A short version is posted on Washington Post’s Monkey Cage newsletter:
Joshua Wong Hong Kong’s youth must fight for a free future: The real question is what happens in 2047, when ‘one country, two systems’ expires
The extended version:
When Beijing and Hong Kong officials celebrate the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover with fireworks and fanfare on July 1, 2017, many citizens will mourn the erosion of Hong Kong’s autonomy in street protests.
Why are there such contrasting sentiments in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR)?
- What has happened in Hong Kong since the handover in 1997?
To understand Hong Kong’s uneasy relations with Beijing today, we should begin with the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984.
When London and Beijing announced the Sino-British Joint Declaration regarding the future of Hong Kong in 1984, they promised the “one country, two systems” model to insulate Hong Kong from mainland China with “Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong” under “a high degree of autonomy.”
The Joint Declaration came as a relief to deeply worried Hong Kong people, many of whom had fled from political turmoil in mainland China. The drawn-out negotiations had created bank runs and rapid depreciation of the Hong Kong dollar. To reassure Hong Kong people, Beijing put on a charm offensive to win over hearts and minds, promising that there would be “horse-racing as usual, dancing as usual” after the transfer of sovereignty. (See Sino-British Joint Declaration on Hong Kong ‘no longer has any realistic meaning’, says Chinese Foreign Ministry; China Dismissal of U.K. Treaty Renews Doubts About Its Word; We still recognise Hong Kong treaty as legally binding but Britain cannot interfere, Beijing official maintains)
The Tiananmen movement of 1989 fundamentally altered Beijing-Hong Kong relations. For Hong Kong people, the sentiment of “today’s Tiananmen, tomorrow’s Hong Kong” drove them to provide moral and material support for student demonstrations across China. For Beijing, it was a shocking realization that Hong Kong people cared about democracy beyond money and decadence.
From then on, Beijing’s policy toward Hong Kong sharply shifted from reassurance to control.
The Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, was promulgated in this tense environment in 1990. The Basic Law was supposed to implement the Joint Declaration’s liberal guarantees. Instead, it reflected Beijing’s imperative of control. The Chief Executive was to be selected by a 900-member (later expanded to 1200-member) Election Committee dominated by pro-regime representatives. The Legislative Council was to keep pro-democracy members elected from geographical constituencies in check by pro-regime members from functional constituencies. (See How China Holds Sway
Over Who Leads Hong Kong)
Most importantly, the Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress retained final interpretation power over the Basic Law (a power that they would use five times over the past 20 years).
- What happened with the Umbrella Movement of 2014?
The Umbrella movement of 2014 failed to press for long-delayed universal franchise.
The Basic Law stipulates “gradual and orderly progress” in the selection of the Chief Executive up to 2007 and the election of the Legislative Council up to 2008, with the ultimate aim of universal suffrage. This gave Hong Kong people the expectation that universal franchise would begin from 2007-08. Yet, in 2007, Beijing issued an interpretation to postpone changes for 10 years. By 2013, Hong Kong people again agitated for much delayed universal suffrage after 2017. In August 2014, Beijing issued yet another interpretation to restrict “one person, one vote” of the Chief Executive to two or three candidates vetted by the election committee (which was to be renamed the nominating committee).
It was against Beijing’s decision that the Umbrella movement broke out in late August 2014. Protestors decried Beijing’s plan for “fake universal franchise” and demanded “genuine universal suffrage.” Despite being the most sustained protest in Hong Kong’s history, the Umbrella movement did not achieve universal suffrage but only blocked Beijing’s plan for vetted elections. HK is stuck with the same arrangements as 2007-08.
- Why does Hong Kong need democracy if it has survived without democracy under both British and Chinese rule?
Hong Kong people are divided over democracy but all cherish “Hong Kong’s core values” or freedoms: the rule of law, the independent judiciary, the free press, the impartial police, the neutral civil service and so on. The root question is if Hong Kong can maintain its freedoms without democracy.
The opposition argue that successive Chief Executives handpicked by Beijing have chipped away at the pillars of Hong Kong’s freedoms. The Chief Executive has “overriding power” of appointments and promotions. When loyalists fill the top echelons of the justice department, the police, and the civil service, Beijing’s efforts at control have trumped Hong Kong’s desire for autonomy.
Optimists point out that Hong Kong people remain free to commemorate Tiananmen, practice the Falun Gong, mock Beijing leaders, demonstrate against government’s policies, challenge government actions in courts, even produce controversial films like “Ten Years” that broach the taboo topic of “independence”.
Pessimists contend that various freedoms have become increasingly hollowed. While Hong Kong people are free to criticize, those who do may be prosecuted for civil disobedience or deprived of the means of sustenance. Critics have been demoted or fired (if not attacked by thugs), have their works censored or their contracts terminated.
Hong Kong is still largely free no less because professionals in many fields have continued to insist on exercising their freedom of expression despite the high costs.
In the aftermath of the Umbrella movement, the government has sought to tighten control over universities and high schools, the hotbeds of dissent. The former dean of the University of Hong Kong law school, Johannes Chan, was denied promotion for sheltering the initiator of the occupy movement, law professor Benny Tai. University councils have been stacked with pro-regime appointees. Plans have been drawn to make young people more patriotic.
On the eve of the 20th anniversary, the judiciary is the last pillar of freedom left standing strong. Yet, this also makes the court system the latest prime target. Pro-regime voices have criticized judges for releasing the majority of nonviolent protestors and for convicting police officers of abuse. Mainland legal scholars have criticized judges for interpreting the Basic Law in the Common Law tradition, which, of course, is what the principle of “one country, two systems” is intended to preserve.
Political scientists have long argued that democracy cannot thrive without liberal institutions. Hong Kong confirms this scholarly insight from a different direction: It is the world’s only case of “freedom without democracy”— and this unique case is not self-sustaining. This model was viable before 1997 only because the United Kingdom, which then held sovereignty over Hong Kong, was itself a democracy. After the handover, Hong Kong’s freedoms have become beholden to China’s one-party dictatorship.
- Does Hong Kong need democracy so long as it continues to thrive as an economic city?
We should set aside a related debate if China has experienced phenomenal growth in the last two decades because of or in spite of authoritarian rule. What is clear for Hong Kong is that it will become just another Chinese city if it loses its freedoms.
The Chief Executive’s “overriding power” has not only corroded various pillars of freedom, but also corrupted Hong Kong’s once efficient and clean governance. As successive chief executives have ruled through loyal supporters, economics has become politics by other means. The third chief executive CY Leung is criticized for accepting payouts of HK$50 million and then $37 million from the Australian firm UGL without accounting for them. On his watch, the once-famed Independent Commission Against Corruption itself became the target of a corruption investigation, with former commissioner Timothy Tong accused of abusing his position. The second chief executive Donald Tsang and his top official Rafael Hui were convicted of taking bribes.
Hong Kong used to have cost-efficient, world-class infrastructure. With creeping corruption, Hong Kong’s infrastructural projects are now burdened with cost overruns and sub-standard construction materials.
Before the handover, there was a widespread saying that Beijing would not kill the goose that laid golden eggs. Twenty years on, China itself is stacked with gold. Shanghai has a larger economy than Hong Kong. What still makes Hong Kong the regional headquarters for various multinationals is the surviving freedoms backed by the rule of law. When those freedoms are further hollowed out, Hong Kong would be little different from Shenzhen, the Chinese city immediately across the border. (See 20 years on, is Hong Kong the international hub it was hoped to be?; How Hong Kong’s Banks Turned Chinese)
- But isn’t the “one country, two systems” model still working well on the whole?
When the “one country, two systems” model turns 20 on July 1, Hong Kong and Beijing officials will hail its success while street protestors will grieve its demise.
Foreign dignitaries will diplomatically agree with the official line. The US’s consul-general to Hong Kong Kurt Tong observes that the “one country, two systems” model “is working” because people still enjoy the same freedoms “to a large extent.” The UK’s Foreign Office has repeatedly certified in its regular reports that the model “continued to function well” despite “a number of developments which caused concern.”
The question is what those developments are and what they add up to.
The Foreign Office’s latest report expressed concerns over not just “the exercise of rights and freedoms” discussed above, but also Beijing’s interpretation of the Basic Law in November 2016. Beijing barred two legislators-elect, Sixtus Baggio LEUNG Chung-hang and YAU Wai-ching, from re-taking their oaths. The duo had displayed a “Hong Kong is not China” flag during their initial swearing-in ceremony in October. Hong Kong Chief Executive CY Leung had asked the courts to disqualify them. As Beijing’s interpretation was announced before the conclusion of judicial proceedings, it was seen as direct interference with the judiciary’s independence.
The U.K. Foreign Office used much stronger words in an earlier report regarding the abduction of Lee Bo, one of the five booksellers of Causeway Bay Books, in January 2016. It maintained that Lee’s “involuntary removal from Hong Kong to the mainland constituted a serious breach of the Sino-British Joint Declaration by undermining the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ principle.” It is noteworthy that Wang Zhenmin of Beijing’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong concurred that mainland law enforcers could not “do such things” under the Basic Law. (See also Life Support For “One Country, Two Systems” Urgently Needed)
Optimists continue to believe that these incidents represent mere aberrations to the otherwise successful implementation of the “one country, two systems” model. Critics charge that Beijing has breached the model.
- Will Hong Kong fare better under the new Chief Executive Carrie Lam?
Carrie Lam, to be sworn in on July 1, is unlikely to push for “genuine universal suffrage” or defend Hong Kong’s autonomy.
Beijing and Hong Kong officials have urged her to take care of three “unfinished businesses” for Beijing: the implementation of a national security law, the introduction of patriotic education, and the revival of Beijing’s flawed plan for universal suffrage.
Lam was Beijing’s choice no less because she served as the Chief Secretary under CY Leung and proved her willingness to push through Beijing’s electoral plan. Her cabinet is likewise stacked with familiar faces who have served under CY Leung.
Most of all, if Lam ever goes off script, Beijing has the trump card of issuing another decision. (See Xi Jinping: Challenging Chinese sovereignty in Hong Kong crosses a ‘red line’; Chinese Ways of Empire, Then and Now)
We will not have to wait too long to see how Lam will carry out Beijing’s agenda and how the agitated Hong Kong society will react.
Update on July 14, 2017
What is at stake? This ruling marks a) the end of judicial independence and b) the end of any meagre check by the legislature on executive power. b1) The minority pan-democrats no longer have enough veto votes to block bill amendments tabled by the pro-establishment camp. (more). b2) The multiple disqualifications open up multiple seats in by-elections. Past elections show that the pro-establishment camp would lose if only one seat is up for grabs, but would certainly win one seat when two seats are opened up.
News and commentaries on the 20th anniversary:
The New Yorker: HK remains a city on the edge
Council on Foreign Relations: Democracy in Hong Kong
The Financial Times: China tensions give Hong Kong an identity crisis
The Irish Times: China seeks to ease fears as Hong Kong handover anniversary looms