HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS of demonstrators repeatedly took to the streets of Hong Kong in June to protest against a proposed law that would allow the extradition of criminal suspects to mainland China. Their demonstrations, some of the largest in Hong Kong’s history, were instrumental in persuading the territory’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, to suspend the bill. In agitating against closer ties, Hong Kongers made use of freedoms that are denied in mainland China. What is their origin?
In the late 20th century three historically Chinese territories remained beyond the control of the Chinese Communist Party: Taiwan, Macau and Hong Kong. Shortly after emerging as China’s paramount leader in 1978, Deng Xiaoping declared his ambition of achieving “reunification” with Taiwan. The island is technically the last stronghold of a government that once ruled all of China until a civil war ended in victory for the Communists in 1949, sending the defeated nationalist army into exile on Taiwan. Since then it has become a democracy, and its people increasingly identify as “Taiwanese”. Rulers in Beijing are sworn to unify the island with the mainland, if needs be by force. Deng promised Taiwan a “high degree of autonomy”, describing his proposal as “one country, two systems”. Taiwan would be allowed to retain its separate administration, capitalist way of life and even its own armed forces as long as it recognised the Communist government in Beijing as legitimate in all of China, including Taiwan.
The Taiwanese did not take the bait, but China used the “one country, two systems” idea when it took back Hong Kong from Britain and Macau from Portugal. Britain had secured the heart of Hong Kong in perpetuity as spoils of the 19th-century Opium Wars but the final part, the New Territories, was acquired on a 99-year lease in 1898. The Portuguese had ruled Macau since the 1500s, but eventually started withdrawing troops in 1975. With Britain’s lease expiring and Portugal abandoning Macau, China began talks with both countries in the mid-1980s to make arrangements for the return of the two territories and to decide their future political arrangements. Hong Kong and Macau were to become parts of China again in 1997 and 1999, respectively.
All parties, including China, recognised that imposing China’s political system on the two colonies would create panic and cause economic mayhem. “One country, two systems” would allow the territories to remain much as they were, with independent legal systems and police forces. Their political structures would change little, except that local “chief executives” would replace governors sent by the colonial powers. In Hong Kong, the chief executive would be elected by a 1,200-member electoral college from a pool of candidates approved by the Chinese government and would preside over a system modelled roughly on Britain’s, though with a single legislative chamber. China even promised that the chief executives would eventually be elected by “universal suffrage”, though its exact meaning in this context is unclear. The government in Beijing would be responsible for defence and diplomacy.
These arrangements are to last for 50 years. It is unclear what happens after 2047. In the meantime, democracy activists have been growing despondent as pro-establishment forces, some funded by Beijing, secured majorities in local councils and the territory’s legislature, and new loyalty tests were imposed on candidates for office. Frustration led to the so-called Umbrella Movement of 2014, a series of protests and sit-ins aimed at securing a promise of genuine democracy.
In response, the central authorities doubled down on the “one country” side of the deal. In 2016 and 2017 they secured the disbarring of six legislators for disrespecting China by mangling their oaths of loyalty. This year they have changed Hong Kong’s constitution to require the passage of a law that would punish people for insulting the national anthem, mirroring a law China passed in 2017. And they have pushed to change the current, colonial-era law that specifically bars extraditions to China. The proposed bill does not cover political offences, but many fear that the Communist Party could use it to secure the extradition of people deemed offensive.
Though Ms Lam has suspended the extradition bill, political veterans expect the Communist Party to tighten its grip in myriad, less visible ways. The central government still praises “one country, two systems” as a great innovation. In January China’s leader, Xi Jinping, stressed the policy’s importance for securing what he called the “inevitable” unification of the mainland and Taiwan. Few in Taiwan are convinced. Recent events in Hong Kong have only increased their suspicions. Deng’s innovative solution to the problem of reunification has never faced greater scepticism.