Occupy Central

Hong Kong must safeguard ‘one country’ for the sake of ‘two systems’

Andrew Leung says young Hongkongers’ identity crisis stems from a weak sense of nationhood, and a clever strategy to better protect ‘two systems’ would be to build trust with Beijing and benefit from its economic progress

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 05 September, 2017, 1:35pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 05 September, 2017, 7:30pm

Following a sizeable protest march in support of Hong Kong’s recently jailed young democracy activists, shrill cries of foul play were heard in certain leading Western media, over perceptions of Beijing’s pressure on local judges and references to “Hong Kong’s political prisoners”.

Hong Kong as a British colony was noted for its political apathy: any anti-colonial stirrings were firmly suppressed. The city’s raison d’etre was to make money. Now, under “one country, two systems”, the people of Hong Kong are no longer content with their bread and butter. Our younger generation is full of higher ideals and aspirations. We should be proud of such hallmarks of a world-class city.

Hong Kong’s “one country, two systems” is enshrined in the Basic Law, enacted as China’s national law. Under the Basic Law, there are many safeguards for the “two systems”. But there are a few safeguards for the “one country”, including Article 23 against subversion and sedition. Even the most democratic countries have such national security legislation. Because of a massive protest against its enactment, Article 23 has so far not become law.

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After 150 years of British rule, the younger generation has a weak sense of nationhood. They also have a tenuous empathy with China’s history, including its century of foreign humiliation. Most regard themselves as only Hong Kong people, not Chinese nationals. Previously, Hong Kong was relatively isolated from the mainland economically and socially. Now, there is a flood of mainland visitors and capital. This aggravates the sense of erosion of Hong Kong’s identity, leading to movements for “self-determination” and even “independence”.

Without the protection of Article 23, Beijing is understandably wary. There is also the suspicion of the involvement of Western powers in a perceived US-led strategy of containing China.

Moreover, the pan-democrats (some with apparent ties to the US) were emboldened by having secured control of the over-one-third blocking votes in the legislature. Added to filibustering tactics, this has seen essential legislation remain bogged down, detracting from Hong Kong’s long-term competitiveness.

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Universal suffrage was included in the Basic Law as a Chinese initiative. It is not part of the Joint Declaration with Britain before the handover. But there are safeguards on how the chief executive can be elected under “one man, one vote”. These safeguards are not democratic. But that’s the deal.

Naturally, Beijing would not want such a chief executive elected whom it cannot work with or, worse, whom it suspects of leading Hong Kong towards separatism. This is not just about Hong Kong, but also has implications for Tibet and Xinjiang.

Hong Kong ... cannot be allowed to become a base for creeping separatism

Saying that Beijing can always refuse to appoint such a popularly elected chief executive ignores the huge political consequences that could spell the demise of “one country, two systems”. What the pan-democrats were demanding under the universal suffrage debate often amounted to removing or greatly watering down Beijing’s safeguards for “one country” embedded in the Basic Law.

Hong Kong as a special administrative region is an integral part of China. It cannot be allowed to become a base for creeping separatism, or what can be perceived as potential subversion.

Hong Kong should be clever enough to build greater trust with Beijing, without sacrificing the safeguards for the two systems. The more trust-building there is, the more liberal the interpretation Beijing is likely to adopt towards Hong Kong under the Basic Law. The converse, however, is also true.

With more mutual trust, there will be much more room for “one country, two systems” to play, as China embraces the world. The strategic advantage of this unique formula could well outlast 2047, the date of its supposed expiry.

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The Occupy movement clearly broke the law and caused massive economic and social disruption, aggravating divisions. Hong Kong cannot afford to have its laws publicly violated, even for a democratic cause. Even the United States has to enforce its laws against what may sometimes be regarded as social justice, such as immigration and race issues.

Democracy and human rights are vital for the rule of law – and so is legality

Hong Kong’s young democratic fighters have now been sentenced to short jail terms. This serves to discourage others to break the law, as there are many lawful means to advance their cause. That’s why Hong Kong is known as a “city of protests”. Our judiciary is among the world’s finest; the pillar of Hong Kong’s rule of law. It is obliged to apply unbiased judicial principles, so that no one is above the law, with no fear or favour, however worthy the cause of transgressions.

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It also has the responsibility to ensure that sentences are commensurate with the magnitude of convicted crimes, including long-term implications of open challenges to the rule of law.

Is it any wonder that the World Bank’s Worldwide Governance Indicators, including the rule of law, consistently show Hong Kong outranking 90 per cent of nations since 2003, reaching 94.7 (12th spot) in 2015? The World Economic Forum Global Competitive Report ranks Hong Kong eighth in judicial independence, third among common law jurisdictions and the only Asian jurisdiction in the top 10. The Heritage Foundation has voted Hong Kong as the freest economy for the 23rd consecutive year. The International Institute for Management Development World Competitive Yearbook 2017 has endorsed it as the most competitive economy for the second year. The Hong Kong SAR passport gives visa-free access to 158 countries.

What is the Belt and Road strategy?

Hong Kong used to equate to about 20 per cent of China’s GDP. Because China has grown so big, it is now only 3 per cent. But Beijing still wants Hong Kong to succeed, if only to help with the “Belt and Road Initiative” and the Greater Bay Area national strategies.

These strategies are likely to last a very long time. Hong Kong should be savvy enough to realise that it’s through safeguarding the core interests of “one country” that the scope of the “two systems” can be maximised. The paradox of “one country, two systems” is that the two are both separate and inseparable.

Andrew K.P. Leung is an international and independent China strategist