No good reason why Hong Kong systems won’t endure beyond 2047

Mike Rowse says instead of worrying about losing our way of life after ‘one country, two systems’ ends, it’s better to focus on making the city a vibrant and useful part of China

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 March, 2016, 10:01am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 March, 2016, 10:00am

There are still more than 30 years to go but, already, a lot of nonsense is being spoken about what will happen to Hong Kong in 2047.

Let’s get the subject of land leases dealt with up front. Some people seem to think that all the leases in the SAR will expire on 30 June, 2047 (the end of the “50 years unchanged” pledge). There have even been reports that banks are starting to be cautious about granting mortgages for long periods and so on. This is completely wrong. Under the Basic Law, all the land and other resources in Hong Kong are state assets and the Hong Kong government is authorised to manage those assets on behalf of the central government.

Why do some people assume Beijing is stupid and/or malicious?

That is why the Lands Department is able to grant a new 50-year lease in respect of every plot of land it sells this year. Those leases will therefore run until 2066. Indeed, since 1997, virtually every grant of land has been for 50 years from the current date, so there are already many hundreds that run past 2047. The most prominent exception to the rule is the site of Hong Kong Disneyland, which has a 100-year lease (technically, 50 years, plus a guaranteed right of renewal for a further 50) granted in 1999.

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Now, of course, there are some leases which will expire in 2047. These fall broadly into two categories: all the New Territories leases granted under British administration were set to expire in June 1997; and all land sales after the Joint Declaration came into force in 1985 were for the balance of British administration, plus 50 years. All the leases in the first category were extended for 50 years by a single piece of legislation. The obvious thing to do, probably in the 2020s, is to have a similar piece of legislation to extend both categories for a further 50 years past 2047.

The rules for Hong Kong are straightforward: continue to be useful to China, and never be – or allow others to use us as – a base for subversion

But it’s not just about land, is it? What about the currency, what about the legal system and the other aspects of our daily lives. Some have even claimed that the Basic Law itself “expires”. To them I say: read it again. There is no reference to an expiry date, just a guarantee that the systems prevailing in Hong Kong will endure for 50 years. That is a clear minimum, but there is no corresponding reference to a maximum. So the guarantee might theoretically run out, but the systems themselves can continue. After all, when you buy a new washing machine, the warranty might expire after a few years but you still have the machine itself. A better analogy might be marriage vows. If you promised to love someone for 50 years, it doesn’t mean you are automatically divorced after that time. (You might choose to, but it’s not automatic.)

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The Hong Kong dollar will last as long as people here want it to, and are content to treat it as a trustworthy store of wealth. If, at some future time, the renminbi becomes fully convertible and local people use it freely and readily, then the position can be reviewed.

There is no reason why the legal system needs to change, either. As regards civil and commercial law, everyone feels comfortable with it, and indeed part of the reason so many mainland companies set up in Hong Kong is to enjoy it. Has anyone considered the practicalities of changing the criminal law system? It would require the import of hundreds of judges and magistrates and thousands of police officers to apply the mainland code here, or at least a massive re-education programme for existing personnel. And who is going to teach the seven-million-plus residents about the different system?

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Why bother to change something if it’s not broken? Why do some people assume Beijing is stupid and/or malicious? All the evidence of the past few decades is that in handling Hong Kong and Macau matters, the name of the game is pragmatism.

The rules for Hong Kong are straightforward: continue to be useful to China, and never be – or allow others to use us as – a base for subversion. Provided we adhere to these simple guidelines, there is no reason why the “one country, two systems” formula should not last forever.

We don’t need to wait until 2047 to know what the future holds for us. It will be whatever we ourselves make it. We are building that future right now.

Mike Rowse is the CEO of Treloar Enterprises and an adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. mike@rowse.com.hk