It’s ‘One Country, Two Systems’ or ‘One System’

A white paper on the successes of the ‘one country, two systems’ model for Hong Kong contains the usual propaganda and a few serious warnings
J. Michael Cole

China on June 10 issued its first-ever white paper on “one country, two systems” and the current state of things in Hong Kong, the former British colony that was re-unified with the Mainland in 1997. While the document contains little that is unexpected in terms of rhetoric that expounds the virtues of the system or calls for patriotism, the timing of its release — this summer promises to be eventful as activists prepare for a series of sit-ins, “unofficial” referenda and other escalatory measures in defiance of Beijing and its allies in the territory — is very telling. The unintended message of the white paper is that Beijing is worried, and that further restrictions are to be expected. There are a few lessons and warnings in there for Taiwan.

Prepared by the State Council Information Office, “The Practice of the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ Policy in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region” (full text in English here and Chinese here), argues that “one country, two systems” is “not only the best solution to the Hong Kong question left over from history but also the best institutional arrangement for the long-term prosperity and stability of Hong Kong after its return to the motherland.” First articulated by Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平), the formula maintains that there is only one China — the People’s Republic of China — which operates under a socialist system (with Chinese characteristics, inevitably), while the “Chinese” territories of Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan would, once “re-unified,” be able to retain their capitalist systems “over a long time to come” — not indefinitely (italics added).

This is pretty straightforward stuff. Where things get a little more puzzling (though not surprising, given China’s mastery of self-delusion as propaganda) is when the paper tries to portray the model as a success story.

“Thanks to the policy, the HKSAR exercises a high degree of autonomy in accordance with the law, making Hong Kong continue to prosper, its society remain stable, and full development is being witnessed in all undertakings,” it says. “After the return to the motherland, Hong Kong made new achievements one after another, as its residents’ fundamental rights and freedoms are fully protected, the democratic political system has been steadily promoted. The HKSAR has maintained steady economic growth, its social programs have been further enhanced, and Hong Kong’s international exchanges and its international influence have further expanded.”

Of course, many would disagree with this assessment, chief among them many of the residents of the HKSAR. The above was promised prior to retrocession, but the implementation of those promises was far too often observed in the breach. As the Wall Street Journal recently editorialized, “Before taking over the territory, Beijing promised that its local government would enjoy autonomy over all internal affairs, civil liberties would be protected and the judiciary would stay independent. None of those promises has been fulfilled.”

As the Journal notes, rather than grant it autonomy, Beijing has increasingly involved itself in Hong Kong’s “domestic” affairs and often pressured lawmakers to adopt policies that were highly unpopular among the residents of the territory. Universal suffrage remains a distant dream and is unlikely to materialize in 2017, wealth inequality has widened, residents of the territory are growing impatient (to put it kindly) with Chinese tourists, and press freedoms have rapidly eroded amid a series of physical attacks on journalists and the loss of advertisement revenue among media that have chosen to maintain an editorial line that is at odds with Beijing and its minions in the HKSAR.

And yet according to the white paper, “a very small number of people who act in collusion with outside forces” would agree with the Journal’s conclusions. It all boils down, we are told, to misunderstanding. Some people are “confused or lopsided in their understanding of ‘one country, two systems’ and the Basic Law,” it writes. “Many wrong views that are currently rife in Hong Kong concerning its economy, society and development of its political structure are attributable to this.”

“Small number” and “outside forces” are regular tropes in Beijing propaganda, which even its officials must know are in defiance of the facts. We should note, too, that Beijing uses similar language to describe the “very small group of” pro-independence forces in Taiwan, who work with “outside forces” — usually the U.S. and Japan — to keep China “down” and prevent “re-unification.” In reality, Beijing knows that discontent within HKSAR is much higher and, with the Occupy Central movement (which plans an “unofficial referendum” on electoral reform on June 20-22) and the recent sit-in at the Legislative Council, approaching boiling point. A quick glance through Politics and Government in Hong Kong: Crisis under Chinese sovereignty, edited by Ming Sing, an associate professor at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, is sufficient for us to understand that things are not well in the territory. Since 2003, Hong Kong has experienced several mass protests against “poor governance” involving various sectors of society. Furthermore, protests have occurred against a background of rising support for constitutional reform and electoral participation, two dynamics that go directly against Beijing’s policies. According to Ming, “The collective demand [of the people of Hong Kong] for more democracy and better governance is reminiscent of the explosion of civil society amid democratic transitions in various parts of the world.”

Some would counter that the threat that Occupy Central poses to HKSAR stability is overblown. That may be so, but then the onus is on them to explain Beijing’s resserrement policies and intensifying crackdown on dissent/criticism there. There is a real possibility that the Sunflower Movement’s unprecedented occupation of the Legislative Yuan in Taiwan is now serving as a model of defiance among civil societies in China (footage of the initial day of the occupation of the Legislative Council in Hong Kong showed one of the participants wearing a black T-shirt with the idiosyncratic Taiwanese character “幹” printed in front). Hundreds of Hong Kong school students sent messages of support to the Sunflowers during the occupation.

Hence the several warnings in the white paper, such as: “The high degree of autonomy of HKSAR is not an inherent power, but one that comes solely from the authorization by the central leadership. The high degree of autonomy of the HKSAR is not full autonomy, nor a decentralized power.” [italics added.] We are told who is boss, and reminded that autonomy could be denied should things degenerate in the territory. More ominous is a passage in the section “Fully and Accurately Understanding the Meaning of ‘One Country, Two Systems,’” which emphasizes that China is, in the end, a “single-system nation” (中華人民共和國是單一制國家). The mask is off: one country lies supreme, and there is absolutely no reason to believe that Beijing is even willing to countenance a more permissive model when it comes to Taiwan, as was made perfectly clear late last month when the Taiwan Affairs Office shot down a “greater one China” proposal initiated on Taiwan’s side to help resolve the impasse in the Taiwan Strait.

During a press conference following the release of the white paper, Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying (梁振英) denied that the document was timed in response to Occupy Central and other protests in recent weeks, adding that it was the result of a year’s work. He is probably right: its release is not in response to recent events; it is rather a response to pressures that have been building up for several years.

Some could understand the white paper to signify a reaffirming of “one country, two systems.” Others could see the document as an admission of its failure, upbeat tone notwithstanding. What is more certain is that Beijing will not make a better offer either to the people of Hong Kong or to those in Taiwan. It’s “one country, two systems,” or “one country, one system.” Choose your pill.

J. Michael Cole is editor in chief of Thinking Taiwan, a senior non-resident fellow at the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham, and an Associate researcher at the French Center for Research on Contemporary China (CEFC) in Taipei.

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