Seven ways Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam can please Beijing and the people
Andrew Leung suggests tasks for the city’s new leader so as to maintain the delicate balance between ‘one country’ and ‘two systems’, which would help to extend its lifespan beyond the 50 years promised
President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) hard-hitting speech on July 1 on how “one country, two systems” should be implemented has raised worrying eyebrows. Will the “two systems” increasingly tilt towards the “one country”?
In her inauguration speech, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor vowed to comprehensively fulfil her responsibilities to make “one country, two systems” work, including through better relations with the central government. Notwithstanding her legendary abilities, can she deliver a mission almost impossible? Hong Kong’s society remains severely fractured, with the younger generations possessing little sense of nationhood.
Relations with Beijing were much smoother during the first decade after the handover. The central government carefully guarded Hong Kong’s autonomy. Why have things changed?
One reason is that, as a natural development, Hong Kong and the mainland have become much more interconnected, with a massive upsurge of mainland visitors and capital. As a result, the inherent contradictions of “one country, two systems” have surfaced, raising the cost of living and doing business, including land prices, compromising Hong Kong’s quality of life.
Another reason is Hong Kong’s perceived worsening “democratic deficit”, notwithstanding international accolades about its economic and personal freedoms. A non-popularly-elected government seems to be bending towards Beijing rather than the aspirations of the people. Certain recent acts by Beijing perceived to compromise Hong Kong’s autonomy have deepened the mistrust.
Adding fuel to the fire are growing inequality, declining upward mobility, and protracted problems of housing, pension protection, labour and education.
It’s no wonder that many Hong Kong residents, especially the young and restless, have become alienated, if not hostile towards Beijing. The young, especially, feel uneasy, uncertain about what is to become of “one country, two systems” beyond 2047. This has spawned campaigns for localism and self-determinism that have been gaining momentum, including some calls for independence.
The latter touch a raw nerve with Beijing. At stake are existential implications not just for Hong Kong but for the whole nation, including Taiwan, Xinjiang (新疆) and Tibet ( 西藏 ). It’s no surprise that President Xi did not mince words warning against the “absolutely impermissible” acts that cross the nation’s red line.
Watch: Xi Jinping on ‘one country, two systems’
Absent the safeguard of Article 23 legislation of the Basic Law on national security, which Hong Kong has yet to enact, the more provocative acts are perpetrated in Hong Kong, the more restrictive would Beijing’s stance become towards flexibility for the “two systems”.
Conversely, a less antagonistic attitude may persuade Beijing to ease off. Xi expects Hong Kong to play an important role in the nation’s “China Dream” of global renaissance. Hong Kong now equates to only about 3 per cent of China’s gross domestic product, and probably much less in the future. How could Hong Kong fulfil its national mission if not as China’s shining city on the hill?
What must Lam do to make “one country, two systems” work better?
First, promoting better relations with Beijing demands that she tells it like it is. The people of Hong Kong expects nothing less. The central government wants to know the truth about local affairs. She has already pledged to do so.
Second, without compromising freedom of speech, she must rein in any act crossing Beijing’s red line in strict accordance with the law. She must seek to retain Beijing’s trust in her as defender of the “one country” under the Basic Law.
Third, to set Beijing’s mind at ease once and for all, she must start cultivating a more favourable popular mood towards enactment of Article 23. While education and other pressing social problems demand first priority, the lack of progress on national security legislation is a demon of mistrust that must be purged. After all, enactment is long overdue. Xi’s message says as much.
Fourth, she must answer people’s aspirations for electing the chief executive by one man, one vote. Yes, with political mistrust, another attempt to grab this hot potato may be futile. She should, however, begin to frame a tentative timetable and explore ways with political parties as well as Beijing to find a mutually acceptable package. Doing this in tandem with seeking a consensus on Article 23 may soften Beijing’s stance for a more liberal electoral reform deal.
Watch: Hong Kong’s former police commissioner thinks enactment of Article 23 is long overdue
Fifth, she must start winning the hearts and minds of the younger generations towards a sense of nationhood. Formal education that helps to foster national identification takes too long and, in any case, is not enough. International internships and other working opportunities in China’s Belt and Road Initiative, as well as in poverty relief or ecological conservation on the mainland, will enrich young people’s curriculum vitae. Participation and experience are more effective in galvanising empathy with the nation.
Sixth, similarly, through the Trade Development Council, Lam should help broker more business opportunities for small and medium-sized enterprises in the massive belt and road and Greater Bay Area initiatives. There should be ample opportunities in international trade, supply chain management, and sectors including e-commerce, health care, retirement homes, IT, and financial and other services, including law, accounting and insurance. Deeper involvement with the nation’s foremost initiatives lends itself to greater empathy with the motherland.
Seventh, when the above actions have proved successful, she should be able to convince Beijing that “one country, two systems” would remain an indispensable economic asset, rather than a political liability, for the nation’s long-term objectives. Indeed, that’s what China wants, judging from President Xi’s speech. If so, in due course, Beijing may be persuaded to send out suitable signals that, provided “one country, two systems” continues to be successful, by 2037, 10 years before its expiry, it may be considered for renewal for say, another 30 or 50 years. These signals would then serve to put Hong Kong’s young hearts and minds at ease.
The magic of “one country, two systems” happens when a delicate balance is maintained that respects red lines on both sides, in strict accordance with the Basic Law.
As the country is set to become the largest economy and among the most influential in the world in the coming decades, Hong Kong should be well-placed to reignite its splendour as the Pearl of the Orient by embracing “one country”.
The “one country” is indeed the root for the “two systems” to flourish, as President Xi says. It’s counter-intuitive to think otherwise.
Andrew K.P. Leung is an international and independent China strategist