Expert Commentary

Hong Kong and Beijing: Getting Back to “Basics”

June 30, 2017 | Richard Bush
 

Twenty years ago, when Britain handed Hong Kong back to China, Beijing agreed to administer the island according to the Basic Law, which would preserve the civil and political liberties of Hong Kong and create a path to universal suffrage for Hong Kong. However, in the intervening years, many believe Beijing has overstepped its mandate and the future of universal suffrage in Hong Kong is uncertain. The Cipher Brief’s Will Edwards spoke to Richard Bush, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute to learn more about the social, political, and economic dynamics that shape the relationship between Hong Kong and mainland China.

The Cipher Brief: How has the “one country two systems” policy worked in practice?

Richard Bush: Let me start by laying out the political essentials of one country, two systems. That is, the Basic Law of 1990 created a partial democracy in Hong Kong. By that I mean that the chief executive was not elected by popular elections, half of the Legislative Council was not elected by popular elections, but the Basic Law guaranteed the rule of law, an independent judiciary, and civilian and political rights. China probably did not understand when it agreed to the basic approach in 1984 in the Joint Declaration with the United Kingdom that Hong Kong people would be so aggressive in expressing their political rights, which they did from 1989 on. If China was expecting to get just an economic city, it got a political city as well.

The second point is that the efforts in 2013, 2014, and 2015 to reform the electoral system were meant to expand the scope of popular elections, specifically for the chief executive. There was a huge debate over whether what was on offer really made the system more democratic or was just a different way for China to maintain control. I have a sort of middle positon on that, but it was an effort to move the system in the direction of fuller democracy. The situation now is that not only does the effort to expand the scope of competitive and popular elections seem to have stalled, but there are also disturbing signs that Beijing—the central government—wants to cut back on the political freedoms, civil rights, and the rule of law in Hong Kong. So, not only is Hong Kong maybe not going to get what the people want in terms of greater popular elections, but what they’ve had for 20 years more or less is in danger of being trimmed away.

In terms of economics, initially Beijing took a very hands-off attitude towards Hong Kong and its economy, and it wanted to prove to Hong Kong people that when they said two systems. Note that when they said two systems, they really meant economic systems: socialism on the mainland and capitalism in Hong Kong. The economic crisis that hit East Asia and Hong Kong that started with the Asian financial crisis of 1997 and then the dot-com bust starting in 2000 led to a revision of that approach, and so Hong Kong and the mainland became actually more integrated, and the central government provided greater benefits in terms of its economic policy towards Hong Kong.

Socially there has been a shift in a couple of different ways. First of all, the degree to which Hong Kong people identified as being Chinese as opposed to Hong Kong people. There’s more sense of being Hong Kong Chinese or just Hong Kong people and that’s a little disturbing to Beijing because they thought that Hong Kong would be even more patriotic after reversion than before.

Also, you’ve had a number of mainland people coming into Hong Kong. First of all, you have young, very talented, and eager university graduates who are looking for jobs, and that provides competition for young Hong Kong people that they didn’t have before. That creates a certain amount of resentment. Then you have a lot of mainland tourists, which has given a boost to certain parts of the Hong Kong economy, but it has also created a certain amount of animosity among Hong Kong people because the tourists just behave differently. 

The areas of friction are first the differences between Hong Kong and mainland societies, second the changing challenges for Hong Kong’s economic competitiveness, and third a resentment among a good share of the Hong Kong people that the failure to reform the electoral system was because of resistance by Beijing and a concern about the future of civil and political rights.

On balance, probably the area of greatest mutual benefit has been economically—not for everybody, but Hong Kong is probably better off than it would have been if Beijing had maintained the segregated approach that it started off with. The area of greatest disappointment for Beijing is that it was hoping successful implementation of one country, two systems would be a demonstration to Taiwan, on which it also wanted to use the one country, two systems formula, but how the formula has actually worked out in Hong Kong has probably made it less and less likely that people in Taiwan would ever consider it. That’s partly because of things that happened in Hong Kong and partly because of the way Taiwan has evolved politically, but that’s probably further and further away and Beijing probably recognizes it.

TCB: How does the election of Carrie Lam, who was chosen by a select group of Beijing-approved voters and not the most popular candidate, as chief executive fit into the struggle between Beijing and Hong Kong on political power?

Bush: It did appear to many in Hong Kong and many overseas that Beijing’s approach to electoral reform would change who got to vote. It would move from just an election committee of 1,200 people, most of whom were sympathetic to Beijing, to one where all registered Hong Kong voters voted. However, China would still control the process through a nomination committee that would be similar in membership to the old election committee. So, the control would be exercised at a different stage.

My view and the view of some experts in Hong Kong is that the detailed proposal that was put forward to the legislature in April 2015 actually created a narrow pathway for the election of a chief executive from the democratic camp. The democrats, if they were highly strategic in working the nomination process within the nomination committee, could have gotten one of their own nominated and even elected. The reasons are complicated and the whole thing fell apart as much because of mistrust as because of the details of the proposal, but we could have had a fully democratic election earlier this year, and maybe somebody else besides Carrie Lam would have won.

Now, for Beijing she is the safe candidate. She has come up through the civil service, she knows the civil service, she has dealt with a lot of the policy issues that Hong Kong has to face including housing, dealing with an aging society, inequality, economic competitiveness, and so on. She’s not an amateur, she’s also not charismatic and so for certain sectors of Hong Kong society that’s probably not a good thing. Some people will see her as beholden to Beijing. In my view, the fair approach for the future is to wait to see how all of this plays out and what she does.

There is a desire at this point for a period of stability, she’s probably a good person to provide it. She also understands what the boundaries between Hong Kong and China should be, including in this area of civil and political rights that I mentioned, and we should not prejudge her on that issue either.

TCB: What is the legacy of the pro-democracy 2014 umbrella movement and what are Hong Kong’s general sentiments about the state of democracy?

Bush: If you did polls, most people would probably say that 2014-2015 process was a step backward because it didn’t result in popular elections for the chief executive. As I’ve suggested that the situation is more complicated, and that actually people in the democratic camp should have given the government’s proposal a closer look.

The Umbrella Movement reflected a trend in Hong Kong politics that had been going on for about a decade and that is the emergence of a protest culture. In this culture, more radical activists were not so willing to work within established rules of conducting demonstrations. It probably gave more power to radicals in the democratic camp, and this speaks to the critical role of moderate democrats in determining whether electoral reform forward or not.

One of the reasons that an electoral reform that was good enough did not get enacted was because of the pressure of radical democrats on their moderate colleagues. Sure, there was mistrust between democrats and Beijing, between democrats and the Hong Kong government, and that was real and palpable, but the mistrust within the democratic camp was also important. So you had an outcome where radicals in Hong Kong were empowered and hardliners in Beijing were empowered. Each used the other to justify its existence and its proposals, and so the moderate center shrank and the possibility of constructive policy change declined.

So this culture of protest has not gone away. If Beijing tries to tighten control of Hong Kong in visible ways that you are likely to see even more protests and they will be locked in a cycle of tough actions back and forth with no real progress.

TCB: Where do you see all of this heading in 10 or 20 years?

Bush: The prospects don’t look terribly bright, and let me explain why. Hong Kong definitely does need to improve its economic competitiveness, and there are a lot of policy steps that need to be taken towards that end. But it also needs a political system that can enact policies concerning economic growth, demographics, education, housing, and so on. The status quo in the Legislative Council right now is one of pretty serious gridlock, and people in the democratic and localist camp use procedures to block initiatives that on their own merits should probably go through. The argument often is that this is creating a society even more unequal than it already is, and so it should be resisted on those terms.

In a way if you don’t have a more democratic system, the legislature will continue to have difficulties in pushing forward policy changes. So successful economic policy requires a greater democracy. There are a lot of ways in which Hong Kong requires better governance, including the way the civil service operates, including how the Legislative Council operates. All of that requires a basic social and political consensus, but as long as people are arguing over electoral reform and even the state of civil and political rights, that becomes harder to do.

The Author is Richard Bush

Richard Bush is a senior fellow at The Brookings Institution. He is the author of Hong Kong in the Shadow of China: Living with the Leviathan, published last year by the Brookings Press.

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