Can two completely incompatible sets of values, authoritarianism and democracy, coexist in a city that is, if not so harmonious, at least somehow tolerant of each other?
This was the original intent of the 1984 Sino-British agreement, which laid the groundwork for the eventual handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997.
The so-called “one country, two systems” was intended to allow Hong Kong to retain its freedom of expression, its independent court system, and its limited but vibrant democracy until at least 2047, while its sovereign state, China, continued its rigid one-party rule. party dictatorship.
To many observers, the spectacle of China’s carefully orchestrated NPC overhaul of Hong Kong’s political system through a substantially unanimous vote marked the end of this experiment.
The reform of Hong Kong’s electoral system was approved almost unanimously by China’s National People’s Congress.
As China has often pointed out, Hong Kong’s former colonial rulers were slow to grant democratic rights to their people.
There may well be good reasons for this delay, such as China’s warning as early as the 1950s that any attempt to introduce autonomy would lead to invasion.
Nonetheless, Hong Kong, which was handed over to China, despite its inadequate democracy in terms of universal suffrage, has other long-standing freedoms that are essential building blocks of its status as an unfettered capitalist economy and a free trade port.
“Although we have never had democracy,” Emily Lau, a former spokeswoman for the Hong Kong Democratic Party, told me, “the irony is that we have enjoyed a much higher level of freedom, personal security and rule of law for decades than some places that hold regular elections.”
These traditions stand in stark contrast to the system of governance practiced by the Chinese government’s political masters. This tension has been at the heart of the debate over the meaning of “two systems” ever since.
China says it has worked hard to preserve the Basic Law, a mini-constitution designed to embody the spirit of the Sino-British Joint Declaration.
Beijing says it has even made a good-faith attempt to enact Article 45 in preparation for the introduction of universal suffrage for the chief executive in Hong Kong.
The 2014 “Umbrella Movement” scuttled that plan because of anger over a candidate selection mechanism that Beijing would continue to exercise its veto power over.
The Umbrella Movement erupted in Hong Kong in 2014.
Beijing’s attempt to enact a National Security Law under the Basic Law also sparked protests.
Ultimately, the problem is less about technicalities in planned reforms and more about a deep-seated sense of mistrust.
Most countries have national security legislation, and all democracies are imperfect to some degree, but few of these national security law institutions are overseen by a rising authoritarian superpower.
And a tragedy for the embattled Hong Kong democracy movement is that every time it tries to defy Beijing, it finds itself in a worse position than before.
The turning point came in 2019 with loud and sometimes violent protests against authorities passing an extradition bill that could allow Hong Kong suspects to be sent to mainland China to stand trial.
The chaos gave Beijing the excuse it needed to finally pass the National Security Law, which had a chilling effect on the protest effect almost overnight.
The law lists vague and general crimes such as “secession,” “subversion of state power” and “collusion with foreign powers,” with the possibility of extradition as a central feature.
Serious cases can be transferred to the mainland for trial with far less oversight than under the vetoed Fugitive Offenders Ordinance.
2019 Fugitive Offenders Ordinance Amendments Ignite Another Massive Protest in Hong Kong
In a series of early morning raids in January, 55 politicians and activists were arrested and 47 have now been charged.
Simply holding a protest sign or wearing a protest T-shirt is enough to get someone detained.
Hong Kong pan-democrats held unofficial primaries before last year’s election as a tactic to increase their chances of winning a majority in the Legislative Council, which appears to have been nearly successful.
They won big in the 2019 District Council elections, the only truly democratic vote in Hong Kong. The result confirmed the widespread support for their efforts, but also gave Beijing a fright.
The plan for the Legislative Council primaries also ended up backfiring. Ostensibly for Epidemic reasons, the election was cancelled. Beijing introduced a reform package that has now received the seal of approval from the National People’s Congress. Under this package, the pan-democrats’ chances of winning a majority of seats no longer existed.
Once the package is implemented, all candidates will be vetted by a committee of Beijing loyalists to ensure that they are “patriots. Emily Lau sees no doubt about the importance of the program.
“If they want to implement a system in Hong Kong where voters are effectively disenfranchised and my party or other pro-democracy people cannot participate in elections independently and freely, then ‘one country, two systems’ is over,” she said.
Democracy gives way
Even Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing politicians seem to be hinting at some fundamental changes.
Regina Ip is the founder of the New People’s Party, has a seat in the Legislative Council and is a member of the Executive Council.
While she insists that “one country, two systems” is not over, she seems less certain that Hong Kong will continue to embrace democracy.
“I think Beijing may be exploring a movement toward an alternative system, like the ‘intellectual elite’ (epistocracy) advocated by some Western thinkers, where more knowledgeable and better informed people rule,” she said.
I told her that such a system sounded very undemocratic.
“A democratic system has no intrinsic value unless it leads to good results,” she replied.
“We’ve had 23 years of democratic experimentation, and the results are far from satisfactory. We are underperforming in many ways.”
The official Chinese media also seems to be changing its tune, saying that “one country, two systems” has never referred to differences in the political systems of the two places, but only to the need to maintain two different economic systems.
The British, who signed the transfer agreement, may have hoped that the fundamental contradictions at the heart of the agreement would be resolved as China modernized, implemented internal reforms and moved politically closer to Hong Kong.
If that is indeed the case, it has proved to be wishful thinking, and China is arguably more authoritarian than it was when the treaty was signed.
“As an integral part of China, we cannot be a place that undermines China’s security,” Yeh said. “If they think the current system is unsustainable, the likely option will be to integrate Hong Kong, even before 2047.”
It is Hong Kong that is changing, and in the long struggle between these two incompatible sets of values, it is democracy that will ultimately give way.
Former Democratic Party chairwoman Emily Lau said she knew she was taking a risk, even when giving interviews to foreign media.
“Of course there are risks,” she said, “but frankly, I don’t think I’m violating the National Security Law.”
“But as I said …… if they say, oh yes, you violated it, well, so be it. Maybe after the interview, someone will come knocking on my door.”