Can ‘one Country, two Systems’ continue to weather Hong Kong’s political storms?

12 July 2017 / Author: Peter TY Cheung, HKU / East Asia Forum

When Hong Kong was reunited with the People’s Republic of China in 1997, no one could tell how the ‘one country, two systems’ (OCTS) framework would work. After two decades of experimentation, the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region has largely maintained its separate and distinct legal, political and administrative systems, its market economy, its relatively free and pluralistic society and its status as a global financial centre — not to mention a way of life and culture very different from that of mainland China. But unexpected tensions now threaten to overturn this experiment.

The OCTS arrangement can be considered a unique form of contingent autonomy that depends upon the following conditions. First, given the huge asymmetry between the size and powers of the two parties, this arrangement rests on China’s self-imposed restraint. Second, to sustain the long-term stability of this arrangement, neither side should consistently harm the core interests of the other side. Third, even if one side may disrupt the equilibrium once in a while, they need to mend their fences before their relationship completely collapses. In other words, there should also be a modicum of trust between them. Last, the arrangement may be more stable if the smaller, weaker party still possesses resources to deter the more powerful party from imposing its priorities at will. Other factors such as the international community may also shape the development of this relationship.

Some of these conditions remain stable while others have changed. In Beijing’s eyes, the Occupy Movement that broke out in late 2014 in response to conservative political reforms approved by China’s legislature has severely challenged core interests such as sovereignty and national security. The rise of localists and pro-independence groups, though small in numbers, garnered around 400,000 votes in the 2016 Legislative Council election, putting Beijing on high alert. China has intervened more actively in Hong Kong’s governance since 2003, prompted immediately by the eruption of huge popular protests against the unpopular former chief executive Tung Chee-Hwa and national security legislation.

The ineffectiveness and unpopularity of the CY Leung administration prompted Beijing to intervene even further. To tackle recent political troubles, Beijing has begun to devise new control mechanisms, including interpreting the Basic Law in advance of local courts against opposition legislators who swore allegiance to ‘the Hong Kong nation’ during oath making. The criticism of the presence of foreign judges by Beijing’s advisors has inspired little confidence in the future of judicial independence and dampened the Hong Kong community’s confidence in OCTS.

In the near future, Beijing will be even more hands-on politically. Stability, not democracy, is paramount. Constitutional and legal levers utilised by Beijing will shape the general framework of Hong Kong’s government, legislature and judiciary, while administrative supervision and oversight of Hong Kong’s legislation will cover the specifics. Central directives issued to the Chief Executive are not known publicly. But with the formalisation and institutionalisation of all the possible central powers that could be derived from the Basic Law, the scene has already been set for central intervention in Hong Kong’s domestic governance once Beijing believes its core interests are being threatened. Read more…

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