What would post-1997 Hong Kong look like if Deng Xiaoping was still alive?

Tammy Tam wonders if the sharp contrast in sentiment on different sides of the border could have been dispelled if the paramount leader was still alive

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 10 June, 2017, 9:01am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 13 June, 2017, 3:06pm

As clichéd as it sounds, time really flies, but memories are not so fleeting. And there is one vivid recollection I still have of an unforgettable, chilly night 20 years ago.

“Is it true”?

“Yes, [Deng Xiaoping passed away] at eight minutes past 9 tonight. I’ll go out soon for a meeting to arrange follow ups ...”

This was the gist of a brief but momentous phone conversation I had at about 11pm on February 19, 1997, to confirm and break the news on the exact time of Deng’s death, hours before the official announcement that China’s paramount leader was no more.

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On the other end of the phone was an authoritative source whom I had known for years. I was in Beijing for more than a week on a special mission for the media company I worked for back then. We were on the “death watch squad” amid intense speculation about Deng’s ailing health.

Rumours were flying all over the place that night after an unconfirmed Taiwanese media report that Deng had died.

“Eight minutes past 9,” I kept repeating to myself as I put down the phone, letting it sink in that it had happened for real. Also at the back of my mind was how Deng’s daughter, Deng Rong, had once complained: “My father has died who knows how many times in your [overseas media] reports.”

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“Let’s go out to 301 Hospital and Tiananmen Square,” I told the cameraman, quickly deciding to stake out the hospital where Deng was believed to be undergoing treatment, and then the crossroads of the capital. He looked as shocked as I was as we both rushed out.

Throughout the night, as we drove around, nothing seemed out of the ordinary, but I thought of how the nation would soon wake up to the news and fall into deep mourning.

I thought of how the nation would soon wake up to the news and fall into deep mourning

I couldn’t help asking myself whether China’s reforms would be affected in any way. And, honestly, I was more overwhelmed by uncertainty about Hong Kong: without Deng, what would happen to “one country, two systems”?

The same questions were still on my mind when I was in Beijing again a few months later for handover news coverage. Back at Tiananmen, when the historic moment arrived, I saw jubilant crowds celebrate Hong Kong’s return to the motherland from the night of June 30 until the morning of July 1.

Colleagues back in our Hong Kong newsroom, on the other hand, told me it was pouring the whole day and that the bad weather added to their sense of uncertainty.

Such a sharp contrast in sentiment on different sides of the border made me wonder if the uncertainty could have been dispelled if Deng was still alive and whether we could have expected more assurances from him.

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These questions still bother me sometimes, for a simple reason. Deng once said his design for post-1997 Hong Kong was a novel idea without any successful precedent in the world, and it would be like “crossing the river by feeling the stones”. So, have we found those stones yet?

Cheng Yiu-tong, a pro-establishment heavyweight, once admitted frankly that Deng's unique governing formula would inevitably lead to conflict over one fundamental issue: which should come first, one country or two systems?

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Taking stock now, we have enough examples of it: all manner of cross-border disputes related to political, economic and social issues. What has raised Beijing’s ire the most is the idea of independence for Hong Kong, though advocated by only a handful of activists recently.

Ironically, it has become commonplace for people and parties with opposing political stands to turn to the same figure – Deng – to argue their conflicting cases.

While Beijing keeps reiterating that without “one country” , there will be no “two systems”, and that Deng was most uncompromising on any sovereignty issue, Hong Kong’s opposition politicians insist Deng’s definition of “patriotism” includes the freedom to criticise the ruling Communist Party.

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“Communists will never be defeated by criticism or attacks!” they quote him as saying.

Another widely debated topic is Deng’s promise of “one country, two systems” remaining “unchanged for 50 years”. What does that mean?

Only political naivety would lead one to conclude that it means no change at all, which anyway goes against the law of nature. However, there has been controversy over what changes are desirable or undesirable.

With the many political and social changes the city is going through, Beijing appears to be shifting from its initial hands-off approach to repeated warnings that the “high degree of autonomy” promised to Hong Kong should not be used to confront or undermine China’s sovereignty.

The country’s No 3 leader, Zhang Dejiang, recently spelled out Beijing’s full authority over the city, urging it to fulfil its constitutional duty by enacting national security legislation and setting the tone also for the central government’s future policies on Hong Kong.

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While Zhang’s speech has caused jitters in some quarters here, Deng’s “one country, two systems” concept was obviously not plucked out of thin air. It was a product of compromise, reflecting his pragmatism, given the difficulties China was facing while negotiating the return of the city with the British back in the 1980s.

No one knows if Deng would be more relaxed or stringent towards the Hong Kong of today if he were still alive, but his bottom line of “one country” was crystal clear.

That explains why he insisted on sending the People’s Liberation Army over as a strong symbol of China’s sovereignty, but agreed to keep the troops confined to barracks.

Greater efforts are required on both sides of the border to find common ground and keep relations healthy

Looking ahead, future implementation of “one country, two systems” will see twists and turns and ups and downs, but Hong Kong remains the most open, free and internationalised city in the country. People here have unrestricted access to social media, and are free to criticise whoever they want on Facebook or YouTube; the annual candlelight vigil in Victoria Park commemorating June 4 is a tradition, regardless of whether it upsets Beijing; all kinds of street protests are allowed as long as they are lawful; and foreign investors still have faith in our legal and financial systems. All thanks to this unique governing formula.

With or without Deng, there will no change in Beijing’s bottom line and the reality that Hong Kong is an inalienable part of China. Greater efforts are required on both sides of the border to find common ground and keep relations healthy.

The river can be crossed, with the stones of the Basic Law to help Hong Kong feel its way to success.