Is China dropping hints about the future of Hong Kong?

January 23, 2020 08:00
Chief Executive Carrie Lam said as long as Hong Kong people adhere to the principle of "one country, two systems", there is reason to believe that the policy will continue unchanged after 2047. Photo: Bloomberg

In the 1970s, with Britain’s 99-year lease over most of Hong Kong due to expire in 1997, London worried about the colony’s future as investment was bound to dwindle over time unless an accord was reached with China. Eventually, Beijing agreed that Hong Kong’s legal, economic and social systems would remain unchanged for 50 years after its return to Chinese sovereignty under a policy known as “one country, two systems”.

Now, Hong Kong is near the mid-point of that 50-year period, and again there is growing anxiety about the city’s future, this time after 2047.

Article 5 of the Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution, stipulates: “The socialist system and policies shall not be practiced in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, and the previous capitalist system and way of life shall remain unchanged for 50 years.”

This is widely interpreted to mean that, after 1 July 2047, Hong Kong would be fully integrated into mainland China, with no separate legal system or its own bill of rights.

Last Thursday, at Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor’s first question-and-answer session this year with legislators, a pro-government lawmaker confronted her directly with the issue.

The legislator, Ann Chiang Lai-wan, said that during the past seven months of social turmoil, young people were fighting for democracy and freedom but their real concern was not the situation today but that after 2047.

“After 2047, would it become ‘one country, one system’?” she asked the chief executive. “How would you convince young people that it will still be 'one country, two systems' then?”

The chief executive, in her response, cited Article 12 of the Basic Law, which says, without mentioning any time limit, “The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region shall be a local administrative region of the People’s Republic of China, which shall enjoy a high degree of autonomy and come directly under the Central People’s Government.”

Lam said: “My view is this: As long as we adhere to the principle of ‘one country, two systems’, push it forward in practice and fully understand that the policy is in the interest of Hong Kong residents, then there is reason to believe that ‘one country, two systems’ will continue unchanged after 2047.”

She also called on young people to cherish the current system, which she said ensures Hong Kong’s stability and prosperity. Damaging the “one country, two systems” principle and the Basic Law, she cautioned, could “create the very situation that they are worried about”, that is, cause China to end its “one country, two systems” policy in 2047.

This is the first time that a Hong Kong leader has openly talked about the city’s post-2047 future.

Last November, Lam’s predecessor as chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, gave a talk at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Hong Kong during which he also touched on the issue. Leung is now a vice chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, Beijing’s highest-level advisory body and he, as a national leader, outranks the Hong Kong chief executive.

In his talk, “Achievements of China and a Vision of its Future”, Leung spoke of the “one country, two systems” principle used by Beijing to achieve unification with Hong Kong.

“I do not expect and do not see the need to move away from the ‘one country, two systems’ principle after 2047,” he said, “provided the democrats in Hong Kong and their Western supporters do not undermine it. We may take note of the fact that already Hong Kong has been allowed to grant land leases well beyond 2047.”

Interestingly, both Leung and Lam were reassuring about “one country, two systems” continuing after 2047, but both also warned that Beijing might change its mind because of the activities of protesters, democrats, or Western sympathizers.

The similarity suggests that it is Beijing that is behind the message, dropping reassuring hints about the future.

The message seems to be that there is no need for alarm over 2047. However, the warning is that if Hong Kong people don’t behave themselves, if they undermine the “one country, two systems” policy by, say, calling for independence or self-determination, then all bets are off.

Such a message is helpful, since it can alleviate anxiety to a certain extent. But it will be insufficient as the clock ticks closer to 2047.

Sometime within the next few years, China’s leaders will have to make a much clearer statement about the territory’s future. This time, the announcement should make it clear that Hong Kong’s status as a special administrative region under the “one country, two systems” principle is indefinite, rather than simply extended for another limited number of years.

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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.