One Country - Two Systems?

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A factor that makes China's story of "reform and opening" so fascinating is the experimental character of this policy. It's been a process of try and error, and – above all – success. The idea of giving Hong Kong a "high degree of autonomy" after its return from British rule, was typical Chinese pragmatism. Hong Kong's political autonomy resembles the status of cities opened to "free trade" during the era of Western imperialism, when China didn't choose to open up to the rest of the world, but was forced into world trade and world politics by Western powers.

To this day, the story of Western imperialism is something many Chinese would bend your ears with, when you are a foreigner from one of those intrusive countries. That is especially true if you are from America – a country whose government is very much at odds with the way China is ruled today. Whenever the Chinese human rights record becomes an issue at the UN human rights committee, "thanks" to the US government, Chinese media will recall the "bitter past", and the public loves discussing these stories with you. If there is no American foreigner available, a German may be useful, too. After all, one of the "expeditions" of the allied invaders of the 19th century was lead by the Germans (that one that burnt down the Summer Palace in Peking).

China hated the concept of "free trade ports" when it was imposed by the West, about a century and a half ago. Not because it was necessarily bad – rather, because it's imperial court was forced to accept it. As a nation that took care of territories returning to the motherland, as a sovereign country that, one by one, got back what was rightfully hers, it was China herself who suggested this kind of arrangement.

"One Country, Two Systems"

That is how Deng Xiaoping had put it, in the late 1970s. He didn't think of Hong Kong, back then. It was his suggestion to Taiwan, and the return of Hong Kong and Macau has always been looked at as the first instalment of the complete "re-unification" with the motherland, which would include Taiwan. Taiwan should be allowed to keep a high degree of autonomy, that would go even further than that of Hong Kong's current status. It would include the right of Taiwan to keep its own army. But these days calls from Hong Kong's Democratic Party for universal suffrage when choosing a Chief Executive for the territory have angered Peking, and by themselves express a deep distrust of Hong Kong´s Democrats, when it comes to the central government's role in Hong Kong.

It isn't just the Democrats who distrust Peking. Last summer, hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers joined a demonstration that condemned a legislation draft about treason to the motherland. Peking has a final say in everything that regards Hong Kong's external relations, and its defence, in case of foreign attacks. But Peking is also in a position to appoint Hong Kong's chief executive, it opposes universal suffrage - the right of Hong Kongers to vote on who should lead their city, or their right to elect the entire legislative body - Hong Kong' s Legislative Council. Any mainland Chinese official who comments on affairs that should be decided within Hong Kong's own autonomy, provokes nervous public reactions in Hong Kong. On at least one occasion, when the question was about mainland Chinese immigration to Hong Kong, Peking "re-interpreted" the territories basic law, to overrule a decision by Hong Kong's Court of Final Appeal. It didn't help much that this re-interpretation was one in Hong Kong's favour, as it actually limited the number of mainlanders that would have had the right to abode in the rich Southern city, after the court's rule. Many Hong Kongers feared, and still fear, that it set a precedence. With a civil service that depends on the benevolance of a Chief Executive hand-picked by the central government in Peking, such fears should surprise no-one.

One half of the "LegCo", Hong Kong's legislative council, is chosen in free elections. Most Hong Kongers never voted - that was true during the rule of Chris Patten, too – the last British governor, and the man who introduced partly free elections. But in these elections, the Democratic Party does best, every time. This is exactly the party whose leaders are denied any chance by the Peking government to discuss matters with them. The "Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong" is Peking's darling, and has been punished for this special relationship in every election so far.

Authority in China doesn't come with an official post. Authority comes with a man's or woman's stature, his or her past, capability, and - sometimes - with the prestige of his or her family. Martin Lee (Lee Chu-ming), an attorney and political activist in Hong Kong, is such a personality. His father was a KMT (Kuo Min Tang) general under Chiang Kai-shek. Until last year, Martin Lee was the chairman of Hong Kong's Democratic Party, and he is still calling the shots, there. In March, he and some other activists accepted an invitation by the US Congress and took part in a hearing about Hong Kong's current political status. Accused of "going to foreign temples and listening to their Gods' advice", Lee pointed out that both Britain and China had worked hard in the 1980s to engender American trust in the deal they had struck in 1984, about Hong Kong's legal system after its return to Chinese sovereignty.

To win the trust of Hong Kong (and to improve their reputation among the Taiwanese), China's rulers would have to leave Hong Kong alone - except for its diplomatic representation abroad, and its military defence. How else could Taiwan find the "one country, two systems" formula more attractive than its current de-facto independent status?
But things aren't that easy.
For one, Chinese officials consider any kind of distrust towards them as offensive – even, if it is less explicit than last year's demonstrations in Hong Kong. And then, how can mainlanders, especially in the newly-rich big cities and coastal provinces, accept that six million Hong Kongers have the right to elect their own regional government and legislators, and (God forbid) sue them when they mess with their individual rights, while more than a billion mainlanders are denied exactly these rights?

In the 1980s, "One Country, Two Systems" was an opportunity, and a pragmatic choice. But then, maybe Deng and the Communists spoke a language they themselves didn't understand. When Peking defined the nature of Tibet's and other Chinese regions' "autonomy", no foreigners were involved. The definition of Hong Kong's status, however, was a matter of negotiations between China and Britain. Foreign languages may master you, if you don't really master them.

China's current policies are a huge experiment, and therefore fascinating. But you can only appreciate the fascination, when you are a foreigner. For mainlanders and Hong Kongers alike, there is to much at stake for that.


External links about Hong Kong
Harmful Speech, a somewhat poisonous blog from HK, updated about every week

Book Reviews: Why things in Hong Kong "will change only over the dead bodies of the civil service and the property tycoons"

"Donald Tsang ... bears the burden of being a puppet."
Economist, Jan 3, 2008

NPC Standing Committee to consider allowing direct election of HK leader in 2017. Donald Tsang: "We are grateful".
BBC News, Dec 29, 2007

Anson Chan wins by-election, and Home affairs secretary Tsang Tak-sing seems to criticise her new role as a lawmaker., Dec 2, 2007, Dec 6, 2007

US Navy ships drop HK visit plan
BBC News, Nov 22, 2007

DAB chairman Ma Lik (馬力) dies: "a leftist, but also a very gentle person", Aug 09, 2007

Special treats for foreign journalists in HK?, July 14, 2007

The Hong Kong Journalists Association: RTHK under siege, 2006 Annual Report

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