25 October 2016
The majority of Saipan people are pretty satisfied with their current political status and therefore are not in favor of gaining full independence. Photo: Saipan Explorer
The majority of Saipan people are pretty satisfied with their current political status and therefore are not in favor of gaining full independence. Photo: Saipan Explorer

One country, two systems in Saipan

Lying in the south-western Pacific, the island of Saipan is well-known not only for its breathtaking landscapes but also for its special relationship with the “continental” United States.

To some extent, Saipan has also been practicing the “one country, two systems” just like we do. The difference is that things appear to be going on a lot more smoothly than they are here in Hong Kong.

Politically speaking, Saipan belongs to the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI), which is made up of 15 islands, with Saipan being the capital.

Demographically, however, Saipan has a lot more in common with the neighboring island of Guam than with the other 14 member islands of the CNMI, as both Saipan and Guam are mainly inhabited by the Chamorro people.

Both colonized by the Spaniards since the 16th century, Saipan and Guam had remained a single ethnic and cultural entity until Spain lost the Spanish-American War in 1898, after which Guam was ceded to the US, while Saipan and some other neighboring islands were sold to Germany.

Since then the two islands which shared the same ethnic and cultural origins began to part politically.

Saipan’s fate took another unexpected turn 20 years later when the island was entrusted to Japan by the League of Nations in 1918 after Germany’s defeat in the First World War, and since then Saipan had become part of the Japanese Empire until the end of the Second World War.

In 1947, Saipan was designated by the United Nations as part of the newly established Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands (TTPI), which is administered by the US.

Since 1978 member islands of the TTPI, including Saipan, were granted self-governance by Washington one after the other.

The TTPI finally came to an official end in 1986 when three of its members, the Federated States of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands and Palau, concluded an agreement with Washington known as the “Compact of Free Association” (COFA) and gained full independence, while Saipan and 14 other islands formed the CNMI and were given full autonomy in all matters aside from foreign policy and military defense.

However, Guam, due to its strategic importance and heavy US military presence, has remained an unincorporated territory of the US, over which Washington retains full administrative power.

As a member of the CNMI, Saipan has its own constitution, its own legislature and its own independent judiciary, and the people of Saipan can also elect their own governor, despite the fact that Saipanese people are all US citizens by law and the island is subject to most US federal laws.

Saipan used to have full control of its immigration and labor policies.

Local and foreign investors took advantage of this to import cheap labor from China and Southeast Asia .

As a result, the US Congress passed a law under which immigration policy would no longer be within the jurisdiction of the Saipanese authorities.

In recent years Saipan has seen a rapid expansion of its gaming industry, which has become a major source of income of the local government, thanks to its visa-free policy for Chinese tourists, who are visiting Saipan by the hundreds and thousands.

The majority of Saipan people are pretty satisfied with their current political status and therefore are not in favor of gaining full independence like the nearby Marshall Islands and Palau.

As a member of the US commonwealth, Saipan receives a substantial amount of financial and economic aid from Washington every year, not to mention the fact that the Saipanese are entitled to the same social welfare benefits as all other US citizens and visa-free entry to the US.

Still, there are some variables as far as Saipan’s future is concerned, both political and economical, but as long as the Saipan people can continue to enjoy full autonomy as promised under COFA with no political interference from Washington, and can follow their existing way of life, it is most likely that they will be eager to stay the way they are in the foreseeable future.

Doesn’t the successful experience that Saipan has with the “one country, two systems” provides us with some insight into how to curb the rise of separatism in our city?’

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Aug. 29

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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