An open letter to President Xi Jinping

December 30, 2019 13:29
If President Xi clarifies that China has no intention of limiting ‘one country, two systems’ in Hong Kong to 50 years, it will do a great deal to allay concerns in HK and overseas about the city’s future, the author says. Photo: Reuters

Dear Mr. Xi,

As a new decade dawns, it may be fitting to reflect upon the events of 2019 in Hong Kong and how to ensure, as you have said, that "one country, two systems" will be "fully applied ... without being bent or distorted.”

At the beginning of 2019, you gave a speech about reunification. This indicated that China’s policy of peaceful reunification was unchanged since it was announced by the National People's Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC) in its message to Taiwan compatriots on Jan. 1, 1979, followed by elaborations by Ye Jiangying, chairman of the NPCSC, on Sept. 30, 1981.

Your speech stressed peaceful reunification and said it should be carried out in accordance with the “one country, two systems” formula. However, instead of being reassuring, as I am sure you intended it to be, the words “one country, two systems” only raised alarm in Taiwan because of a widespread view that the policy has not worked well in Hong Kong, especially in recent years.

Chairman Ye's nine points regarding reunification included the important promise that, after reunification, “Taiwan can enjoy a high degree of autonomy as a special administrative region, and it can retain its armed forces. The central government will not interfere with local affairs in Taiwan.”

Another important point was the promise that “Taiwan’s current socio-economic system will remain unchanged, so will its way of life and its economic and cultural relations with foreign countries.”

Similar promises were made to Hong Kong but, of course, the region doesn’t have its own military service. Hong Kong people took very seriously the pledge that Hong Kong would enjoy a high degree of autonomy except for defense and foreign affairs.

Last June, protests broke out in Hong Kong. The perception in Taiwan is that Hong Kong people are resisting the tightening of mainland controls over Hong Kong, despite promises of democracy and autonomy. This in turn has had a decided impact on the coming elections in Taiwan.

Actually, there is one simple thing that you can do that will ameliorate the situation in Hong Kong and in Taiwan.

There is a widespread belief in Hong Kong that its life as a special administrative region is limited to 50 years. Since almost half that time has elapsed, there is much concern as to whether Hong Kong will live under a socialist system from 2047 on. There is considerable confusion on this issue within Hong Kong and among foreign investors.

Recently, Mr. Leung Chun-ying, the former chief executive of Hong Kong who is now a vice chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, gave a talk at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Hong Kong at which he said: “I do not expect and do not see the need to move away from the ‘one country, two systems’ principle after 2047, provided the democrats in Hong Kong and their Western supporters do not undermine it.”

If the Chinese government can confirm that there indeed is no deadline for "one country, two systems," much of the fear and concern in Hong Kong will dissipate. Indeed, it will go a long way towards restoring confidence in Hong Kong’s future, not just for its inhabitants but for foreign investors as well.

This may well ameliorate the other problem, the desire for democracy. As the Basic Law says, the ultimate aim is the selection of the Chief Executive and all the members of the Legislative Council by universal suffrage.

As you know, in August 2014, the NPCSC issued a decision on the manner in which Hong Kong’s chief executive could be elected by universal suffrage in 2017. This was opposed by Hong Kong’s democrats, who found the procedure not democratic enough. If they knew that this was not the final step but part of a gradual and orderly process toward universal suffrage, with further reform possible since 2047 is not a barrier, this obstacle conceivably could have been overcome.

Greater democracy will also result in improved governance. The current months-long protests are an example of what can happen when a government is isolated from the people. If the people play a bigger part in the selection of the government, such debacles are much less likely to occur.

So, if you simply clarify that China has no intention of limiting "one country, two systems" in Hong Kong to 50 years, it will do a great deal to allay concern in Hong Kong and overseas about the future, reduce internal political conflict and lead to better governance. And, of course, there will be a positive impact on Taiwan as well.


Frank Ching

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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.