- John Sudworth
- BBC News, Beijing
For nearly 24 years, Hong Kong has been something of an unwitting political laboratory, the object of an experiment focused on the defining ideological divide of our time.
Could two completely incompatible sets of values, authoritarianism and democracy, be held together in a city, if not in harmony, at least in some kind of mutual accommodation?
This was exactly what he had in mind. agreement otherwise-British of 1984, which laid the foundations for the eventual return of the territory to China in 1997.
“One country, two systems,” as this formula is known, is meant to allow Hong Kong to continue until at least 2047 with its freedom of expression, independent courts, and vibrant, albeit limited, democracy, while the new sovereign power maintains its rigid, one-party government.
For many observers, the spectacle of the National People’s Congress of China – controlled by Beijing – imposing radical changes in Hong Kong’s political system, by unanimous vote, this is the moment when the experiment is gone.
As China often points out, Hong Kong’s former colonial masters were slow to offer their citizens a democratic voice.
There may have been good reasons for shuffling, including warnings from China since the 1950s that any attempt to introduce self-government would lead to an invasion.
However, the Hong Kong handed over to China, while democratically deficient in terms of universal suffrage, had other deep-seated freedoms which were an integral part of its status as a free capitalist economy and a free trade port.
“Although we have never had democracy, the irony is that the level of freedoms, personal security and the rule of law that we have enjoyed for decades is much higher than what they have had in some places where they hold periodic elections,” the former spokeswoman tells me of the Democratic Party Emily Lau.
Those traditions are in stark contrast to the system of government practiced by their political bosses in Beijing, and that tension has been at the center of the dispute over what the “two systems” agreed to in the negotiation mean ever since.
The inflection point
China argues that it has tried to defend the Basic Law, the mini-constitution that was intended to embody the spirit of the Sino-British Joint Declaration.
Even say what has attempted in good faith to enact the AArticle 45 that requires the introduction of universal suffrage for the election of the city leader, the chief executive.
The plan was thwarted by the 2014 “Umbrella Movement”, fueled by anger over the mechanism for choosing candidates in which Beijing would continue to exercise a veto.
Attempts to enact a National Security Law, again stipulated by the Basic Law, have also led to protests.
In the end, the sticking point has been less a matter of technicalities of the proposed changes and more a matter of deep mistrust.
Most countries have national security legislation, all democratic systems are flawed in some way, but few have these institutions overseen by a rising authoritarian superpower.
And the tragedy for Hong Kong’s beleaguered pro-democracy movement is that every time you’ve tried to roll back Beijing, has found himself in a worse situation than before.
The turning point came with massive, sometimes violent protests in 2019 over plans to introduce an extradition bill, which could allow Hong Kong suspects to be sent to mainland China for prosecution.
Riots the gave a Beijing the pretext I needed to finally push through the National Security Law, which had an overnight chilling effect on the ability to protest.
The law establishes far-reaching and loosely defined crimes such as “secession,” “subversion,” and “collusion” with foreign forces; and with the possibility of extradition as a central feature.
Serious cases can be transferred to the mainland to be tried with much less supervision than the rejected extradition bill would have included.
In a series of dawn raids in January 2019, 55 politicians and activists were arrested. Now there are 47 facing charges.
Simply holding up protest banners or wearing T-shirts is potentially enough to stop someone.
The effort by Hong Kong Democrats before last year’s election to hold unofficial primaries, as a tactical way to increase their chances of winning a majority in the Legislative Council (LegCo), seems almost could have been successful.
After all, they had swept the 2019 local elections, the city’s only genuinely democratic vote, a result that confirmed the deep support to their cause and that it would seriously scare Beijing.
But the Legislative’s primary plan also failed: the elections were canceled, apparently because of the pandemic controls, and Beijing introduced the reforms now approved by the National People’s Assembly, according to which the chances of pro-Democrats winning a majority are they have lost forever.
Emily Lau has no doubt about the significance of the new requirement that all candidates are vetted by a committee packed with Beijing loyalists, to make sure they are “patriots”.
“If they are going to impose a system in Hong Kong whereby voters would be disenfranchised and whereby my party or other pro-democracy people will not be free to participate in elections independently and freely, then ‘ one country, two systems ‘is over,’ he considers.
Democracy gives way
Even pro-Beijing Hong Kong politicians seem to suggest that something fundamental has changed.
Regina Ip is the founder of the New People’s Party, has a seat in LegCo and is a member of the Executive Council of the government.
While she insists that “one country, two systems” is not finished, she seems less certain whether she is already aiming to adapt to democracy.
“I believe that Beijing may be exploring a move to alternative systems, like what some western thinkers defend, the epistocracy, the government of more informed people and with more knowledge, “he tells me.
I told him that that system sounds very undemocratic.
“A democratic system has no intrinsic value unless it can produce good results,” he replies.
“We have had 23 years of experiments with democracy, the results are far from satisfactory. We underperform in many respects,” he adds.
Chinese state media also appear to be changing the rules of the game, arguing that “one country, two systems” has always referred to the need to preserve two different economic systems and not to political differences.
British signatories to the handover agreement may have once hoped that the fundamental contradiction at the heart of it would be resolved as China modernized, enacted its own domestic reforms, and moved closer to Hong Kong politically.
If so, it has proven to be an illusion, with a China possibly more authoritarian than it was at the time the treaty was signed.
“As an inalienable part of China, we cannot afford to be the one to undermine China’s security,” says Regina Ip. “If they do not believe that the current system is sustainable, the option will be to reintegrate Hong Kong, even before 2047,” he considers.
It is Hong Kong that is changing and in the long struggle between those two incompatible sets of values, it’s democracy that is finally giving way.
Emily Lau, the former chair of the Democratic Party, tells me that she knows she is taking a risk, even speaking to foreign media.
“Well, of course there is a risk, but let’s see, frankly, I don’t think I have violated the National Security Law,” he says.
“But I’m the one who says it … and if they say ‘yes, you did’, well, that’s where we get,” he says. “Maybe when this interview is over, someone will knock on my door.”
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.