25 October 2016
Finland's Åland Islands have put into practice the principle of 'one country, two systems' for almost a century -- with enormous success. Photo: internet
Finland's Åland Islands have put into practice the principle of 'one country, two systems' for almost a century -- with enormous success. Photo: internet

‘One country, two systems’ works in Europe, why not Hong Kong?

For decades, people have credited the late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping with inventing the ingenious idea of “one country, two systems”.

That is not entirely accurate, however, as “one country, two systems” is not something that is unique to Hong Kong.

Halfway across the world in Northern Europe, there is a remote place that has put the idea into practice for nearly a century — with enormous success.

What I am referring to here is Finland’s Åland Islands.

Lying between Finland and Sweden, the Åland Islands have a population of just 30,000, who are predominantly Swedish-speaking.

When Finland broke away from Russia and gained its independence in 1917, the majority of Åland Islanders mounted a popular campaign pushing for secession from Finland and integration with Sweden.

The separatist movement in the Åland Islands immediately provoked an uproar in mainland Finland, which vowed to maintain its sovereignty over the renegade province at all costs.

Their dispute was soon brought to the League of Nations for arbitration, and after months of negotiation and mediation, the league finally decided that Finland could retain its sovereignty over the Åland Islands, on condition that it offer the islands full autonomy.

At first, the people of the Åland Islands were not happy with the arrangement and continued to press ahead with their secession movement.

However, once their autonomous government was up and running, there was a dramatic shift in public opinion among the Åland Islanders, whose feelings of a shared destiny with Finland began to grow steadily.

The once popular secessionist ideas started to lose momentum and eventually faded from the political scene.

Today the Åland Islands remain a fully autonomous region within Finland with its own government, its own freely elected legislature and its own official language (Swedish).

Most of the people are happy with their government and their way of life.

So, the “one country, two systems” principle has proven to be highly successful and is running very smoothly in Europe, unlike in Hong Kong, where people are getting increasingly skeptical about our own “one country, two systems” model.

So what are the reasons behind the success of the Åland Islands model?

First, I think the main key is that the Finnish government has delivered on its promise and allowed the autonomous province to practice full democracy.

For example, members of the Åland Islands legislature are all elected through universal suffrage, and under their own constitution the majority party can form the government.

Second, the autonomy of the Åland Islands is faithfully respected by the central government in Helsinki, which for decades has been very careful not to interfere in the internal affairs of the autonomous region.

Third, there has been a long-established and time-tested mechanism for the Åland Islands administration and the Finnish government to settle their disputes over jurisdictional or constitutional issues, under which either side can bring the case to the Finnish Supreme Court for arbitration.

Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, Helsinki has exercised remarkable restraint when it comes to handling its relations with the Åland Islands.

Even though the autonomous region only accounts for about 0.006 percent of the total population of Finland, the central government in Helsinki still treats the Åland Islands on an equal footing.

Besides, under Finnish law, major political parties in Finland are prohibited from having any direct relations with parties in the Åland Islands, in order to maintain the political independence of the Åland Islands legislature.

Unfortunately, all the above factors that have contributed to the success of the Åland Islands model are missing in Hong Kong.

With Beijing aggressively getting its claws into every aspect of our society and the people of Hong Kong continuing to be denied universal suffrage, no wonder our version of “one country, two systems” has run into so many problems over the years and people’s confidence in it is continuing to wane.

Unless Beijing is willing to show the same level of restraint and respect in dealing with Hong Kong like Helsinki does with the Åland Islands, the Chinese version of “one country, two systems” is almost doomed to failure, giving rise to nativism in Hong Kong that might eventually lead to separatist movements in our city.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Jan. 12.

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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