Is “One Country, Two Systems” Doomed To Fail?
The city must stop further politicization or risk destroying "one country, two systems". (Photo: Getty Images)
By Henry Hing Lee Chan

Is “One Country, Two Systems” Doomed To Fail?

Sep. 18, 2019  |     |  0 comments

September 16, 2019 marked the 100th day of the demonstrations against the now-defunct extradition bill in Hong Kong, and there is considerable uncertainty over when and how the ensuing violence will end. The announcement from Chief Executive Carrie Lam to formally withdraw the controversial bill on September 4 failed to stop the violence in the city.

Lam’s Goodwill Gesture

Aside from the goodwill gesture to formally withdraw the bill, Lam also promised to implement the following three measures. The first is to speed up the work of the Independent Police Complaint Council (IPCC) to investigate police mishandling of the demonstrators. The second is to start direct dialogues with different communities, and the third is to extend invitations to professionals and academics to examine the city’s deep-rooted problems such as the oft-mentioned issues relating to housing and land supply, wealth gap, social justice and mobility for the young people.

Lam’s offers were met with skepticism by most observers. The radicals rejected her proposals and repeated their other four demands: the removal of the “riot” characterization of the violent protests; the unconditional release of all arrested protesters; the formation of an independent commission of inquiry into police behavior; and universal suffrage.  

The four demands of the radicals are not something that Lam can agree. She explained that the city has a tradition of “rule-of-law” and it is beyond her power to give in to the first two demands. On the inquiry commission against police abuses, she noted that the existing mechanism of monitoring police excesses through the IPCC is working and she tacitly implies that the government will not create a new overseer that could hamper the police work at this time of crisis. On the universal suffrage issue, she stated that the political reform could only be done “in an atmosphere of mutual trust” and hinted that it could be part of the social discussion. The National People’s Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC) promulgated the last rule on suffrage in 2014, and the opposition in the Hong Kong Legislative Council rejected it. The role of Chief Executive is recommending changes in the laws of suffrage to the NPCSC and the Hong Kong Legislative Council for their final approval. She cannot promise any changes to suffrage rules by herself.

The open social dialogue idea proposed by Lam is unlikely to materialize as the positions of the government and demonstrators remain far apart. The mayhem in the past 15 weeks and the continuing impasse prompted many observers to comment that the “one country, two systems” is an inherently unworkable concept because the two parties involved in its working likely hold different views on the idea, and it is unavoidable that mayhem is erupting finally.

“One Country, Two Systems”

“One country, two systems” is a bold experiment concocted by the late Deng Xiaoping in early 1980s to resolve the challenges facing the 1997 Hong Kong reversion to Chinese rule. China was operating under the socialist system, and Hong Kong was living under a capitalist system, and a reversion to Chinese rules without a creative new framework would be very disruptive to the city and likely relegate it to just another city of China, hurting the economic modernization effort of the country.

Under the framework of “one country, two systems”, the city would enjoy a high degree of autonomy, which even exceeds that of states under the federal form of government. In fact, the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) enjoys an unusually broad range of administrative power in economics, education, science, culture, sports, religion, social services, social security, and immigration. It is an independent custom area with a separate financial and monetary system.

Deng acknowledged the challenge behind the idea of “one country, two systems”. He noted, “This is something new. It was created not by the United States, Japan, the Soviet Union or any European country, but by China; that is why we call it a Chinese characteristic.” He added, “We are building socialism suited to Chinese conditions, which is why we were able to formulate the policy of ‘one country, two systems’ and why we can allow the two different systems to coexist. We would not be able to do this if we lacked courage, the courage that comes from the support of the people. Our people support the socialist system and leadership by the Party.”

The emphasis over a political construct suitable to Chinese conditions meant that problems over “one country, two systems” is not unexpected. While China acknowledges the help of a vibrant Hong Kong in its development, it retains the country’s sovereign power over the city. The NPCSC retains the power of final interpretation on the Basic Law under Article 158, and the Beijing government can apply relevant national law in HKSAR when the city is in a state of emergency under Article 18.

The country successfully co-opts two different way of operating the economy for a long time since the reform and opening up of 1978. By extension, this means that the country is also probably the only one that the “one country, two systems” gets a chance to work.

Identitiy of Chinese or Hongkonger

The University of Hong Kong’s Public Opinion Program has been conducting regular surveys since 1997 on Cantonese-speaking residents who are 18 years old and above on their identity as a Chinese or a Hongkonger. This study is a good reflection of residents’ sentiment toward China and by extension, how they feel about “one country, two systems”.

Source: HKUPOP

The graph above showed that the identity of being a Chinese dropped initially after the city’s reversion to China in 1997 but started recovering by 1999. In 2008, there are significantly more residents identifying themselves as Chinese than being Hongkonger. The Chinese identity started its downhill dive after 2008, and the diametric Hongkonger identity saw an almost consistent rise. The last figure based on a June 17-20, 2019 survey showed that 10.8 percent respondents identified themselves as Chinese and 52.9 percent identified as Hongkonger. It reflected the widespread opposition to the extradition law that erupted on June 9.

Many observers attributed the pre-2008 support of “one country, two systems” to the fact that after Hong Kong’s return to China in 1997, people in Hong Kong lived their lives as usual and there was no perceptible change in their identity. Chinese help given to the city in the Asian Financial Crisis and in the 2003 SARS recovery generated a sense of identity as being Chinese. The pre-2010s’ Chinese identity being higher than Hongkonger is proof that “one country, two systems” is not destined to fail.

Before the 2010s, the only significant social event was the July 2003 demonstration against the enactment of national security law under Article 23, and it was a single afternoon peaceful event. Then Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa subsequently withdrew the proposed legislation.

Governance Issues

Hong Kong’s governance issues started surfacing in the late 2000s. Then Chief Executive Donald Tsang was subsequently jailed for 20 months over misconduct; then Chief Secretary Rafael Hui was also charged with bribery and misconduct and sentenced to a jail term of seven and a half years. Many critical social problems facing Hong Kong, such as housing, wealth gap, social justice and mobility for the young people gained momentum in Tsang’s term. The housing condition notably deteriorated after he froze the supply of public housing.

At the same time, China was also grappling with its share of governance issues, such as the corruption conviction of many key national leaders such as Zhou Yongkang, Bo Xilai, Ling Jihua, Guo Boxiong and Xu Caihou. Beijing was busy with its anti-corruption campaign and failed to note the deteriorating governance problems besetting Hong Kong in the 2010s.

The buildup of discontent in the 2010s saw the September 2012 rally against moral and national education, the Occupy Central movement in 2014 and the ongoing anti-extradition mayhem. The rallying period is getting longer, from 10 days in 2012 to 79 days in 2014 and the still-developing chaos now that is more than 100 days. There was no violence in the 2012 episode, a little disorder in the 2014 event, but the ongoing violence has reached levels more than street unrests with wanton destruction of subway stations and throwing of petrol bombs.  

Structural Problem or Implementation Shortfall

The Chinese government has laid down three red lines on “one country, two systems”: endangering China’s sovereignty and security, challenging the power of the central government and the Basic Law, or using Hong Kong to carry out infiltration and sabotage activities against the mainland. The city must stop the further politicization or risk destroying the “one country, two systems”.

If we look at the period before the 2010s, “one country, two systems” worked well when the social and economic conditions of the city were benign, and the city was not politicized. The concept itself is not doomed to fail; the stress faced by the city reflected more of governance failure. The situation today in Hong Kong is very similar to what happened in the US and many countries in Europe. The dissatisfied people put all blame of any failures on politics.

The current drive of Lam to use the Lands Resumption Ordinance and the imposition of vacancy tax to address housing problems are moves in the right direction. However, the fanatics’ adoption of urban guerrilla warfare, roaming from one district to another and using the weekends or selected days to confront the police have damaged the economy and tear down social fabrics. More decisive steps to stop the violence must be adopted before the economic and social upheavals get time to work out and win over the silent majority. “One country, two systems” is not destined to fail.