Written by Stephan Ortmann.

For twenty years since 1997, Hong Kong has been ruled as a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China under the principle of ‘One Country, Two Systems’ as agreed upon in the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration. Under the arrangement, the city was granted a ‘high degree’ of autonomy for 50 years – until 2047 – and only foreign affairs and defense were specifically excluded. Recently officials have begun to question the viability of the concept and have raised the possibility that China may end the special status sooner.

The existence of a Special Administrative Region is a fundamental contradiction in the Chinese political system because, unlike federal regimes, it is a unitary system in which power is supposed to be concentrated in the Leninist one-party state and autonomous regions are expected to be under full control of the central government. This creates a hierarchical and authoritarian structure which denies subordinate units the right to participation and inhibits the development of democracy.  

The decision to use the One Country, Two Systems approach to restore sovereignty over Hong Kong was an entirely pragmatic one. It was designed to reduce fears of Communist Party control and provide a path for the eventual unification with Taiwan. However, this decision ignored the need to solve the more complex issue of integrating a vastly different political and legal system into a one-party regime. Unlike in the reunification of East and West Germany, in the case of Hong Kong the more advanced political and legal system became part of an institutionally underdeveloped system. Despite rapid economic development, Chinese leaders had steadfastly rejected political reforms that would have institutionalized and dispersed political power.

On June 4th, 1989, the Chinese government even violently cracked down on peaceful protesters who were demanding political reforms. In May, more than a million Hong Kong people demonstrated their support to the democracy movement in Beijing and they provided significant financial support to the activists. The crackdown naturally heightened fears of the future integration into an unreformed Communist regime and it also caused concerns in Beijing of the potentially subversive nature of Hong Kong.

Following the handover in 1997, any events that suggested an erosion of the much cherished liberties or legal guarantees was seen as an attempt to ‘mainlandize’ the city. This became evident in 2003 when at least half a million people protested against a proposed national security law under Article 23 of the Basic Law, the min-constitution of Hong Kong. For Beijing, the protest and the subsequent decision to abandon the legislation was viewed with great concern and led to greater control over the city. In particular, Beijing took aim at the pan-democrats who organized the protests and who since 1989 were viewed as traitors.

Liberal political reforms, even in regard to the introduction of the rule of law, have increasingly fallen out of favor in Beijing. The economic ascendancy and troubles in Western countries have, at least rhetorically, confirmed the Chinese government’s belief in an alternative Chinese approach to modernization which is decidedly more authoritarian. This belief has become especially strong with Xi Jinping’s rise to power in 2012, who has centralized power behind him and cracked down on liberal-minded activists. In a symbolic move, he took the role of Communist Party’s ‘core leader’ in 2016.

Aside from monopolizing power, Xi has also sought to re-centralize the country, which Pierre F. Landry had just dubbed decentralized authoritarianism in 2012. He could not have known that this was to be the year of massive re-centralization which would have serious consequences not only for China’s provinces and autonomous regions but more conspicuously for the two administrative regions. The massive crackdown on corruption at all levels was a serious blow to Macau’s gambling industry. Only recently has the former Portuguese colony been able to recover. High-stakes gambling has returned and Macau continues to be the political poster boy for Beijing.  

In contrast to Macau, control over the former British colony has grown significantly in recent years. This was particularly evident in the 2014 White Paper on One Country, Two Systems which asserted that China has ‘comprehensive jurisdiction’ over the territory and that the ‘high degree of autonomy’ did not entail any decentralized power. In light of the White Paper, the electoral reform proposal in the same year was only an attempt to fulfill the letter of the Basic Law without actually allowing Hong Kong people the right to vote for their own leader. The proposed criteria for the nomination of candidates would have effectively barred any pan-democrats from competing.

The lack of progress toward democracy, however, strengthened calls for full autonomy and even independence. Hong Kong’s youth in particular desired a future separate from the mainland. The Chinese government saw this as a potential threat to the unity and sovereignty of the country, and the issue came to a head when two newly elected localist legislators used the oath-taking ceremony to swear allegiance to the Hong Kong nation while using derogatory language in regard to China. The incident caused a major uproar and prompted the fifth Chinese interpretation of the Basic Law that further eroded the city’s autonomy.

The increasing concern of even a whiff of localism was visible during the 2017 selection process of the next Chief Executive. Following the decision of CY Leung not to seek a second term, the Chinese government made it clear that only one of the three potential candidates was acceptable. The choice fell on former Chief Secretary Carrie Lam even though she was very unpopular with only 29% public support in the last opinion survey before the election. The most popular choice was former Financial Secretary John Tsang who received 56 percent in the same survey, his concern for local affairs and support from the pan-democrats proving unpopular with the Chinese authorities.

In the same year, Wang Zhenmin, an official of the Central Liaison Office declared that the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ principle in Hong Kong could be abandoned earlier than the 2047 deadline. He was concerned about the rising anti-Chinese sentiment and calls for independence. Confident about the superiority of the Chinese political system, he declared that the people of Hong Kong should have ‘respect and awe’ for the system. This statement not only increased fears among many people in Hong Kong about their future but also likely strengthened the localist movement.

The road ahead for Hong Kong’s autonomy is clearly thorny. The more Chinese officials threaten the city’s autonomy, the louder the calls for independence. It is likely that there will be a crackdown on the budding independence movement but this will only drive it underground. The next few years are likely to be filled with many potential controversies that could fundamentally derail Hong Kong’s autonomy.

Stephan Ortmann will be Assistant Professor in the Department of Asian and International Studies of City University of Hong Kong from July. He has published on politics and democratization in Hong Kong, Singapore, China and Vietnam. He is the author of Politics and Change in Singapore and Hong Kong: Containing Contention (Routledge, 2010) and Environmental Govermance in Vietnam: Institutional Reforms and Failures (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017). Image Credit: CC by APEC 2013/Flickr.