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Hong Kong Basic Law

‘One country’ has never been in question in Hong Kong – but ‘two systems’ needs work

Wang Gungwu says even under British rule, Hongkongers saw themselves as Chinese. ‘One country, two systems’ thus reflects the city’s experience of not being separate from China while providing a safe place for dissent and experimentation. As ‘two systems’ continues to evolve, can China fully embrace this heritage?

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 12 April, 2018, 5:11pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 April, 2018, 7:44pm

When asked to compare Hong Kong and Singapore today, I thought of the latter’s separation from the Malay world and sought an equivalent constant in the history of Hong Kong. The colony of Hong Kong started the same way as Singapore when the British established a colonial administration and separated the island from China. However, Hong Kong’s history of nearly 180 years suggests there was no real separation. All the original inhabitants were Chinese and, throughout the time the British were in Hong Kong, the population was predominantly Chinese.

And, when Britain obtained a 99-year lease of the New Territories, there was virtually no distance between the colony and China. Most of the time, there was also no question of separation from Chinese customs and family values. And one could see only minimal divergences in the way Hong Kong Chinese built their lives in the British colony. 

What was more, after 1842, Chinese who went overseas to Southeast Asia, North America and Oceania came to use Hong Kong as their transit point. For many, Hong Kong was their base for connecting with China. Although everyone was made aware that the colony was administered separately, those who made use of Hong Kong retained their strong cultural roots in China. 

For Hong Kong people, therefore, separation was never uppermost in their minds. Instead, what they experienced throughout the years as a British colony was strikingly similar to“one country, two systems”. I suggest that this captures the history of Hong Kong better than any other phrase used to describe the city’s development, and would say that much of the political and economic life in Hong Kong has rested on this modern, albeit cryptic, slogan.

Can Hong Kong become indispensable to the nation again?

When it was used in the 1980s to serve as a rallying call to produce the ending that the British, Chinese and Hongkongers looked for, when the time came for Hong Kong to be returned to the motherland, this seemed to describe what they could live with. But, although very few Chinese doubted that Hong Kong was part of China, it was never clear that the three sets of protagonists really agreed on how the “two systems” should function. The slogan was thus cryptic because it has been difficult to pin down. Certainly, in 1997, most people understood that a great deal would depend on the goodwill that would allow the two systems to perform efficiently. 

Looking back at the many dissenters in Hong Kong history, most could be described as patriots

The phrase was first endorsed by Deng Xiaoping as a way of opening up negotiations that would reconcile socialist China with the capitalist economies of Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau. The Taiwanese were divided about what “one country” should mean, but the people of Hong Kong and Macau embraced it without difficulty and even thought the formula of “two systems” was ingenious.

I suggest that the slogan was easy to accept because it described a subtle and undefined relationship that had been there ever since Hong Kong became a colony. What was new was, first, the formal acceptance of parallel structures of governance, and second, the 50-year timetable that Deng had added to the slogan. Whatever uncertainty there was seemed to stem from different expectations as to what the two new conditions would entail. 

From the start, British officials and merchants in Hong Kong never expected that the Chinese there would look to Britain as their country. What they asserted was that these Chinese must obey the laws of a superior system and the Qing empire acknowledged the British right to demand that they did so.

As it turned out, those conditions ensured Hong Kong could become a place where its Chinese residents could hold different opinions from officialdom in China, one that could also serve as a site for dissent. Therefore, many learned how to use the opportunities to advance their interests, including their political causes. But, whatever they did concerning China, they acted as Chinese addressing problems in their country. 

Looking back at the many dissenters in Hong Kong history, most could be described as patriots. They became prominent not because they were against China, but spoke and acted in opposition because they disagreed with some of the people who were running the country. They were proud to be Chinese and wanted China to become better than it was. “One country” was never in question. 

What has been difficult is how “two systems” should be understood. In the 1980s, it was seen as an administrative device, a political formula that Deng first used to tempt Taiwan back into the fold. However, when applied to Hong Kong, it seemed to describe a deeper underlying reality. The phrase reflected the city’s experience of never having been really separate from China but often providing a safe place for dissent.

HK must protect its high degree of autonomy

Many leaders in China always knew Hong Kong as a place where Chinese people could think and act differently. Some even recognised that what could be done in Hong Kong was not always possible to do elsewhere in China, and there were ways of doing things there through experiments and disputations that China could learn from. All that explains why the slogan was well received and welcomed. 

With one country not in question, living with two systems would appear remarkably normal for people in both China and Hong Kong. It underlined the city’s freedoms that Hongkongers thought marked what was civilised and practical. But leaders in China had never formally acknowledged that condition and there had never been a timetable. Therefore, great efforts were made before the handover to spell out how the two systems should be officially connected and what would need to be done over the next 50 years. 

Why there’s life for Hong Kong and the Basic Law beyond 2047

Given that new sets of people have taken over after 1997, retaining the framework with deep roots in past practice provided a good start. Hong Kong people have been remarkably skilful in devising solutions to difficult problems. The past 20 years tested that ingenuity. Many would say the results have been mixed, but the determination to sustain and develop “two systems” is still strong.

The city’s heritage of legally framed freedom ensures that its enterprising people, as well as the new talent it has continued to attract, can all participate in China’s Belt and Road Initiative. If China appreciates the finer points in Hong Kong’s heritage and helps the two systems further evolve, the special autonomous region can certainly become a node for the maritime sectors of the belt and road. I have little doubt that its people are ready to seize the chance to demonstrate again what their freedoms can enable them to achieve. 

Wang Gungwu is University Professor at the National University of Singapore and professor emeritus of the Australian National University. From 1986-1995, he was vice-chancellor of the University of Hong Kong. This is an excerpted, edited version of an article from the new journal, China and the World