22 September 2019
A protester waves the British colonial flag in the piazza in front of the Central Government Complex in Hong Kong's Admiralty area. The Chinese national flag and the Hong Kong SAR flag are seen in the background.
A protester waves the British colonial flag in the piazza in front of the Central Government Complex in Hong Kong's Admiralty area. The Chinese national flag and the Hong Kong SAR flag are seen in the background.

One Country, Two Systems: Lessons from history

The question of 2047 was first broached by the young participants of the Occupy movement back in 2014. Now, after less than two years, the issue has come to dominate public discourse in the city.

The business sector and the pro-establishment camp tend to bury their heads in the sand, believing that “one country, two systems” will still be alive after 2047.

These people need to go back to history class.

Virtually all Chinese dynasties, over the past two millenniums, have followed three steps to expand into new, frontier areas: saber-rattling, aggressive wars and granting local autonomy after an area is annexed, followed by a flood of Han migrants from the Central Plain (中原), the dynasties’ heartland.

Some historians have likened it to the free-range husbandry: cattle are allowed some freedom of movement but they are always kept in check and would never be able to escape.

These “autonomous regions” in ancient China were ruled by patriarchs or members of the upper class loyal to the central authorities, after they were conquered and subsequently bestowed certain noble ranks by the emperor.

The traditional tribal system may be preserved, and thus the governance structure there differed from that of the mainstream.

“One country, two systems” actually has been in existence since the ancient times.

Still, the central government also set up, on top of the façade of “self-governance”, designated agencies in charge of its frontier conquests and ethnic affairs, like the Lifan Yuan (理藩院, or Office of Barbarian Control) during the Qing dynasty that administrated Mongolia, Tibet and Xinjiang.

Today, the modern versions of Lifan Yuan can be the Chinese State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office and Taiwan Affairs Office.

Such autonomy was indeed tentative in nature as the new territory would be put under direct control once the time and conditions were ripe, like in the late Ming dynasty when the central government replaced patriarchs with directly appointed officials and rotated them to assume posts in different regions.

Such process always involved fierce rift between pro and anti-integration forces.

One of the major generals of the royal army made himself an emperor at the end of the Qin dynasty 200 BC. His kingdom, known as Nanyue (南越), spanned parts of the modern Hong Kong, Guangdong, Guangxi, Yunnan and even northern Vietnam, until it was subjugated by Emperor Wu’s (漢武帝) army 93 years later when the Han dynasty was at its zenith.

We can draw the following truths from history:

Frontier regions, even ruled by the Han Chinese, all tend to split from the central authorities, similar to those former British colonies like the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand where British settlers and their descendants spearheaded independent movements.

Independence for these colonies and conquests can be seen as quirks of history.

The conflicts and compromise between regional autonomy and centralization of power, or “one country, two systems” versus “one country, one system”, have been there since ancient times. The frontier regions are always tamed and put under direct control sooner or later.

Putting in the context of Hong Kong, the head-on impact on the territory’s institutions didn’t come in 1997, but it may instead occur in 2047.

Those that subscribe to the illusion that “one country, two systems” will exist unscathed beyond 2047 are living in a pipe dream. Unless we can fight in unison, the 2047 eventuality will only turn out to be the end of Hong Kong as we know it today.

Referendum timing

Some say a 2047 referendum is without any legal basis in Hong Kong, and more think it is just wishful thinking, as Beijing would never recognize or approve such a move. There is another big uncertainty, as some fear: what if Hongkongers overwhelmingly vote to abandon our SAR status and integrate into the mainland?

But a referendum is a call to all Hong Kong people to think about the shape of things to come, as the question is more imminent than you think, particularly to the young generation.

The proposal may also be the common ground to garner support from the middle-of-the-road residents and set people thinking about what is the best option for Hong Kong and how to obtain support from the authorities.

And, Beijing can’t stand on a moral high ground to smother such calls as referendums, in a free society, are a usual means to gauge public opinions.

Timing of such a referendum is a big controversy as well.

Calling a referendum sooner than later, like in five years, has its merit as Beijing and its lackeys will have less time to intercept separatist movements.

But leaving the general vote to the more distant future, for instance, to the next decade, can draw more momentum for the democratic camp as the younger and future generations, as we have already seen today, will only be more tilted towards independence.

I’m confident that the result of such a referendum will be anything but reunification with China.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Apr. 18.

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