22 February 2019
China insists on mechanisms that allow it to vet candidates by defining the Election Committee that currently elects the Chief Executive. Photo: HKEJ
China insists on mechanisms that allow it to vet candidates by defining the Election Committee that currently elects the Chief Executive. Photo: HKEJ

20 years after HK handover, China should act to end impasse

Twenty years ago, Hong Kong was handed over to China by Britain, its colonial master for 156 years. The decision was made by China’s diminutive but doughty leader Deng Xiaoping and the reputedly unbending “Iron Lady” Margaret Thatcher had little choice but to acquiesce.

The thinking was that, with the whole world watching, China would live up to its treaty commitments and, under the “one country, two systems” policy, allow Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy.

At the time, Hong Kong had a lot going for it. It had a highly successful economy, considered one of the “four tigers” of Asia, along with Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan. China, by comparison, was still poor with the majority of its people living in the countryside.

China was – and is – the world’s most populous country, with a 1996 population of 1.2 billion people and a GDP of US$856.1 billion. Hong Kong, which accounts for perhaps 1 percent of China’s overall territory, had a GDP of US$160 billion, or roughly 20 percent of China’s national GDP. Hong Kong’s per capita GDP was US$24,818, far exceeding China’s US$703.

Hong Kong was the goose that laid golden eggs. No Chinese leader in his right mind would do anything to harm the territory’s interests, it was believed. Besides, there was the question of face. Hong Kong was a superlative success under the British. If it started to go downhill after sovereignty changed hands, it would look pretty bad for China.

Twenty years later, where are we? Well, in terms of figures, Hong Kong has moved ahead to a GDP of US$316 billion, or $36,117 per capita, making it very much a developed economy. China is now the world’s second largest economy, with a GDP of US$11.39 trillion and per capita GDP of $6,416.

On an overall basis, the Hong Kong economy is now a mere 2 percent of the Chinese economy. And on a per capita basis a mainland Chinese has moved up from 1/35th to 1/6th that of Hong Kong. That is a very dramatic change.

In other words, China has many more geese laying golden eggs and is much less reliant on Hong Kong than it was 20 years ago. In fact, the shoe is now on the other foot and Hong Kong is increasingly dependent on the mainland to grow its economy. That is why Hong Kong has asked to be made part of China’s five-year economic plan.

Twenty years ago, on the eve of the handover, people in Hong Kong were most fearful of losing the rights and freedoms that they enjoyed under the British. To be sure, even then those rights were not absolute, and the government had powers to rein in such freedoms as the right to assembly and to a free press.

Today, those rights and freedoms are largely intact, although recent reports of Chinese agents exercising law enforcement functions in Hong Kong are deeply worrying, as was the horrifying 2014 knife attack on Kevin Lau, former chief editor of Ming Pao.

But the most sensitive issue is democracy. Under Britain, there was little democracy to speak of. Only after London agreed to return Hong Kong to China did the British introduce limited forms of democracy, such as functional constituency elections, indirect elections, and finally a few directly elected seats before the 1997 handover.

But China stated in Hong Kong’s mini constitution, the Basic Law, that the ultimate aim was to have the chief executive and the entire legislature chosen through universal suffrage. Hence there has been much pressure in Hong Kong to implement such promises, pressure that has been strongly resisted by the Chinese government.

China made an offer in 2014 on universal suffrage elections for Chief Executive, an offer that was rejected by the Hong Kong legislature in 2015.

China insisted on mechanisms that allow it to vet candidates by defining the Election Committee that currently elects the Chief Executive as the Basic Law’s “broadly representative nominating committee” whose job it is to nominate candidates in universal suffrage elections for Chief Executive. Not surprisingly, this was rejected by pro-democratic legislators.

The ball is in Beijing’s court. During this anniversary year, it should take action to end the impasse by agreeing that the nominating committee should be much more broadly based than the current 1,200-member Election Committee. Such a move would be consistent with the Basic Law; it would show China’s goodwill, improve the political environment and, hopefully, allow Hong Kong to move ahead not only in the debate on democracy but in other areas as well.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.

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