Hong Kong: Whither ‘one country, two systems’?

June 15, 2017 06:00
President Xi Jinping is expected to visit Hong Kong to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the handover and to swear in the new chief executive. Photo: Reuters

Twenty years ago, on July 1, 1997, Britain turned Hong Kong over to China under the Sino-British Joint Declaration which provided that the territory would be largely autonomous under the “one country, two systems” formula devised by then paramount leader Deng Xiaoping.

By and large, for the last two decades, rule of law has been upheld in the former British colony and rights and freedoms protected.

And yet, as the 20th anniversary nears, there is a general feeling of unease that the situation is deteriorating and may get worse.

This is because, for the last few years, there has been a perceptible shift in China’s attitude. Instead of emphasizing “two systems”, the focus now is on “one country”. Since 2014, Beijing has asserted repeatedly its “comprehensive jurisdiction” over Hong Kong.

The problem as seen from Hong Kong is Beijing’s unwillingness to allow democracy in the election of the chief executive, despite previous promises. However, from China’s viewpoint, it has abided by the letter of the law in setting out rules under which universal suffrage elections can be conducted.

There is now a deadlock and no sign of a possible breakthrough.

Last week, the US State Department released a review it had conducted on Hong Kong.

The review highly appraised “Hong Kong’s highly developed rule of law, independent judiciary and respect for individual rights” and said these were made possible by the high degree of autonomy.

It also gave credit to the central government which, it said, “publicly and frequently reiterated its commitment to the ‘one country, two systems’ framework over the past year, and it has continued to adopt positive measures to support Hong Kong’s economic growth”.

But then the review cited other actions by Beijing that “appear to be inconsistent with its stated commitments to Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy”, including an interpretation of the Basic Law by the National People’s Congress Standing Committee on the taking of oaths of office, at a time when a Hong Kong court was about to issue its judgment on an actual case. This created the impression that the Hong Kong court was being told how to rule by Beijing.

The review also mentioned some highly publicized incidents in recent years, such as the disappearance of five booksellers and their reappearance in the mainland under control of the security authorities. One particular case, Lee Bo, involved a British national who was evidently abducted in Hong Kong and taken to the mainland illegally.

However, while regretting “certain actions” by Beijing that “appear inconsistent with China’s commitment in the Basic Law to allow Hong Kong to exercise a high degree of autonomy”, the review concluded that Hong Kong retained more than sufficient autonomy for it to be treated as a special entity under US law for bilateral agreements and programs.

The following day, June 8, the Chinese Foreign Ministry, in a response, insisted that the “one country, two systems” policy has been effectively implemented and that the Chinese government would continue to carry it forward.

The spokesperson, Hua Chunying, cautioned the US “to speak and act cautiously on Hong Kong-related issues” and not to make “irresponsible remarks”.

The best way China can get Hong Kong people and the international community to “set their hearts at ease”, in the words of Deng Xiaoping, is for Beijing to reiterate its plans for “one country, two systems” in the future now that 20 years have passed, and to add one element: That the democratic election of the chief executive will develop step by step in accordance with the principle of gradual and orderly progress.

Such an announcement, made by President Xi Jinping when he visits Hong Kong to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the handover and to swear in the new chief executive, Carrie Lam, will have a dramatic effect both in Hong Kong and within the international community.

The Chinese leader has been moving higher and higher up the world stage since he assumed office in 2012. His pace has quickened in recent months with pronouncements on globalization and climate change.

Hong Kong now offers him another chance to make his political presence and his creative policies felt in the world. After all, Deng Xiaoping had famously said that “one country, two systems” could be used to solve not only the Hong Kong problem but other international issues as well.

Xi Jinping can now show the world at least how “one country, two systems”, which had provided for a smooth transition 20 years ago, can continue to solve knotty political problems in Hong Kong.

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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.