23 October 2016
Hong Kong people's next battle should be preserving the "One Country, Two Systems" safeguards, say some political activists. Photo: HKEJ
Hong Kong people's next battle should be preserving the "One Country, Two Systems" safeguards, say some political activists. Photo: HKEJ

After the electoral reform veto, what should we focus on?

July 1 will mark the 18th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese rule.

Over the years, locals have been assured many times that one of the main principles of the Basic Law of Hong Kong is the “One Country, Two Systems”, which will ensure that the socialist system and policies adopted in mainland China will not be practiced in the city, and that Hong Kong’s capitalist system and life-style will remain unchanged, for 50 years.

Initially, it seemed that there was little to worry about, given that the comfort period stretched quite far into the horizon.

But the view has begun to change in the recent past.

As arguments about the constitutional reform package became contentious and Beijing took a tough stance, Hong Kong people suddenly started realizing that 2047 is not too far away and that the city may face a grim new reality going forward.

Now, with Thursday’s veto of the electoral bill by the city’s lawmakers, locals realize that Beijing will only grow more distrustful of the special administrative region and try to tighten its grip further.

And questions are being raised as to what would be the right strategy for Hongkongers to pursue now and what should be their focus.  

Some political activists have already called on locals to put aside the electoral reform issue, and start discussing other matters related to the city’s future.

Will the “One Country, Two Systems” principle stay in force after 2047? This is a key question that we should be concerned about, they say.

Earlier this week, student activist Joshua Wong Chi-fung told online news site Stand News: “The biggest problem in Hong Kong at the moment isn’t about whether the electoral reform can be passed or whether we can have universal suffrage.”

“Even if we successfully fight for civil nomination for the election of chief executive in the future, it won’t be a surprise if we lose such right if the Basic Law is no longer valid after 2047,” he said.

Wan Chin, author of Hong Kong City-State Autonomy, has brought up a problem that is even more complicated and important to Hong Kong people—the end of land lease in 2047.

All land in Hong Kong has been sold on a leasehold basis, except the site for the St John’s Cathedral at Garden Road in Central, which was granted freehold.

In other words, you can buy a flat in Hong Kong but it does not imply that you can own it forever.

In accordance with Annex III to the Sino-British Joint Declaration, between May 27, 1985 and June 30, 1997, new leases of land were granted by the Hong Kong government for a term expiring not later than June 30, 2047.

“If the Basic Law expires in 2047, the land lease agreement will also lose its effect… at that time, the land in Hong Kong will become the possession of Ministry of Land and Resources of the People’s Republic of China,” Chin said in a media interview.

“Land may be leased to HongKongers by mainland China, but the tax rate of the lease could be sky high, which could cause a huge problem,” he said.

Most locals avoid discussing the matter, “but tycoons are well aware of the issue”, Chin said.

Amy Liu Mei-heung, former deputy editor of the Hong Kong Economic Journal Monthly, wrote an in-depth article on this topic back in 2013.

Liu noted that many property tycoons had publicly said that there is no need to worry about the expiration of the land lease.

One of the industry leaders who hold such view is Shih Wing-ching, the founder of Centaline Property Agency.

“All property owners will have to pay the land premium together. There is nothing to worry about,” he says.

However, Liu points that there are many uncertainties lying ahead in the land lease issue.

For example, if mainland China is willing to renew the lease, can the issue be settled by simply paying the land premium, and if it can, how much will it cost.

Uncertainties such as these have added to the risks in the local housing market.

For those who plan to have a decent retirement by investing in the property market, things may not turn out as they wish, Liu warns.

It is widely believed that the Beijing government will start discussing the issue with Hong Kong much earlier before reaching the 2047 deadline.

Andrew Li Kwok-nang, a former chief justice of Hong Kong, says the “One Country, Two Systems” principle needs to be settled around 2030.

Before the electoral reform debate and mainland-Hong Kong conflict, most Hong Kong people believed that “One Country, Two Systems” will remain the guiding principle even after 2047, given the strategic importance of Hong Kong to the central government.

But now after the veto of the political reform bill, many locals doubt if Beijing will be in an accommodative mood.

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EJ Insight writer

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