Commitment to ‘one country, two systems’ must remain strong

There is no governing method better for Hong Kong than the framework laid out in the Basic Law. But both Hong Kong and Beijing need to learn lessons from the past two decades and create a mutual trust from which we can confidently move forward

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 June, 2017, 1:01am
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 June, 2017, 1:43am

No governing method is better for Hong Kong than the “one country, two systems” framework laid out in our mini-constitution, the Basic Law. On the eve of the 20th anniversary of the return to China from British rule, the success of the principle is plainly evident. But there have been strains that have eroded trust and some Hongkongers believe the assurance of “a high degree of autonomy” is being undermined while Beijing contends the “one country” element is too often being ignored. Every effort has to be made, here and on the mainland, to ensure that the approach is understood and remains strong.

Hong Kong’s fundamentals are as they were on July 1, 1997. The city remains a leading international centre of finance, trade and shipping and continues to be at or near the top of global rankings of free economies. It still has its own passports and currency and sports teams that compete internationally under the Hong Kong flag. Major groupings like the World Health Organisation recognise it as an independent member. There has been no decline in its appeal to foreign corporations, investors and talented workers; they are assured by the Basic Law provisions that set our city apart by guaranteeing its capitalist system, judicial independence, the rule of law, freedoms and rights.

Late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, who formulated the “one country, two systems” policy, said that as the idea had no successful precedent, its implementation would be a constant learning process. It was an appropriate model to ensure a smooth transition back to Chinese sovereignty for Hong Kong, which had marked developmental and ideological differences from the mainland after a century-and-a-half under British colonial rule. The pragmatic framework promised the way of life would in essence remain unchanged until at least 2047.

It is in Beijing’s interests to ensure Hong Kong doesn’t wilt and fade

Evolving process of trialling, testing and improving

The first handful of years after the return went smoothly, life under one country barely evident. Mainland officials refrained from commenting on Hong Kong affairs. But while the Basic Law provided for “one country, two systems”, its implementation was always going to be an evolving process of trialling, testing and improving. Adding to the difficulty has been our city’s challenges, among them a shortage of affordable housing, the gap between rich and poor, a fast-ageing population and political demands.

Many Hongkongers had the erroneous impression that the city’s government would take care of all but matters of defence and foreign affairs. Beijing has been at pains of late to educate and clarify; the initiative serves the two inter-connected purposes of maintaining Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability and safeguarding China’s sovereignty, security and development interests. The central government has overall jurisdiction over Hong Kong.

July 1 should be a day of celebration, but in 2003 it became a day of protest. The half-million people who took to the streets showed all was not well and Beijing understandably took notice. Central government policymakers became increasingly worried as voices for ever-higher degrees of autonomy emerged. Beijing’s initial hands-off approach has gradually been replaced by a proactive stance.

The summer of Hong Kong’s discontent, 20 years after its return to China

Learning the lessons from the past two decades

Cross-boundary relations are fraught. Tensions have been created by interpretations of the Basic Law by the National People’s Congress, a right wrongly viewed by some Hongkongers as interference in legal and political affairs. The loosening of immigration controls to allow more mainland visitors to boost the tourism and retail sectors has caused social strife. Amid outcries over overcrowding and shortages of necessities, outgoing Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying was forced to ban mainland women from giving birth in public hospitals and restrict the sale of baby milk powder. The mysterious disappearance in 2015 of five Causeway Bay booksellers and their reappearance in mainland custody raised the pressing need for a more efficient notification mechanism between the sides and a stricter adherence to “one country, two systems”.

Attempts to implement national security legislation and a national education programme have furthered suspicions. The State Council’s release in June 2014 of a white paper to correct misunderstandings about “one country, two systems” deepened mistrust. An electoral reform package was deemed far from satisfactory by pan-democrats; it sparked the unlawful Occupy movement that brought chaos to the streets for 79 days. The same lawmakers blocked the reform proposals, denying Hongkongers the chance to choose the chief executive by universal suffrage in 2017. From Occupy has emerged localism and a small minority seeking independence. Such views are not to be tolerated.

Hong Kong has grown in the 20 years since it became one again with China, but it still has much to learn about living under one country. Beijing similarly has to better understand Hong Kong and its ways. Both need to reflect on events and learn lessons from the past two decades so that there can be mutual trust. Only then can we confidently move forward.