It Turns Out Hong Kong Is Different
“‘One country, two systems’ was always little more than a useful fiction, but… China has shown just how unrealistic the idea ultimately was.” —Rodger Baker, Stratfor
As my longest-suffering readers know—I have been saying it since 1997 and putting it in writing since 2003—the Chinese Communist Party is doomed. I’ve written about it in two books and in blogs too numerous to count.
For almost the entire two decades since that time, my opinion was an eye-roller among the Washington, D.C. elite. Everybody who was anybody knew that China would soon “converge” with the West economically and politically, and it wouldn’t matter a whit whether Hong Kong was governed by Britain, China or the man in the moon.
Except it didn’t happen. China has become ever more tyrannical, ever more aggressive, ever more determined to export its brand of repressive governance and socialist economic practices to the rest of the world.
But while most of the world was either averting its eyes or keeping its rose-colored glasses firmly in place, Hong Kong finally stood up and announced that the emperor had no clothes. China wasn’t going to “converge” with the West and the first innocent victim was going to be Hong Kong.
It’s true that before Britain tossed Hong Kong to the wolves (and, by the way, where exactly was the United States of America at the time?) it negotiated a Sino–British Joint Declaration, which was to govern Hong Kong for 50 years (i.e., until 2047).
The core of the Joint Declaration was the “one country, two systems” principle promulgated by Deng Xiaoping. In other words, while Hong Kong (and Macau) would be part of China proper (“one country”), they would retain their own political and economic systems for half a century, no matter how different those systems were from the Communist system that prevailed on the mainland (“two systems”).
Among the lofty sentiments in the Joint Declaration were these:
All Hong Kong residents would be equal before the law;
Permanent residents of Hong Kong would have the right to vote and the right to stand for election;
Hong Kong residents would have, among other things, freedom of speech, freedom of the press and of publication, freedom of association, freedom of assembly, freedom of procession, of demonstration, of communication, of movement, of conscience, of religious belief, and of marriage;
People would have the right to form and join trade unions and to strike;
No Hong Kong resident would be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful arrest, detention or imprisonment;
Arbitrary or unlawful searches and deprivation or restriction of the freedom of the person was prohibited, as was torture;
The Chief Executive and members of the legislature were to be ultimately selected by universal suffrage;
And, the Hong Kong judiciary would remain independent.
China also agreed to adopt a constitution for Hong Kong, now known as the Basic Law. That document confirms that Hong Kong will retain its capitalist economic system, its legal system, its legislative system, its own currency, and its people’s rights and freedoms for 50 years.
Pretty neat stuff! But there was just one problem: what good are all these grandiose sentiments if there is no way to enforce them? Did Britain imagine for one minute that Beijing, which hated democracy, hated elections, hated separation of powers, hated independent judiciaries, hated capitalism, etc., etc. could be relied upon to honor the Joint Declaration?
This wasn’t just gullibility; it was national self-delusion. The Brits wanted out of Hong Kong and they didn’t really care what happened after they left. Otherwise, they would have insisted on enforcement mechanisms.
Back in those days (the early 1980s, under Deng Xiaoping) China was still “playing the long game,” hiding its real intentions and pretending to be a good international citizen. As Deng famously said, “Hide your strength, bide your time.”
Deng played the Brits like an Irish fiddle, modestly accepting whatever high-falutin’ nonsense the Brits wanted in the Joint Declaration, knowing perfectly well that, once the Brits left, China could and would do whatever it wanted.
And that is exactly what has happened: China paid not the slightest attention to the Joint Declaration. Even the Brits themselves admitted, during the Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong, that China considered that the “Joint Declaration signed by China and Britain is now void and only covered the period from the signing in 1984 until the handover in 1997.”
Wait—what happened to the promised 50 years of freedom? Gone, gone, gone. Three years later the Chinese Foreign Ministry confirmed what even the densest diplomat now knew, issuing a statement that the Joint Declaration was “an historical document that no longer has any realistic meaning.”
So much for international treaties and domestic constitutions.
The provocations of China in Hong Kong are too numerous to list in a short blog post, but they began as soon as the ink was dry on the Basic Law, and they gradually got to the point where the people of Hong Kong launched their Umbrella Revolution in 2014.
That “revolution” was designed to remind China and the world of Beijing’s democratic obligations under the Joint Declaration. But Beijing—and the world—couldn’t have cared less, and the demonstrations appeared to accomplish nothing.
The Umbrella Revolution did have one important effect, though, opening the eyes of the people of Hong Kong to one stark fact: they had been used to being governed by a democracy and China, its many promises notwithstanding, was nothing of the sort. The next time around they would be much wiser.
Beijing’s eyes, meanwhile, weren’t opened at all. When the Umbrella demonstrations dwindled away China thought that all was well, that the people of Hong Kong were just like the people on the mainland—get tough with them and they would be frightened into silent obedience.
But the people in Hong Kong were in fact very different. China failed to take note and five years later they would pay the price. Next week we’ll take a look at why all this portends the unraveling of China.