22 September 2019
Will 2047, just 31 years away, be the end of Hong Kong as we know it? Photo: Bloomberg
Will 2047, just 31 years away, be the end of Hong Kong as we know it? Photo: Bloomberg

A 2047 scenario for Hong Kong and China

“Ten Years”, a low-budget movie depicting, through five separate stories, what Hong Kong may be like in 2025 has become a smash hit, despite the fact that it’s only shown in a few cinemas.

The movie is set to reach a wider audience when roving screenings are to be held at all local universities later this month.

Works of this genre, like Jules Verne’s adventure novels or George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, drive people into thinking not just about the current state of being but also the shape of things to come. “Ten Years” serves as a vision of Hong Kong’s 2047 eventuality.

Fanciful reveries about Beijing’s pledge that there will be no change to the status quo for 50 years prevailed in the territory around the handover, and some thought the Basic Law and all the freedoms it guarantees would continue beyond 2047.

But Beijing’s words and deeds throughout the history of the special administrative region have proved the opposite. Fundamental revision and flouting of the Basic Law may be inevitable.

Beijing has presented a few models that could take the place of the territory’s mini constitution: the judicial systems in Macau, Shenzhen’s Qianhai pilot zone and Shanghai’s free trade zone can all be replicated in the post-2047 Hong Kong.

All of the liberal clauses will be divested of any concrete meaning and replaced by windy generalizations like “broadly representative”, “democratic procedures”, etc. in articles about selecting the chief executive, which have become tools to twist the legislative intent of the law to serve Beijing’s own imperatives.

Beijing may even insert a clause to the Basic Law version 2.0 after 2047: the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region is under the leadership of the Communist Party of China.

But why bother preserving Hong Kong’s SAR status anyway? Why not just make Hong Kong a part of Guangdong province or a directly-controlled municipality when “one country, two systems” expires?

The reason is twofold. An SAR, in name only, can still serve as a facade. More than 60 years after their “liberation”, Xinjiang, Tibet, Inner Mongolia and a few other places where ethnic minority races inhabit are still called “autonomous regions”.

Beijing may also retain a small portion of Hong Kong’s special status if the territory is still useful, especially when the nation retrogresses to closed-door economic policies for the sake of political stability.

Beijing may need Hong Kong as a valve to access the international market and channel ill-gotten money and assets of cadres and princelings overseas.

Specifically, the drafting of Basic Law 2.0 – none of London’s business for sure – will be done with the cosmetic participation of a “broadly representative” group of Hong Kong elites, Beijing puppets in truth, through “democratic procedures”.

When will the drafting start? The Sino-British talks and initial consultation began in 1982, 15 years before 1997, then the rewrite of the Basic Law may take place as early as 2032, or no later than five to 10 years before 2047.

Then we know the decade from 2037 to 2047 will be a life-or-death struggle, although the skirmishes have already started.

The SAR government, having fired tear gas at protesters during the 2014 Occupy protests, won’t hesitate to escalate the force in future crackdowns and real bullets can be fired next time.

The reaction of protesters will also be much fiercer than what we saw in previous rallies.

Hong Kong may be constantly pushed to the verge of a catastrophe by the mounting strain between the savagery of the government and the stiff resistance from the people, and in such a scenario the only factor that may prevent any ruthless bloodletting or indiscretions can be the typical rationality of the business sector, even though by then the market will have already been dominated by Chinese firms.

In short term, Beijing won’t give in when it comes to handling Hong Kong affairs and a sign can be a second term for Leung Chun-ying.

But even if that happens, it’s not necessarily a bad thing.

All Leung’s predecessors favored a gradual, less radical way forward and Hongkongers, the pan-democratic bloc in particular, lost their ground without even putting up a fight.

Had it not been for the bellicose Leung, nativism and social movements could have never been able to take root and thrive among the masses.

No one can image how nativism will flourish further should Leung be given another five-year term.

The possibility cannot be ruled out when someone loses his life and becomes the first martyr in the face of the government’s ferocious quelling of future protests, and by then, Hong Kong’s first independence manifesto will be proclaimed.

That will also mark the beginning of the rule of terror in Hong Kong, something reminiscent of what Taiwan went through during Chiang Kai-shek’s most repressive rule throughout the 1960s and ’70s.

Then, if China fails to orchestrate a turnaround for its ailing economy, Beijing will have to whip up nationalism to sustain its rule and the United States, Japan or one of their allies may seek to provoke belligerence.

When the Communist Party falls into the abyss, there will emerge a Chinese Mikhail Gorbachev or Li Teng-hui who can put an end to autocracy.

The ball is indeed in Beijing’s court to prevent all of these from happening. The only question is whether the top leader has vision or guts to change course.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Feb. 1.

Translation by Frank Chen

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Former full-time member of the Hong Kong Government’s Central Policy Unit, former editor-in-chief of the Hong Kong Economic Journal