Between Leung Chun-ying and Carrie Lam, it’s clear who is more keen to protect ‘two systems’ for Hong Kong

Alice Wu says ‘one country, two systems’ was once meant to help draw Taiwan into the one-China fold, but with Beijing now taking a more aggressive stance towards both, Carrie Lam’s attempt to calm independence fears are a welcome change

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 June, 2017, 9:32am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 June, 2017, 5:34pm

Not too long ago, “one country, two systems” was the hope for the reunification of China. Hong Kong was to be the leading example. It could not fail – its success was the ultimate selling point for reunification to the people of Taiwan.

There were great expectations for the system to work in Hong Kong, and the city’s economic success, promised high degree of autonomy and democratic development were the beacons of hope meant to allay the fears of those across the Taiwan Strait.

In the first decade after the Hong Kong SAR was established, priority was given to the successful implementation of “one country, two systems”, and Beijing exercised restraint on asserting its power over Hong Kong.

There were glitches in implementing ‘one country, two systems’ in Hong Kong, but it worked nevertheless

It showed its sovereign power by extending its “support”, especially when Hong Kong’s economy was hit by external forces and the housing bubble burst, sending owners into negative equity. That, too, was something meant for the world to see – that the motherland stood ready to help.

Selling the Taiwanese people an enhanced version of “one country, two systems” – one country, two systems 2.0 – was still paramount.

With time, that focus has shifted to fostering greater economic integration. Naturally, circumstances evolve, and relationships are organic. The “one country” has made phenomenal economic achievements, having opened up to the world. The Hong Kong “system” has faced strong headwinds from a growing wealth disparity and deep-rooted socio-economic problems.

Somewhere during the past two decades, Hong Kong stopped playing the role of bridging the divide across the Taiwan Strait.

‘One country, two systems’ could be scrapped if it is used to confront Beijing

There were, of course, glitches in implementing “one country, two systems” in Hong Kong, but it worked nevertheless.

Taipei and the rest of the world watched closely Beijing’s response to Hong Kong’s “troubles”, especially after the 2014 Occupy movement. As late as autumn 2014, the idea of Taiwan uniting with the mainland under the “one country, two systems” formula was still being talked about. President Xi Jinping ( 習近平 ) reiterated it when he met a Taiwanese delegation in Beijing. But, as Hong Kong was facing unprecedented challenges, it was not mentioned. However, Ma Ying-jeou, then Taiwan president, rejected the idea, as his predecessors had done.

As Beijing has asserted itself on the world stage, so it has asserted itself more aggressively on matters concerning its special administrative regions and, as seen lately in its diplomatic manoeuvres in Panama, in its handling of Taiwan relations. The significance of that has not been lost on Hongkongers.

Watch: Panama turns away from Taiwan to set up ties with Beijing

Hong Kong’s diminishing role in the Taiwan question may be unfortunate, but what was truly astonishing was to hear Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying last week sounding the alarm over – and relegating Hongkongers to being mere followers of – pro-independence Taiwanese.

That was in stark contrast to chief executive-in-waiting Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor’s quite obvious message of assurance to Beijing earlier, that it need not worry about pro-independence forces in this city.

It is easy to see who is working hard to protect “one country, two systems” and who is inviting more of the sort of assertiveness from Beijing that has been the cause of Hong Kong’s political frustrations and the focus of anxious observers.

As for the notion that pro-independence thought is taking over Hong Kong, Beijing must be assured that this is not the elephant in the room.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA