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.
The Chief Executive Election Ordinance requires the winning candidate to declare that he is not a member of any political party. The intention is to weaken the influence of political parties and pre-empt any claim by a chief executive that he has the backing of any political party.
In practice, however, the influence of political parties has been growing. After 1997, the majority of Legislative Council members were elected by voters, not appointed by the government.
It has therefore been difficult for the chief executive to get Bills approved. Even the pro-establishment and pro-government parties have voted against government Bills when they felt it necessary to maintain popular support. Consequently, the separation of the legislative and the executive branches has led to a weak government. This inevitably results in a lack of long-term vision in policy implementation and governance.
In a parliamentary democracy, political parties formulate their party platforms in order to campaign for votes. The winning party forms the government and implements its policies based on its long-term vision for the country.
This is, however, not the case in Hong Kong. Political parties do not have the possibility of forming the government. Their role is mainly to scrutinise Bills submitted for approval. As such, they do not need to have a long-term vision for the territory.
Because Legislative Council members are now elected either from geographical constituencies or functional constituencies, they tend to behave like populists when garnering votes.
The chief executive and his team certainly have a vision and a plan. However, due to the lack of support in the legislature, the chief executive often finds it difficult to implement policies and has also been distracted by boycotts and protests.
Despite this, the "one country, two systems" concept has been working well so far. Beijing has refrained from meddling in the internal governance of the city, and has in fact provided help to support the economy during the 1998 financial crisis and Sars in 2003 by allowing more mainlanders to visit Hong Kong.
Beijing focuses more on "one country"? while Hong Kongers see only the "two systems". The concept of "one country, two systems" served a useful purpose in facilitating the smooth handover to China in 1997. But times have changed, and the current formula may need to be fine-tuned.
Young people, mostly students and fresh entrants into the job market, are idealistic. They see themselves as prime movers for democratic reform. Thus, they campaign for universal suffrage both in the Legislative Council and the chief executive elections.
They also want maximum autonomy for Hong Kong, and are not happy with Beijing's assertion in a White Paper that the central government holds comprehensive jurisdiction. There is nevertheless room for electoral reforms that may appease young voters.
As to whether the "one country, two systems" approach may be extended beyond the 50-year period, the question may never arise.
China has changed enormously since the 1980s and more changes can be expected. In a few decades, there may not be many significant differences between Hong Kong and the socio-economic systems of other Chinese cities.
In the meantime, all Hong Kong needs to do to retain its uniqueness is to remain useful to China in the eyes of the decision makers in Beijing. This will strengthen its ability to maintain the status quo for a long time into the future.
The writer was Singapore's Consul-General in Hong Kong (2008-2012), and is currently Adjunct Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.
This article was first published on June 24, 2014.
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