Illustration: Craig Stephens
Henry Litton
Henry Litton

Could a democracy like the US have crafted the ‘one country, two systems’ policy? Unlikely

  • Managing the reintegration of Hong Kong with the motherland requires leadership of the highest order and a culturally advanced society
  • The short-term cycle of elected governments in a democracy makes it virtually impossible for a policy like one country, two systems to gain traction
Britain and China began negotiations over the future of Hong Kong in 1982. This was a “democracy” speaking to an “autocracy”, seeking to reach the near-impossibility of a consensus. In the Western world view, there could only be confrontation and contest to see who would ultimately come out on top.
Assume that, at the time, China had a different governing system – a democracy akin to the US model. Could the Joint Declaration, signed in 1984 as the product of those negotiations, have come about? It seems most unlikely.

Consider what was at stake. As the preamble to the Basic Law says: “Hong Kong has been part of the territory of China since ancient times; it was occupied by Britain after the Opium War of 1840.” The recovery of Hong Kong fulfilled “the long-cherished common aspiration of the Chinese people”.

China’s humiliation since the first Opium War has sunk deep into the Chinese consciousness. That war and its outcome led to the carving up of China. After Britain, other nations came along and each took a slice of the motherland.

The aim of the talks commencing in 1982 was for China to recover Hong Kong and redress historic wrongs, but what does “recover Hong Kong” mean?

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In popular parlance, it would have meant just that – the total integration of Hong Kong back into the mainland. The system and policies as applied on the mainland were those laid down by the central government for the whole country. The average person on the street might have asked, “Why should they not apply equally to Hong Kong after reunification?”
As it turned out, the arrangement for Hong Kong after reunification was different as it became a special administrative region. The capitalist system and lifestyle, upheld by its legal system, was to continue unchanged for 50 years after reunification.

What precisely was that legal system which was to apply in Hong Kong? The average person would have had little idea. They would have been told about principles of law evolved through the pronouncements of multiple generations of British judges, synthesised into a comprehensive system of law.

At this point, they would have been mightily surprised and perhaps wondering whether Hong Kong would be governed by foreign law. But there was an even more confronting reality – the question of language.

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Common law and the rules of equity came from the pronouncements of English-speaking judges. The accumulated volume of such pronouncements is vast. There was no way such law could be translated into Chinese. It followed that English must remain an official language of Hong Kong after reunification.

In the noise and clamour of a democracy, how could such matters have been put to the populace? Ardent nationalism and xenophobic intolerance would have smothered any meaningful discussion, and any suggestion of this nature would have been drowned out by megaphone-enhanced slogans.

Yet, that was the scenario laid down for Hong Kong. Note the words in the preamble to the Basic Law: the aim of the arrangement was not only to uphold “national unity and territorial integrity” and maintain “the prosperity and stability of Hong Kong” but to take into account Hong Kong’s “history and realities”.

From the earliest times, colonial Hong Kong had evolved differently from mainland China, achieving a cultural diversity and plurality unseen in other parts of the nation. This was Hong Kong’s strength, making it a haven for victims of multiple calamities which afflicted China. It also helped Hong Kong transform from a trading port to a manufacturing hub, then again to one of the world’s foremost financial centres.


What is the Basic Law of Hong Kong?

What is the Basic Law of Hong Kong?
Let us pause here and consider what that means, particularly the transformation to a service-based economy. Workers skilled in operating looms, spindles and other factory equipment were no longer needed. To survive, they had to learn new skills.

Many Western countries have undergone the pain and trauma of such transformations, with the closure of factories, coal mines, steel mills and other industrial undertakings.

Hundreds of thousands of people have been thrown out of work, creating depressed regions like the northeast of England and the rust belt of the United States. Deindustrialisation generally meant high unemployment with large groups of impoverished and resentful people.
How has Hong Kong escaped such trauma? The short answer is that, despite the imperial flavour attached to Hong Kong, it has always enjoyed support from key Chinese leaders.

This takes leadership of the highest order. Those who took power in Beijing after the Cultural Revolution saw the advantages Hong Kong enjoyed. They had the strength of character and confidence of purpose to look upon Hong Kong’s diversity and plurality not as a threat but as an advantage.


What does ‘one country, two systems’ mean?

What does ‘one country, two systems’ mean?
This is the hallmark of a culturally advanced society. The leaders who crafted the “ one country, two systems” policy had come up through the ranks of the Communist Party structure with plentiful managerial experience. It took men with long-range vision over several generations to fashion such policy, accommodating Hong Kong’s return to the motherland.

Lofty ideals and long-term projects are difficult matters to put to voters in a democracy. The short-term cycle of elected governments and the constant glances to the next election make it virtually impossible for a policy like one country, two systems to gain traction in a democracy.

US President Joe Biden prides himself as presiding over a democracy, but that “democracy” is barely 100 years old. What America’s “Founding Fathers” created was a republic meant to be governed by the elite.

The House of Representatives, composed of men elected by popular vote, could not be trusted to be the sole lawmakers. There had to be the Senate, an upper house composed of men appointed by state legislatures. Not until the 17th Amendment in 1913 were senators elected by popular vote.

This system produced film actors and reality television stars as presidents of the US. Could they have crafted something as sophisticated as one country, two systems? It seems most unlikely.

Henry Litton is a retired Court of Final Appeal judge and author of Is the Hong Kong Judiciary Sleepwalking to 2047?