Hong Kong and China: One Country, One Future?

Photo: Anthony Kwan/Getty

Xi Jinping will make his first visit to Hong Kong as president of China this week as the territory prepares to commemorate the 20th anniversary of its handover from Britain to China. Xi, who has slowly but surely consolidated power around himself will visit as Hong Kong fears it is inexorably ceding its civil and political liberties to Beijing.

As Britain prepared to return Hong Kong to China after more than 150 years of colonial administration, it took steps to preserve Hong Kong’s democratic rights and a path to free elections. Known as the Basic Law, this document signed in 1990 by China and the UK guaranteed Beijing’s central authority, but also preserved property rights, freedom of speech, an independent judiciary for Hong Kong for a period of 50 years following the July 1, 1997, transfer. The arrangement also separated Hong Kong’s capitalist economy from mainland China’s socialist one. This “one country, two systems” approach served Beijing and Hong Kong well for a time.

However, many in Hong Kong now call it “one country, 1.5 systems,” as Beijing has chipped away at civil liberties. Although China normally refrains from overt displays of power and control—Chinese soldiers in Hong Kong remain in their barracks, for example—there are notable exceptions.

A series of high-profile abductions has Hong Kong anxious over Beijing’s reach into its affairs. In 2015, five employees disappeared from a Hong Kong bookstore that sold materials critical of Beijing leadership. Although four have since returned, one remains detained in mainland China.

The most prominent example of “1.5 systems” may be the lack of electoral reform. Despite agreeing to the Basic Law’s stipulation of universal suffrage, Beijing has not allowed elections for Hong Kong’s highest political position, the chief executive. Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive-elect, was chosen using a Beijing-controlled system under which only 1,194, Beijing-approved voters can cast ballots.

Frustration over this system, and Beijing’s reluctance to agree to a more universal electoral process fueled the 2014 Umbrella Movement, so named because protestors used umbrellas to block police tear gas canisters. This largely youth-led movement attracted tens of thousands to protest in downtown Hong Kong for 79 days.

Richard Bush, a Brookings Institute senior fellow, told The Cipher Brief the movement “was a step backward because it didn’t result in popular elections for the chief executive,” and “probably gave more power to radicals in the democratic camp.”

This radicalization of democrats risks diminishing the moderate center’s influence and conflating pro-democracy and independence from China in Beijing’s eyes. In a Time magazine interview Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong, said, “It’s wrong, I think, to allow a campaign for more democracy to morph into a campaign for independence, because it dilutes support for democracy,” and, “it just plays into the hands of the hardliners [in Beijing].”

For Beijing, the one country, two systems approach has not worked as planned either. Regaining administrative control over Hong Kong was supposed to be an example for how it could regain Taiwan—a former Chinese territory that has become a capitalist and democratic country.

Beijing has also been stymied by Hong Kong’s determination to retain a separate cultural identity from the mainland. Twenty years of Hong Kong University polling data shows that the percentage of Hong Kong citizens who identify as Chinese has remained relatively constant at around 20 percent.

In Hong Kong Xi will preside over Lam’s inauguration as chief executive, as every mainland leader has done since 1997 although Xi does so as the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong. As the mainland’s influence over Hong Kong grows while Hong Kong strives to preserve its identity and expand its democratic rights, the two sides may find themselves increasingly at odds.

The solution to this polarization between mainland hardliners and Hong Kong’s democratic radicals may be reestablishment of a strong moderate position in Hong Kong politics. With a long career in civil service, Lam may be able to start this process. Bush says she “told leaders in Beijing that they shouldn’t worry about a Hong Kong independence movement because the people who advocate this idea are a very small sliver of society. They are not a danger, and that’s a good view.”

“It’s a mature view and a constructive view, and I hope Beijing listens,” he said. 

Will Edwards is an Asia-Pacific and defense analyst at The Cipher Brief. Follow him on Twitter @_wedwards.

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