July 1 marks the 17th anniversary of Hong Kong's handover to China. Under the "one country, two systems" arrangement, Hong Kong is allowed to keep the city's political and economic systems for 50 years from 1997. One-third of the promised 50 years has passed.
What has been the experience so far? Will Hong Kong maintain its autonomy from the mainland? Will Hong Kongers keep their way of life? The picture is mixed, but I believe that, with some fine-tuning, Hong Kong's unique status within China can be maintained.
The "one country, two systems" agreement was an ingenious way of resolving the differences between the British government and China during the 1982-1984 handover negotiations. It provided the British an honourable exit from Hong Kong after ruling the city as a colony for 155 years. It was also paramount leader Deng Xiaoping's way of reassuring Hong Kong residents that they could continue with their way of life for at least 50 years after 1997.
The assurance was effective. Many residents who migrated to other countries prior to the handover returned to live and work in Hong Kong after the impact of the handover and the 1998 financial crisis subsided. After 1997, the territory's elite social institutions, such as the Hong Kong Jockey Club, remained unchanged. So did the legal system, except that the British Court of Appeal was replaced by the newly created Court of Final Appeal. The economy still functioned under the capitalist system. Life went on.
What did change were the hoisting of the Chinese national flag and the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region's flag and the playing of the Chinese national anthem at official functions.
But in agreeing to the "one country, two systems" formula, Beijing was more concerned with making Hong Kong conform to the "one country" aspect rather than facilitating the "two systems" approach.
To incorporate Hong Kong into China politically, a change at the top of the administration was necessary. As a result, the colonial government was replaced by the Special Administrative Region government, and the governor by the chief executive.
The Basic Law, a product of the Sino-British agreement and approved by China's National People's Congress, was adopted as Hong Kong's mini Constitution. The People's Liberation Army also moved into the barracks vacated by the British forces.
The central government then installed a new Legislative Council, although its structure remained basically unchanged from the colonial government. The continued separation of the executive and legislative branches of government after 1997, however, created political problems.
Lack of political support
Under the Westminster parliamentary system, the prime minister has the support of his party's Members of Parliament in approving Bills and implementing party policy. But this has never been the case in Hong Kong.
During the colonial administration, the governor had executive power, and the appointed Legislative Council members were bound to support the governor.
The central government recognised the merit of executive dominance of the colonial administration and decided to retain the same system. This was to prevent excessive interference by political parties on policy implementation.