By Kieran Colvert
So mainland commentator Ren Yi – otherwise known as Chairman Rabbit – hath spoken. The people of Hong Kong were wrong to vote overwhelmingly in favour of pro-democracy candidates in the district council election last weekend. They should have voted in favour of the pro-government candidates of course – can’t they see that this is the only way they will get the civil and political rights, the democracy and the high degree of autonomy they were promised under the Basic Law?
The message here seems to be that only if you vote the way you are expected to will you be trusted with democracy. Ditto presumably with the other core components of Hong Kong’s governance model – the city will be trusted with an independent judiciary; a free press; an active civil society; and rights of speech, assembly, opinion and expression; only if its courts, media channels, civil society groups and individuals do exactly what is expected of them by the authorities.
Chairman Rabbit seems to understand the ‘one country two systems’ formula – conceived in the 1980s to enable Hong Kong to return to Chinese sovereignty – in the same way that China’s President does. Namely, that this really means ‘one country, one country’. Xi Jinping’s distaste for Hong Kong’s governance model is well known. ‘Document 9’, or the ‘Briefing on the Current Situation in the Ideological Realm’, as it is sometimes referred to, was circulated in the Chinese Communist Party after Xi came to power. It identifies the core aspects of that model – including elections, civil society, checks and balances on the government’s exercise of power and the promotion of individual rights – as being direct threats to the Party.
Earlier this month, at a summit in Brazil, Xi commented that actions by protesters in Hong Kong have undermined One Country, Two Systems, presumably referring to the fact that they have been attacking Mainland businesses and desecrating the Chinese flag. These acts certainly do undermine the ‘one country’ part of the One Country, Two Systems deal and are hugely counterproductive to the protest movement in Hong Kong. That said, it is ironic that Xi should be pointing the finger here, since you can find the roots of the current crisis in his accession to power in Beijing in 2012.
For the first decade after Hong Kong’s return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, One Country, Two Systems fared reasonably well. Both the ‘one country’ and the ‘two systems’ parts of the formula were respected. There were of course tensions, the attempt to enact the National Security (Legislative Provisions) Bill 2003, for example, resulted in a massive peaceful demonstration on 1 July 2003, but the Bill was quickly withdrawn and calm restored. After 2012, however, the attacks on the ‘two systems’ component of One Country, Two Systems began in earnest. In 2013 came the pronouncement by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress that the promise of ‘universal suffrage’ in Hong Kong’s mini-constitution the Basic Law would be satisfied by the Election Committee – an electoral college stacked with Beijing loyalists – selecting up to three candidates who would then stand for election by the Hong Kong people. This charade was, understandably, rather unpopular with Hong Kongers and spawned the umbrella movement of 2014.
Then, in June this year, came the Hong Kong government’s brilliant plan to enact a law that would subject anyone in Hong Kong to potential extradition to mainland China where there is no independent and functioning rule of law or guarantees of due process protections for persons extradited. This seems to have been entirely the brainchild of the administration of our Chief Executive Carrie Lam, but the response to the protest movement it spawned has brought escalating control from the ‘central authorities’ in Beijing. As in 2014, our local government appears to have nothing to offer to defuse the crisis. Indeed, the entire executive seems to be on holiday while the violence between supporters and opponents of the protests escalates; while social cohesion fractures; while the police get away with grotesque acts of brutality; and while increasing numbers of people decide to up stakes and move somewhere with a less precarious future.
Was this avoidable? Yes. In the first decade after 1997 there was no flag burning, there were no attacks on Mainland businesses. The majority of Hong Kongers recognise that a successful future for this city depends on good relations with the Mainland. Hong Kong’s civil society, free press, independent judiciary and nascent democracy are not threats to China. Quite the reverse, the immensely successful synergies that used to characterise relations between Hong Kong and the Mainland came in large part from the very different capacities and perspectives each side brought with them.
The One Country, Two Systems formula was devised at a time when China’s leaders had the prescience and vision to recognise the potential of allowing the democratic governance model to thrive in Hong Kong. One Country, Two Systems is beautifully simple and it can still work as it was intended – to satisfy the legitimate expectations of the people of Hong Kong to retain their way of life, as well as Beijing’s legitimate expectation to protect its territorial sovereignty. This will, however, depend on both parts of the framework being honoured.
Kieran Colvert is a writer and long-term resident of Hong Kong.