socialist system and principles would stop at the border.

On the surface it may seem that the idea is being honored but in reality changes are everywhere. The most recent visible sign was outside kindergartens in North District, where parents had to queue to be in the running for a place for their children next year.

Hundreds of parents lined up, many of them for several days, just to get an application form that was no guarantee of a seat in the class. The first in the queue was a grandmother of two children, who spent five nights outdoors to show her commitment to the kindergarten’s management.

Most of the parents were from the mainland. They do not speak Cantonese but their children were born in Hong Kong in 2012, the last year that mainland couples were allowed to give birth in the special administrative region.

Last year was also the Year of Dragon, the most auspicious time in the Chinese calendar to have a child. The birth rate in the Year of Dragon is always the highest in the 12-year cycle and with many Hong Kong parents also giving birth that year, pressure was on kindergarten places. Local anger over the shortages was soon directed at the city’s government.

The influx of of children born to mainland parents followed the case of Chong Fung-yuen. Chong was born in Hong Kong in September, 1997, to mainland parents. Chong was not entitled to Hong Kong permanent residency so his grandfather applied for a judicial review. The Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal ruled that Article 24 of the Basic Law entitled all Chinese citizens born in Hong Kong to permanent residency in the city, irrespective of their parents’ residency status.

With that decision, the number of babies born in Hong Kong to mainland parents surged from 620 in 2001 to around 35,000 in 2011 and 25,000 in 2012. Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying has since introduced a “zero tolerance” policy that means that from this year no mainland couple is allowed to give birth in Hong Kong.

The pressure this has meant for places in the kindergarten system is just one way that Hongkongers see the mainland fiddling with Deng’s promise of 50 years of non-intervention and affecting the local way of life. Others include the cross-border drain on infant formula, the over-proliferation of jewelry and cosmetic shops in shopping areas and speculation on Hong Kong property.

These conflicts between the mainland and Hong Kong reflect the failure of the one country, two systems formula. Hong Kong people want to retain their way of life and prosperity, while China wants Hong Kong to become a “real Chinese city” and under the strict communist party control.

Beijing does have the power to iron out these problems if it really wants to. It could impose penalties on mainland couples giving birth in Hong Kong and do something about the number of mainland tourists coming into the city.

But China wants to dilute the role of one county, two systems. With more ties between Hong Kong people and mainland residents, and with more mainland residents becoming Hongkongers, Beijing hopes Hong Kong will be more of a real Chinese city.

One country, two systems was the central idea of the handover but it’s distant from the core. It won’t be too long before we say goodbye to it.

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Vivian Chung is a financial journalist with more than 10 years’ experience. She writes mostly on financial issues relating to Hong Kong and China