20 years after UK’s handover of Hong Kong to China

Minxin Pei
Minxin Pei

Minxin Pei

By : Minxin Pei

:: July 1 marks the 20th anniversary of the UK’s handover of Hong Kong to China, under a model called “one country, two systems.” But an unavoidable question will hang over the official commemorations: Is there really anything to celebrate?

If you had asked Deng Xiaoping, the architect of the “one country, two systems” model, what the handover’s 20th anniversary would look like, he might have said Hong Kong’s residents would be toasting to their prosperity and liberty. China’s leaders would be showcasing their credibility and governing capacity, finally quieting the chorus of naysayers who had doubted the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the sincerity of its promises to Hong Kong.

But the reality is very different. Today, scenes that would have been unthinkable in Hong Kong in 1997 — mass anti-China demonstrations, the election of anti-CCP radicals to the city’s legislature and open calls for independence — have become routine.

Powerful economic forces — including China’s rise, globalization, high inequality and soaring property prices — have buffeted Hong Kong since 1997, undermining the city’s competitiveness and contributing to social discontent.

But while adverse socioeconomic factors have exacerbated popular frustration, the mass protests that have become a fact of life in the city are political protests centered on the rights of Hong Kong’s people. Against this background, few would call “one country, two systems” a success. The model was probably doomed from the start due to several fatal flaws in its structure.

For starters, the language committing China to respect the democratic rights of the people of Hong Kong was deliberately vague. Even the joint declaration signed by the British and Chinese governments in 1984, which set the stage for the 1997 handover, offered the somewhat imprecise promise that the chief executive would be appointed by China “on the basis of the results of elections or consultations to be held locally.”

Moreover, the only party with the power to enforce the terms of the joint declaration, not to mention Hong Kong’s mini-constitution — known as the Basic Law — is the central government in Beijing. As a result, China’s leaders could fail to honor the spirit or even the explicit terms of their commitments with impunity.

The current radicalization of Hong Kong citizens, particularly its young people, reflects a desire to change that, and to make China pay a price for reneging on its promise of “self-rule” and responding to dissent with repression.

There is one more feature of the “one country, two systems” scheme that has doomed it: China’s deliberate decision to rule Hong Kong through crony capitalists. As ironic as it may sound, China’s so-called Communists apparently trust Hong Kong’s tycoons more than its masses (perhaps because buying off tycoons costs a lot less).

The current radicalization of Hong Kong citizens reflects a desire to make China pay a price for reneging on its promise of ‘self-rule’ and responding to dissent with repression.

Minxin Pei

But because their loyalty lies with their backers in Beijing, not the people of the city they administer, Hong Kong’s crony capitalists are bad politicians. Under the CCP, they have gained power and privileges that were unattainable under British rule. That has made them unresponsive to their constituency as it becomes increasingly alienated from its patrons. As a result, China’s proxies have failed spectacularly at securing popular legitimacy.

Consider the fate of Hong Kong’s chief executives, hand-picked by China’s rulers to run the city. The first, Tung Chee-hwa, faced half a million protesters in 2003; in 2005, halfway through his second term, his ever-growing unpopularity drove him to resign.

Tung’s successor Donald Tsang completed his two terms, but just barely, and he was jailed for corruption (along with his No. 2) after leaving office. Leung Chun-ying, who came next, was such a disaster that China’s rulers had to cashier him after just one term.

The “one country, two systems” approach has not been an unmitigated disaster. Given the vast cultural, economic and institutional gaps between Hong Kong and the mainland, things could have been much worse. But that does not make it a sustainable model. It may well already be dead.

In the back of their minds, China’s leaders have always sought to move toward a “one country, one system” model for Hong Kong. Deng thought such a transition would take 50 years, but it took his successors only 20, and they did not even fully realize it was happening. Whatever policies Beijing pursues in Hong Kong between now and 2047, the goal will be to make the present — particularly the absence of political rights — look more like the future.

Minxin Pei is a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and the author of “China’s Crony Capitalism.”

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in the Column section are their own and do not reflect RiyadhVision’s point-of-view.

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