How can we resolve the conflicts in Hong Kong and ensure ‘one country, two systems’ thrives?

Jasper Tsang says that, as Legco president, his biggest regret is not having been able to improve relations between Hong Kong’s lawmakers and Beijing

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 16 March, 2016, 5:04pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 16 March, 2016, 5:24pm

On a couple of recent occasions, I was asked what would be the one thing during my tenure as president of the Legislative Council that I would regret most. I have the answer.

I was first elected president in 2008, 10 months after the central government announced that in 2017, we could elect the chief executive by universal suffrage, followed by electing the whole legislature by popular vote. The news came as a welcome surprise to many, including some democrats. However, I knew that it would not be easy to arrive at an agreement on how the election by universal suffrage should be arranged.

I knew then it would be controversial how nomination of the candidates should take place when we try to achieve the final goal in Article 45

Earlier, I had had a talk with a Chinese official in charge of Hong Kong affairs, and he had told me, “It is much safer to have the chief executive elected by universal suffrage according to Article 45 of the Basic Law, than to open up all seats in the legislature to popular election, in accordance with Article 68. In electing the chief executive by universal suffrage, we have a safety net, the nomination committee as provided for in Article 45.” The official was confident that the nomination committee would not allow anyone unacceptable to the central government to become a candidate in the chief executive election.

I knew then it would be controversial how nomination of the candidates should take place when we try to achieve the final goal in Article 45. It would be impossible to arrive at a consensus if we did not have the people of Hong Kong, represented by the various political parties, especially the democrats, having a meaningful dialogue with the central government. I also believed that if we failed to bring in election of the chief executive by universal suffrage in 2017, it would deal a very serious blow to people’s confidence in “one country, two systems”.

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So I took it upon myself, as president of Legco, to create as many opportunities as possible for my colleagues in the legislature, especially from the democrats’ camp, to engage in dialogue with Chinese officials who can represent the central government on Hong Kong policies. I had hoped that by doing so, we could increase the chance of the two sides reaching an agreement.

The way things have gone in the past couple of years has put the sustainability of the ‘one country, two systems’ policy at stake

There were encouraging times. We succeeded in organising a number of trips to various parts of China. We visited the Guangdong provincial government and talked with the authorities about economic cooperation and environmental protection. We visited Sichuan ( 四川 ) a year after the earthquake, and saw how they were rebuilding their schools and rehabilitating the victims. We visited the World Expo in Shanghai in 2010, deliberately taking the high-speed railway for part of the journey to experience the technology and efficiency of the system. Even during the very heated debates leading up to the constitutional reform exercise, we made a couple of trips to Shenzhen and Shanghai, and senior Chinese officials were willing to talk and listen to the pan-democrats.

However, all these turned out to be anomalies in a steadily deteriorating relationship between Hong Kong’s democrats and the central government. The result of it, we all know. It is not only failure to reach an agreement and bring in universal suffrage for choosing the next chief executive. The way things have gone in the past couple of years has put the sustainability of the “one country, two systems” policy at stake. People are asking what is going to happen in 2047. Some fear we are going to lose “one country, two systems” even before that date.

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

In order for “one country, two systems” to succeed, we need more mutual understanding between Hong Kong people and the central government than we now have. There are many in Hong Kong and in Beijing who believe that things happening in the past few years, including the “Umbrella Movement”, the riots and the rejecting of the constitutional reform package, were all conspiracies of enemies within and outside Hong Kong, so the way for us to move forward successfully is to prevent our enemies making any more trouble. For example, “Vote all the troublemakers out of the Legislative Council!”

The central government should understand that for ‘one country, two systems’ to work at all, they have to accept the reality that there will always be an opposition in Hong Kong

At the same time, there are many within the pan-democrats’ camp who believe we can never have true democracy as long as there is a communist party in power in Beijing. They believe that the Chinese Communist Party is, by nature, anti-democratic. They do not see any point in talking to the central government at all.

I do not subscribe to either of these schools of thought. “One country, two systems” is still the best way out for Hong Kong. On the one hand, the central government should understand that for “one country, two systems” to work at all, they have to accept the reality that there will always be an opposition in Hong Kong, supported by a fair proportion of Hong Kong people, and if the central government or the SAR government does something which makes Hong Kong people angry, the opposition will only get more support. This is one thing they must understand. You cannot have “one country, two systems” working if you try to silence the opposition.

READ MORE: Several young Hong Kong radicals likely to get elected to Legislative Council, says top Beijing official

On the other hand, the pan-democrats must accept the fact that “one country, two systems” is a policy created by the Communist Party. If they are expecting the party to fall apart very soon, they are very much mistaken. It is exactly because the party still believes that “one country, two systems” is not only good for Hong Kong, but also good for the whole country, that the policy is still in place. The moment the central government, led by the Communist Party, believes the Hong Kong system is more a liability than an asset for the country, it will not have any incentive to let the system go on.

The central government must be tolerant of the different values in Hong Kong. At the same time, we have to understand that China will move on in its own way

The Chinese government should be aware that there are many fundamental conflicts between Hong Kong and other parts of China. It is precisely because of these conflicts, because of differences between us and other parts of China, that we need “two systems”. Take away those differences, and we no longer have “two systems”. The central government must be tolerant of the different values in Hong Kong. At the same time, we have to understand that China will move on in its own way.

Throughout the past 19 years, the gap between the two sides has grown wider and wider, contrary to what we had expected during the first few years of the SAR. We thought that as China became more and more open, liberal and democratic, and as Hong Kong people got to know China better and better, we would understand each other more, be more tolerant towards each other, and work out a way for “one country, two systems” to move forward. Unfortunately, things seemed to have gone the opposite way.

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There are two ways the Chinese government can interpret the things happening in the past few years. They can ascribe all troubles to enemies from outside and within our own society, and decide to assume tighter control to ensure the enemies cannot have their way.

I hope the next Legco, with a new president, will have more wisdom and determination to achieve better

There is another way of looking at our situation, which I believe is more consistent with the teachings of Mao Zedong ( 毛澤東 ). Mao said that internal contradictions are always the fundamental driving force of social development. External factors can provide the conditions, the additional elements required for change, but it is always internal conflicts which are fundamental.

If the Chinese government would turn its attention to the internal conflicts that have developed in our society, and to the conflicts that have developed between Hong Kong people and the central government in the past 19 years, then the natural question to ask would be: How can we resolve these conflicts and let “one country, two systems” move forward?

I am stepping down in a few months. I am counting my days and looking forward to my retirement. But when I leave Legco, there is this one thing I will regret most. I have not succeeded in building up a more conciliatory and productive relationship between my colleagues in the council and the central government. I hope the next Legco, with a new president, will have more wisdom and determination to achieve better.

Jasper Tsang Yok-sing is president of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council. This is an edited version of a recent speech he gave at a Hong Kong Democratic Foundation luncheon