So what would Deng have to say now?

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 July, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 July, 2007, 12:00am

The 10th anniversary of Deng Xiaoping's death went virtually unnoticed this year amid the general festivities marking the Lunar New Year. There were no official commemorations in Hong Kong or the mainland to mark the patriarch's departure on February 19, 1997. He died before he could realise his long-held wish of stepping on the soil of a Hong Kong returned to China.

Yet Deng's thoughts underpinned the principles and guidelines of the city in the post-handover era. He was dubbed the architect of the 'one country, two systems' policy, designed in the 1980s to last until 2047.

His 'black cat, white cat' ideas on pragmatism were well known - it doesn't matter what colour a cat is, as long as it catches mice. In that vein, he once gave a no-nonsense account of how he had come up with the 'one country, two systems' concept to resolve the issue of Hong Kong and, in the longer term, Taiwan.

Speaking to a local delegation of business leaders in 1984, Deng said the solution arose from a wish 'not to be driven by emotion, nor do we want to play tricks'. The idea, he said, was 'all based on practical needs and full consideration of the history and reality of Hong Kong'.

Back then, Hong Kong and the mainland were so close, yet so far apart. Separated by the Shenzhen River, they practised sharply different systems, namely capitalism in the former British colony and socialism in the Communist Party-led country. Fears about communist rule had been prompting tens of thousands of people, mostly from Guangdong and Shanghai, to flee since 1949.

Confronted with the realities of 'borrowed land, borrowed time', Hongkongers performed miracles. Once a fishing village in the backwaters of Guangdong, the city rose to wealth and fame in the global league of cities. Meanwhile, the mainland economy and society as a whole were on a bumpy ride towards modernisation, after decades of political turmoil and economic malaise.

But Deng was confident that, in the 50 years after 1997, the mainland would catch up with Hong Kong. If that happened, differences between the two systems and two societies would become less of a problem. If Deng were alive today he would no doubt be pleased with the broad success of Hong Kong's 'one country, two systems' experiment. It wouldn't matter that there is only a slim chance of Taiwan acknowledging any inevitability of unification with the mainland under 'one country, two systems'.

Most important, he would be pleasantly surprised with the seismic changes in the mainland over the past decade. Forget about the debate over capitalist versus socialist reform: the mainland economy has gone from strength to strength. Experts predict China will become America's major economic rival in 20 to 30 years. A case in point: the number of brokerage accounts in the mainland smashed the 100-million mark in late May, outnumbering membership in the Communist Party.

Changes in the relative strengths of Hong Kong and the mainland might have come as a surprise to Deng if he were here to celebrate the SAR's 10th birthday. Fascinated with the city's phenomenal success, he called on party cadres to build several more Hong Kongs on the mainland.

But now, 10 years on, the Hong Kong model is in doubt. Fears about the city's marginalisation have lingered. Sceptics have warned that Hong Kong could become a liability, not an asset, to the nation if it fails to boost its competitiveness and find a role in the rapidly changing mainland economy.

If 'separation' was the buzzword in cross-border relations after the handover, the names of the new game are 'integration' and 'collaboration'. The integration of the 'two systems', at least on the economic front, has proceeded much faster than Deng might have anticipated. The late patriarch would have no doubts that his dictum of pragmatism and results-oriented approach have been followed religiously by his successors - in particular President Hu Jintao, whom he groomed for leadership since the 1980s.

Beijing acted swiftly and decisively to dampen public clamouring for democracy in 2004 - less than one year after the July 1, 2003, rally - by ruling out universal suffrage for the immediate future. That was followed by the shock resignation of chief executive Tung Chee-hwa, who cited health reasons for his premature departure.

Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, who was financial secretary at the end of colonial rule, emerged as a living testament to Deng's trademark pragmatism when he was hand-picked to succeed Mr Tung. Whether Mr Tsang would be a patriot in Deng's eyes we'll never know: the patriarch said patriots should form the mainstay of the SAR leadership. But that won't matter - as long as Mr Tsang proves to be a cat that catches mice.