Hong Kong’s uneasy deal with China

‘One country, two systems’ has allowed the island to keep its independent democratic system. But after 20 years the agreement shows signs of eroding.

Vincent Yu/AP
A protester carries a yellow umbrella, a symbol of the pro-democracy movement, during a march in downtown Hong Kong July 1. Thousands joined in the annual event, which was held this year just after Chinese President Xi Jinping wrapped up his visit to the city by warning against challenges to Beijing's sovereignty.

Hong Kong is part of China, now and forever.

That’s the clear message the government of Chinese President Xi Jinping is sending to the former British colony on the 20th anniversary of its return to Chinese rule.

Mr. Xi himself visited Hong Kong over the weekend to make the point. A military parade that featured thousands of Chinese government troops, the largest yet staged on the island, added an exclamation point.

As part of the 1997 turnover from Britain, China promised to follow a “one country, two systems” approach with its new acquisition. That has meant a great deal of local autonomy for Hong Kong, including an independent judicial system, unfettered capitalism, a free press, and personal freedom of expression.

But many of the 7.3 million Hong Kongers feel that in recent years the Chinese ratchet has been tightening, twist by twist, on their freedoms. In late 2014 many took to the streets for 11 weeks in what became know as the “Umbrella Movement,” protesting China’s interference in Hong Kong’s electoral system.

Today the legislature contains members both pre-approved by the Chinese government as well as those independently elected who support democracy and autonomy. The result has often been legislative gridlock: Work on vital issues such as education reform and infrastructure projects has ground to a halt.

Voices speaking for Beijing point to the stalled legislature and ask if a little more Chinese efficiency, and a little less sloppy Western democracy, might be a good thing.

Older Hong Kongers are more likely to tread a careful line, politely reminding China of its commitment that “one country, two systems” will remain uneroded. But a younger generation, used to Western-style freedoms, has begun talking about full independence from China. In a recent poll only 3 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds in Hong Kong consider themselves Chinese. To them Xi’s visit was that of a foreign politician, not the leader of their country.

What next? The leverage would appear to be all on China’s side. It’s made clear that while “one country, two systems” is the policy, it remains subject to broad interpretation by the Chinese government.

China is unlikely to risk any open show of force against its most prosperous urban center. It’s more likely to try to continue to influence events in less obvious ways, including actions against individuals who speak up too loudly.

In his speeches at the 20th anniversary, Xi sought to lower tensions.

“[T]he success of ‘one country, two systems’ is recognized by the whole world,” Xi said. But while this struck a conciliatory tone, he also issued a warning. “Any attempt to endanger China’s sovereignty and security, challenge the power of the central government … or use Hong Kong to carry out infiltration and sabotage activities against the mainland is an act that crosses the red line, and is absolutely impermissible,” he said, according to an account in the South China Morning Post.

Hong Kong’s new chief executive, Carrie Lam, who took office July 1, was China’s favored candidate. She has pledged to “heal the divide and to ease the frustration – and to unite our society to move forward.”

China could learn much about the benefits of democracy from Hong Kong. But it doesn’t seem especially interested now. What Hong Kong can do is continue to showcase the advantages of a more open society, with the hope that someday China will be ready to listen.

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