Deng Xiaoping was all for autonomy for Hong Kong, but not for elections

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 23 August, 2014, 2:45am
UPDATED : Monday, 03 October, 2016, 5:52pm

On a 1993 visit to Hong Kong to promote her biography of her father, former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, Deng Rong said he had often hoped to visit the city when it reverted to Chinese rule in 1997.

"My father told me he wanted to go to Hong Kong, even sitting in a wheelchair, if he could not go there on his own two feet," Deng's youngest daughter said.

It was to remain an unfulfilled dream. Deng died on February 9, 1997 - five months before China resumed sovereignty over the city.

Regaining territories ceded to Western powers in the late Qing dynasty had been a top priority since the end of the Manchu regime in 1911. It was important for Deng to fulfil that goal.

The "one country, two systems" formula, allowing Hong Kong to continue its capitalist system while the mainland practised socialism, was originally crafted by Chinese leaders in the late 1970s to bring Taiwan back to the fold. But an overture by Marshal Ye Jianying , then chairman of the National People's Congress, met with a lukewarm response from the ruling Kuomintang.

In 1981, a working group on Hong Kong policies suggested that the approach be applied to the British colony, said Li Hou, former deputy director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office.

Under the "one country, two systems" formula, Hong Kong would remain a free port and enjoy a high degree of autonomy. The capitalist system and certain freedoms would remain unchanged for 50 years.

It was a pragmatic move by Deng, then the paramount leader, to tackle the future of Hong Kong, said Ching Cheong, then a Beijing correspondent for pro-Beijing newspaper Wen Wei Po in the 1980s.

"Deng knew well it would be a total failure if the communist system was applied to Hong Kong after the handover," Ching Cheong said.

The deal was sealed in the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984.

While Deng was receptive to keeping Hong Kong's capitalist system, he was more wary of allowing electoral freedoms to flourish. Speaking at a meeting with members of the Basic Law Drafting Committee in April 1987, the paramount leader said: "Would it be good for Hong Kong to hold general elections? I don't think so."

It's long been thought that Deng created the "one country, two systems" concept. But Ching said its prototype can be found in a 17-point agreement signed by Beijing and Tibet in 1950. In it, the Tibetan authorities accepted China's political control over the region while allowing autonomy for Tibetans to practise their own religion and maintain their traditions.

Ching said he started to lose faith in the approach in May 1984 when Deng insisted on sending troops to Hong Kong after 1997.

Ching said he was present when Liao Chengzhi, then director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, told pro-Beijing reporters at a briefing in 1982 that Beijing would not station troops in Hong Kong after 1997, Ching said. "Beijing made the U-turn simply because Deng had changed his mind."