20 years after Hong Kong’s handover: is “One Country, Two Systems” still “robust”?

As Hong Kong celebrated the 20th anniversary of its handover from Britain to China on July 1, 2017, Carrie Lam officially became Hong Kong’s chief executive. Lam, Beijing’s favourite, has recently described the “One Country, Two Systems” policy as “robust”[1] in her BBC interview, but Hong Kong’s current situation calls this description into question.

The “One Country, Two Systems” policy, crafted in the 1980s by Deng Xiaoping, the Chairman of the Communist Party of China, promised Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy as one of China’s Special Administrative Regions. Hong Kong is therefore given a free hand for domestic affairs and is allowed to represent itself individually during certain international events like the Olympics. Hong Kong also has its own legal and political systems, with Basic Law being Hong Kong’s constitutional document. The Basic Law promises universal suffrage and thus democracy in Hong Kong, which is different from the Chinese political system of “democratic dictatorship”[2]. Hong Kong is also fiscally and financially independent, represented by its use of the Hong Kong Dollar, instead of the mainland’s Renminbi. The economic system in Hong Kong is more capitalist compared to the “socialist” one of China.

However, the changes in circumstances since 1997 for both China and Hong Kong have chipped away at the integrity of this policy. With Hong Kong’s current political system, Hongkongers can only directly elect half of the legislators in the Legislative Council. The others are elected via functional constituencies in which legal entities (like companies and employers) are eligible to vote, making this process only semi-democratic. In some functional constituencies, due to lack of competition, some legislators are automatically reelected. Similarly, the Election Committee, instead of the people, votes for the Chief Executive; furthermore, the Election Committee has been called pseudo-democratic and biased due to its ties with Beijing and the business sector, so it gives no real power to the people. This goes against the Basic Law’s promise of democracy. However, China supports this pseudo-democracy in Hong Kong, as demonstrated by the Chinese government’s strong opposition to the 1994 electoral reform, during which Chris Patten attempted to expand the voter base for functional constituencies, and from China’s constant interference in the elections of Hong Kong’s Chief Executive.

The Umbrella Movement in 2014 was a civil disobedience movement against the People’s Republic of China’s legislative body’s 831 Decision, which states that Hong Kong’s chief executive “will have to be appointed by the Central People’s Government”, damaging Hong Kong’s autonomy and belittling the power of the people. This further illustrates Hongkongers’ anger against Chinese interference in Hong Kong politics and democracy. Hong Kong’s increasing demands for self-determination and free elections only creates a vicious cycle in which Beijing attempts to tighten control on Hong Kong and causes protest, damaging the “One Country, Two Systems” policy.

The suspicious “disappearances” of five Hong Kong bookstore employees from Causeway Bay Books in late 2015 further fueled China and Hong Kong tensions. The bookstore was selling sensitive books that were banned in China, which caused speculations concerning censorship and erosion of freedom, a violation of the “One Country, Two Systems” policy. One of the bookstore employees, Paul Lee (Lee Bo), disappeared in Hong Kong. It is rumored that Lee was kidnapped by the Chinese government, yet there is little concrete evidence supporting this claim. Only in February 2016 did mainland authorities confirm that all five bookstore employees (including Lee Bo) were in custody for a traffic case, which is widely believed to be an excuse for political imprisonment.[3] Lee Bo’s case, in particular, caused great fear among Hongkongers, as it happened in Hong Kong — Lee had none of the travel documents necessary for him to cross the border yet somehow made it to the mainland — which led to speculations that mainland China infringed Hong Kong’s autonomy.

With more of Hong Kong’s younger generation identifying as “Hongkongers (in China)” and less as “Chinese”[4], the “One Country, Two Systems” policy can no longer satisfy their political needs. The younger generation has become the main participant in political movements as they advocate for true democracy and universal suffrage. The “One Country, Two Systems” policy is approaching its breaking point.

Looking back at current events, Carrie Lam’s rise to power exemplifies how Hong Kong’s political system is pseudo-democratic. Because of Beijing’s veto power in Lam’s appointment, Lam is ridiculed as “Beijing’s puppet” since she is beholden to Chinese interests. As a Hongkonger, the possibility of China taking control of Hong Kong’s political situation through a figurehead is extremely anxiety-inducing.

On the other hand, if there has to be a Beijing-approved chief executive, Carrie Lam is the best choice. Her growing political influence may not entirely be a bad thing — she could bring real change to Hong Kong. Lam has been involved in Hong Kong civil service since the 1980s and she has also worked closely with youth organizations, which enables her to understand what Hong Kong, especially the younger generation, needs. Her campaign manifesto for the 2017 Chief Executive election advocated for technological advancements and a diversified Hong Kong economy. As businesses shift into cities such as Shenzhen and Shanghai in mainland China due to China’s growing economic and political significance and ready supply of land and cheap labor, Hong Kong’s international role is no longer irreplaceable. Lam’s policies are essential for Hong Kong to break out of this developmental bottleneck. If even Lam cannot bring true change to Hong Kong and sustain the “One Country, Two Systems” policy, Hong Kong’s future will be hopeless.

The “One Country, Two Systems” policy walks a fragile line because of the tug-of-war between China and Hong Kong. This policy may be functional for now, thanks to China’s strong hold on Hong Kong and Hong Kong’s economic reliance on China, but its future is filled with uncertainty. The Hong Kong experiment is currently a dysfunctional failure, but Lam just may be the one to make it “robust” again.


Works Cited

[1] Carrie Gracie, “Hong Kong’s Carrie Lam: ‘I am no puppet of Beijing’”, BBC News, June 21, 2017.

[2] “Constitution of the People’s Republic of China”, Constitution of the People’s Republic of China, http://en.people.cn/constitution/constitution.html, accessed July 9, 2017.

[3] “Returned bookseller says he was detained by ‘special unit’ in China, TV ‘confession’ was scripted,” Hong Kong Free Press, June 16, 2016.

[4] “Categorical Ethnic identity (per poll) (8/1997-6/2017)” https://www.hkupop.hku.hk/english/popexpress/ethnic/eidentity/poll/eid_poll_chart.html, July 31, 2017.