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The ‘One Country, Two Systems’ (OCTS) concept which governed the UK’s return of the crown colony of Hong Kong to China was born out of necessity; simply absorbing Hong Kong in 1997 would not have been sensible. Both then and earlier in 1984 when the Sino–British Joint Declaration was signed, the territory was of great value to China. Hong Kong’s GDP equated to around 20% of the mainland’s (it is now below 3%). Its port was the only one capable, by size and efficiency, of coping with southern China’s exports. Hong Kong’s role as a financial and investment centre was instrumental in helping China’s development.
22 years later, Hong Kong’s importance to China remains, although diminished. Meanwhile, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has become confident and assertive. Under Xi Jinping, Communist politics and ideology have made a comeback, and with them a creeping intolerance of the differences between the mainland and the Special Autonomous Region (SAR). For the CCP, Hong Kong’s exceptionalism is uncomfortable: the territory enjoys freedoms, including limited powers of election, denied to the rest of China and it is a beacon to dissident views in the mainland, a reminder that alternatives to CCP-style governance work.
In an ideal CCP world, Hong Kong’s differences with the mainland would gradually fade. No one speaks about what happens after 2047, when the guarantee of OCTS lapses. Yet surely Xi Jinping must feel that his China Dream and the CCP’s second centennial goal of a ‘strong, democratic, civilized, harmonious and modern socialist country’ cannot be achieved if the country is not united and uniform, if protests and disturbances continue. Well before 2047, the Party has a menu of measures to be introduced, including national security laws, ‘patriotic education’, a settled political framework and the rendition (‘extradition’ is between sovereign states) of fugitive offenders.
Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s attempt to introduce a Fugitive Offenders Ordinance has been badly mismanaged. Surely, she was aware of its sensitivity. The UK abandoned the issue in 1992 as too difficult. Discussions resumed between Hong Kong and the mainland after 1997, but led nowhere, although ‘the SAR [Special Administrative Region] Government has publicly committed itself to ensuring that any agreement is acceptable to the people of Hong Kong and to the Legislative Council’, as the Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs report on the territory remarked in 1999. Carrie Lam would have been wise to recall that commitment – or the warnings of the Hong Kong Bar Association in April this year. Instead, by trying to rush through a measure, she provoked the biggest demonstration in Hong Kong since 1989, with perhaps one in five of all inhabitants hitting the streets. Old, young, lawyers, businessmen – it has been an achievement to alienate them all.
Should Beijing share the blame? Probably. It may not have given direct and detailed orders; that is not its way. But it set the general direction and certain objectives, of which a Fugitive Offenders Ordinance was almost certainly one, not least to avoid the need for kidnapping (as it instigated in recent years with the five booksellers and the tycoon Xiao Jianhua). But the Chief Executive chose the timing – disastrously, not least because it ran over the sensitive 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen repression, and because, if there was to be any long-running protest, just over 100 days before the 70th anniversary of the founding of the PRC was a risky date.
Rendition of fugitive offenders is necessary to prevent criminals fleeing justice, as long as it is done in a way which preserves Hong Kong’s rule of law, the underpinning of its success and prosperity. But what has been a difficult issue has now become a neuralgic one. The bill has been suspended and will remain so for a very long time – certainly, for as long Carrie Lam remains in power. Chief Executives can serve two terms; she will not. Whether she goes before her appointed time in 2022 is a moot point. Governing is going to be much more difficult; her credibility has been compromised and the cries for her resignation will not go away.
From Beijing’s point of view, recent events have been a big setback. If Carrie Lam goes early, it will show that the people of Hong Kong may not be able to elect, but are able to de-select, their Chief Executive. Moreover, not only is rendition set back, but so will the reintroduction of a Hong Kong national security law or the introduction of patriotic education, both more important aims of the CCP and both frustrated in past years. Hong Kong’s people have gained confidence that by coming onto the streets, they can stymie unwanted laws.
Worse, the protests have laid bare the lack of trust (and patriotism, if you are from the CCP) of the Hong Kong people, their ability to defy Beijing (yet again) even as 2047 gets nearer, and the governance problem inherent in a Chief Executive who fears to represent Hong Kong to the CCP leadership, but rather tries to represent the CCP to Hong Kong’s people. They have also exposed the failure of extensive United Front Work Department activities to bring over the people, not least the young, always an important target.
In the Future What?
Beijing has to rebuild the trust of the Hong Kong people, especially its young people. A new Chief Executive would be a start. Allowing greater play for the ‘Two Systems’ part of OCTS would help. Then rendition might be possible.
The CCP also needs to give assurances about 2047 well before that date. Otherwise, the succession of flare-ups (2003 over national security legislation, 2012 over interference in education, 2014 over election, 2019 over fugitive offenders) will worsen over the next 28 years. If Hong Kong is to thrive in the long term, which means not just being another Chinese city, then the CCP needs to reinforce the ‘Two Systems’ now and guarantee its survival, in particular the common law system, after 2047. In the modern world, capital flight and talent flight are easy.
For foreigners, and the UK in particular, supporting the preservation of OCTS is a delicate proposition, given a paranoid CCP which, as usual, blames problems of its own making on ‘hostile foreign forces’. It is in the UK’s interests that OCTS carries on beyond 2047, not just for our trade and investment, but for the welfare of the many UK citizens in Hong Kong and our moral duty to those several million with British Nationals (Overseas) status.
It is also in the interests of China and the CCP (the two can differ) for Hong Kong to continue to prosper, even if that means ‘Two Systems’ going beyond 2047. The question is whether the CCP can lay aside the baggage of history and the politics of the present, whether Xi Jinping can return to the flexibility of Deng Xiaoping, who implemented the concept. Meanwhile, some Hongkongers may also need to moderate their radicalism.
In the absence of such compromise and understanding, hope over the next 28 years would have to depend, in Harold Macmillan’s apocryphal words, on ‘events, dear boy, events’ – not a sound basis for optimism.
To say nothing about Taiwan.
BANNER IMAGE: Demonstration in Legislative Council Road. Courtesy of Wikimedia
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.