Twenty years after the handover of Hong Kong from British to Chinese sovereignty, the ‘one country, two systems’ arrangement – the main aim of which was to guarantee the continuity of Hong Kong's open society and way of life – can be said to have worked well. Street protests remain a regular feature of Hong Kong’s political culture. Freedom of information and expression are alive and well. Hong Kong retains its ‘capitalist way of life’, its legal system based on common law and independent judiciary, and its status as an international financial centre. As a result the city remains one of the most open economies across Asia, with robust institutions and transparency which are hard to find anywhere else in the region.
Yet the 79-day ‘occupy’ protests of autumn 2014 showed that something is not quite right in the city of Hong Kong.
The protests themselves had a number of causes. Partly they reflected socioeconomic concerns, especially the rise in income inequality and lack of affordable housing. These might have been dealt with to some extent by better governance over the years, but they are also a feature of many societies in the current phase of globalization – a case, perhaps, of too much ‘capitalist way of life’.
Politically, the desire expressed by many in 2014 was for a form of ‘genuine universal suffrage’ for the selection of Hong Kong's chief executive which went beyond a provision of Hong Kong's mini constitution, the Basic Law, that candidates should be put forward by a ‘nominating committee’. It was on this point that the possibility of constitutional reform foundered in 2015, leaving Hong Kong no further ahead in its ‘gradual progress’ towards democracy.
But this episode also brought to the surface the tension between different visions for Hong Kong's future. In particular, many in Hong Kong are still uncomfortable with the ‘one country’ part of the deal, rejected by some (especially young people) in the ways that they conceptualize Hong Kong identity – according to one recent survey, as little as 3.1% of Hong Kong youths identify themselves as ‘Chinese’. These issues are likely to constrain political development for some time to come.
At their sharpest, some of these visions are for some form of self-determination, or even independence, for Hong Kong. This is not just anathema to the national authorities in Beijing, but contradicts a basic tenet of Hong Kong's handover in 1997, the return to Chinese sovereignty. This is not just something on which Beijing will never compromise, but will seek to challenge.
It is this which explains the sense in Hong Kong that the central government has been looking to become politically more involved since 2014. But the challenge of influencing Hong Kong society is great, and other than strengthening relations with the establishment camp, Beijing has not been able to tighten its grip. If anything, the centre of gravity of Hong Kong politics has continued to drift away from Beijing, not towards it.
How this will play out remains to be seen. Some amelioration of social tensions could help. But the fundamental divergence in visions of Hong Kong's future will not be resolved so easily.
Looking forward therefore, the key to the continued success of ‘one country, two systems’ lies in Hong Kong society. If mainstream acceptance of the compromises involved can return, then this unique constitutional framework can still work for years to come.
Dr Tim Summers Senior Consulting Fellow, Asia Programme (based in Hong Kong)