21 October 2016
Deng Xiaoping (inset) remarked on more than one occasion that there was no reason why 'one country, two systems' should not prevail beyond 2047. 
Photos: CNSA, Xinhua
Deng Xiaoping (inset) remarked on more than one occasion that there was no reason why 'one country, two systems' should not prevail beyond 2047. Photos: CNSA, Xinhua

The key to Hong Kong’s survival after 2047

Some people say it’s too late to be talking about 2047; others believe it is too early.

But the fact is that we have recently seen an upsurge in discussion about what happens when the Sino-British treaty on Hong Kong expires and the “one country, two systems” formula may well come to an end.

It is therefore timely to be reminded that, at the time of its conception, Deng Xiaoping, the godfather of the formula, remarked on more than one occasion that there was no reason why this system should not prevail beyond 2047.

He seemed to be suggesting a more or less permanent state of autonomy for the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.

China’s track record with “autonomous” regions is hardly reassuring, as anyone familiar with Tibet, or indeed Xinjiang, is well aware.

Yet the SARs of Hong Kong and, to a lesser extent, Macau are different, and, most importantly they have characteristics that have overwhelming popular support within these regions.

Anyone who believes in the concept of democracy needs to take this as a starting point.

Even the most avid pro-Beijing sycophants dare not openly suggest that Hong Kong would be best served by complete integration into the mainland system.

On the contrary, they mouth the words “one country, two systems” as though they mean it.

This is why it is hard to understand the mood of defeatism to be found even among those who genuinely believe in preserving Hong Kong’s autonomy but have taken to saying that the game is over and the future of the SAR has already been decided — meaning that this place can hope for nothing better than to be just another Chinese city.

What history teaches us, with astonishing consistency, is that freedom and autonomy is never achieved without a struggle and, indeed, without a cost.

That price is being paid right now as protesters are arrested, publishers of banned books are whisked across the border and media freedom and rule of law can no longer be taken for granted.

It would be naïve to expect anything other than a rising price, and, to be equally realistic, the cost of the struggle will not be evenly shared. The burden is always borne by a relatively small minority of people.

Fortunately, Hong Kong is home to a particularly determined population that has yet to be cowed by what it takes to resist the erosion of the freedoms and way of life that make this place distinctive.

And the determination of the people is not without some victories, notably the scrapping of oppressive anti-subversion legislation.

Instead of learning from these victories, there is morbid talk about the “defeat” of the Occupy movement.

What on earth does that mean?

Did anyone seriously expect that, as soon as the streets filled with people, universal suffrage would be achieved?

Every mobilization of this kind is part of a process.

In the case of Occupy, it played a notable role in mobilizing and energizing Hong Kong’s younger generation, who, we were confidently told, were too busy looking at their iPhones to have time for anything else.

This smug assertion can no longer be made, because it is now hard to dispute the very high level of commitment to Hong Kong by the generation who will be heading for middle age by 2047.

Aside from the defeatists, we have those who argue that 2047 is a very long way away and that it is far too early to be making plans now.

You can be pretty sure that this point of view is not shared in the dusty corridors of the bureaucracy in Beijing, where planning is precisely what they do.

Admittedly, most of their plans are riddled with problems, but they cannot be dismissed merely on the grounds that they will not work.

On the contrary, flawed plans are the most dangerous of them all, especially when they are placed in the hands of a one-party state.

Britain made the stupid mistake of thinking that just because the government of the People’s Republic of China had given no indication about its plans for Hong Kong after 1997, it was either not thinking about it or had failed to do any planning.

As it turned out, planning for Hong Kong’s future had been underway for many years, and when Britain first raised the subject, China had already decided what to do.

Why, then, should anyone believe that Beijing has somehow been tardier in coming up with a plan for post-2047?

That is not the same as saying that these plans are not capable of being changed, or even the same as saying that the current regime will still be in place for another three decades.

If plans are being laid in Beijing, people in Hong Kong have the choice of passively awaiting their implementation or of helping to mold the future.

The idea that the future lies with separatism is very much an illusion.

However, even within the context of one-party rule in China, the concept of autonomy is certainly viable.

Defending the level of autonomy Hong Kong already enjoys is vital, and it is not fantastic to envisage even greater autonomy.

Lamentably, the precedents for genuine autonomy under communist rule are non-existent, but then again, no other one-party state has ever conceded the level of autonomy that prevails in Hong Kong.

The unique history of this place explains why this is so, and it also points to why autonomy remains an option within a state that places pragmatism above ideology and has as its central concern preserving the power of the Communist Party.

To survive as a truly autonomous region beyond 2047, Hong Kong cannot challenge the rule of the Communist Party, but it can continue to be useful to the rest of the country — precisely because it is different.

But there’s something else, which is that even one-party states understand the limits of their power and, like all bullies will continue to bully as long as they can get away with it.

A resolute and united Hong Kong can prove that the erosion of autonomy will be far more troublesome than allowing this tiny speck of territory to get on with its own way of life.

Here lies the key to survival after 2047.

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Hong Kong-based journalist, broadcaster and book author

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