“One Country, Two Systems”: An Experiment in State Governance
July 1, 2017 marks the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to China. The “one country, two systems” policy in Hong Kong has reached its middle period. Across China, discussions, research and commemorative activities have been held. The international community, while recognizing the effective governance of China’s central government and Hong Kong’s achievements over the past two decades, is eagerly speculating on the concrete plans and policies the central government will introduce for Hong Kong in the years to come.
When discussing the governance of Hong Kong, as well as paying attention to whether Hong Kong can continue to exercise a high degree of autonomy, the international community places more focus on the dynamic assessment of the certainty and rationalization of China’s state acts. For the past two decades, under the framework of the “one country, two systems” principle and the Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China (hereinafter Basic Law”), China’s central government has fully respected and supported Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy, safeguarded its prosperity and stability, and contributed to and maintained the overall authority and order of the Basic Law in accordance with the law, serving as a faithful and qualified institutional guardian.
For China, practice of the “one country, two systems” principle in Hong Kong is much more than a simple management experiment. Socialist China has retained a local capitalist system for a long time and has actively supported and managed this significantly different existence. China has responded to and generally met the demands of various stakeholders at national, local and international levels and maintained the inner balance and vitality of the “one country, two systems” principle and the Basic Law. All these achievements have been made through hard work. While governing Hong Kong for the past 20 years, China’s central government has engaged in study and exchanges with the international community at deeper levels and gained an even more comprehensive governing and legislating capacity.
Hong Kong’s Return and Governance Challenges
In 1842, the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) was defeated by the United Kingdom in the First Opium War (1840-42). The Qing government was forced to sign the Treaty of Nanking with the UK, the first of many unfair treaties forced on China by foreign imperialist powers in modern times. The treaty granted the cession of Hong Kong Island to Britain, from which time Hong Kong was under British colonial rule. At the same time, the countdown to Hong Kong’s return to the motherland began. For China, the suffering and misery inflicted by war was far more than just cession of territory. From then on, the country’s humiliating history of more than a century overshadowed the loss of land.
From 1842 to 1997, Hong Kong faced a trial of strength between two historical times and two identities. The first was a historical view of British colonial rule. By facilitating strong international trade and governance of common law, Britain became a global power in modern times. Based on this system, a more favorable view of colonial history was established. The flipside saw Hong Kong’s return to the motherland as a victory for China and its people against the brutal semi-colonial and semi-feudal environment that was thrust on China in modern times, and the restoration of Hong Kong’s sovereignty after struggles of generations as a road to prosperity. After two World Wars, Britain suffered a decisive decline, and its colonial system collapsed. In 1984, China and Britain signed the Joint Declaration of the Government of the People’s Republic of China and the Government of the United Kingdom of Great Brit- ain and Northern Ireland on the Question of Hong Kong in Beijing, confirming that the Chinese government would resume and exercise sovereignty over Hong Kong from July 1, 1997. Then, Hong Kong entered a 13-year transitional period before its return to China. The factors enabling Hong Kong’s successful return lie not only in the patriotism of Hong Kong compatriots and the vision of a community of shared future for people from both Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland, but also in China’s strength and alluring prospects for more reform and opening-up to the outside world.
On July 1, 1997, Hong Kong returned to the motherland, exciting the entire nation. However, some Hong Kong people’s feelings about British colonial rule and the values and lifestyles shaped by Britain’s colonial rule were not easily overcome. It is clear that during the transitional period from 1984 to 1997, some Hong Kong people were unable to change their feelings about British colonial rule, which had been guiding the city for 100 years, and embrace Hong Kong’s return to the motherland.
Thus, it is understandable that some Hong Kong residents didn’t feel the same emotion as people on the Chinese mainland about the restoration of sovereignty. People within the “two systems” have different values and political cultures which can’t be ignored, even within one country. Besides, due to the various latent forces and barrier mechanisms set by Britain during Hong Kong’s return to China, the trial of political strength between China and Britain didn’t end in 1997, but influenced the governance of Hong Kong long after its return.
As we commemorate the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to China, while summarizing the Chinese central government’s achievements in governing Hong Kong, we should also notice that the Basic Law might also be facing a sort of “mid-life crisis.” The governance of Hong Kong currently faces some challenges: The administrative functions and acts of the government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR), as defined in the Basic Law, have been restricted. Excessive localization of jurisdiction has hurt some national interests. Some opposition forces in Hong Kong have shown a tendency towards radicalization and violence, directly threatening the order and security of the Basic Law. Hong Kong’s social contradictions and improper public policies on people’s livelihoods have led to local dissatisfaction and disappointment.
Governing Hong Kong: Setting out with Ease
China’s central government has responded dynamically, following up and
diagnosing the major problems and evolutionary trends in the governance of Hong Kong. It has provided responses in line with its constitutional role and shouldered its responsibility to guard the “one country, two systems” policy and the Basic Law.
Based on some policies and related statements issued by China’s central government on Hong Kong and Macao in 2017, several predictions have been made about the Chinese central government’s future plans for governing Hong Kong:
The “one country, two systems” policy will remain unchanged for a long time. In quite a few documents and on many formal occasions, China’s central government has pointed out that the “one country, two systems” policy and the basic laws, the framework of governing Hong Kong and Macao, will maintain stable for the long term. No major institutional reforms will be carried out, and greater importance will be placed on policy refinement and adjustment as well as more complete law enforcement. These moves have shown the continuity and strategic willpower of the central government’s policy towards Hong Kong and provided critical constitutional and policy foundations for the long-term stability and prosperity of Hong Kong and Macao.
The principle of “governing Hong Kong in accordance with the law” will be further consolidated. Policies and related statements issued by China’s central government on governing Hong Kong in 2017 highlight the general trend of the rule of law in Hong Kong. Greater importance has been placed on the following aspects: First, China’s Constitution and the Basic Law form a joint law basis for the governance of Hong Kong. In this context, the legal molding and integration effect of the Constitution on the Basic Law should be reaffirmed and highlighted. Second, the Basic law’s role in administrative guidance should be reaffirmed and the central government will support HKSAR’S chief executive and its government to carry out administrative functions in accordance with the law. Third, within the Basic Law, separatism in Hong Kong violates the Constitution and causes great damage to society. The principle of “governing Hong Kong in accordance with the Constitution and the Basic Law” has become the common governance policy for China’s central government to govern Hong Kong as well as for Hong Kong’s self-governance. China’s central government has made it clear that it will transform from the previous practice of “governing Hong Kong through consultation” to “governing Hong Kong in accordance with the law.”
Coordinating the five development goals for Hong Kong will invigorate its social reconstruction. China’s 2017 report on the work of the government emphasized the “five goals” for Hong Kong’s governance and social development, including exercising law-based governance, growing the economy, improving people’s wellbeing, advancing democracy and promoting social harmony. The five goals have combined various topics including the rule of law, political systems, economics and society together. In recent years, the governance of Hong Kong has slid into traps of social movements, po- litical reform, and even separatism, resulting in huge losses in strength and an economic slowdown. Hong Kong urgently needs to overcome the “over-politicization” trap, actively promote economic development, blaze a new trail for development and make new contributions to the motherland. The authority of the rule of law and the rationality of order are the basis for Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability. While economic development and people’s wellbeing are the key points in Hong Kong’s reconstruction, they serve as important factors for Hong Kong to rejuvenate and heal the divide.
Regional integration will become the new strategic direction leading Hong Kong’s economic development. In recent years, China’s central government has been considering and actively promoting its national strategy, with closer cooperation and integration between Guangdong Province, Hong Kong and Macao as a key breakthrough. The basic design of the strategy is to help Hong Kong overcome its geographical limitations and immerse into the national system to cure the isolationism advocated by Hong Kong separatists. Using economic development to solve political problems exhibits the core wisdom of the “Chinese model.” Clearly, Hong Kong society contrasts with mainland society in many ways. The improvement of the economy and people’s wellbeing and regional integration of the economy cannot
completely replace Hong Kong’s goals of democratization and self-adjustment. Thus, collaborative governance is even more necessary to realize better results.
Hong Kong and Macao’s unique advantages, status and function in China’s national strategies, especially in the Belt and Road Initiative, demand more attention. Dynamic mutual benefits should be used to ensure and safeguard the just foundation of the “one country, two systems” policy. The high degree of autonomy for both Hong Kong and Macao is neither an innate right, nor granted by the colonists. It is a political decision by China’s top legislature in the overall interests of the country’s modernization, as well as its reform and openingup. According to the complete logic chain of the “one country, two systems” principle, by maintaining the prosperity and stabil- ity of Hong Kong and Macao, China’s central government has the valid goal of safeguarding and supporting the country’s future development. In this sense, Hong Kong should not only enjoy the high degree of autonomy and various rights granted by the Basic Law, but also shoulder the responsibility and promote the political ethics of safeguarding national sovereignty, security, and development interests. By actively participating in regional integration and construction of the Belt and Road, Hong Kong can become an example of the accurate and complete practice of the “one country, two systems” policy, and provide food for thought for the “re- education of citizens” in Hong Kong and Macao.
For the past two decades, under the framework of the “one country, two systems” principle, both China’s central government and Hong Kong society have remained dedicated to the prosperity and stability of Hong Kong, economic interaction between the Chinese mainland and Hong Kong, and progress on the rule of law, as well as Hong Kong’s social transformation under the framework of the Basic Law. While many achievements have been made, challenges from various realms need to be addressed. At present, Hong Kong’s governance has entered a new phase, which urgently requires both China’s central government and Hong Kong to conduct objective retrospection, summarization and introspection on the past 20 years. Only this will facilitate a brighter future for Hong Kong. The author is an associate professor with the Law School of Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics ( BUAA), executive director of the Center for Legal Studies of the “One Country, Two Systems” under BUAA and a council member of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong & Macao Studies.
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