The ‘one country, two systems’ framework is coming under increasing pressure as unprecedented protests and months of unrest rock Hong Kong. Sustaining local autonomy against the background of an increasingly assertive Chinese centre has become a progressively tricky issue.
The protests in Hong Kong have challenged the conventional understanding of centre–periphery relations and the relations between the general public and the government. Countries struggling with centre–periphery relations often look to the Chinese experience for guidance in addressing thorny intergovernmental relations. In February 2019, the Philippines formally addressed a decades-long concern using a ‘Hong Kong solution’. The Muslim-led Bangsamoro region now enjoys autonomy in all areas except defence, security, foreign and monetary policy.
So why has one of the most innovative intergovernmental management policies faced deadlock after Hong Kong’s first two decades of Chinese rule?
The imperfect design of ‘one country, two systems’ may be to blame. The design did not clarify some crucial intergovernmental arrangements. These include solving disputes between the central government and the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) government and determining who is accountable for wrongdoings by government officials.
A dual dilemma exists in terms of central–local relations. A common question for central–local relations is how to hold local authorities accountable for what they do when they manage local affairs. Local governments also need to face up to a strong central power when it infringes on local powers.
There should exist an institution to check the central government on its powers. China was once viewed as a good example of how a central government’s power could be constrained and local governments empowered. In the Deng Xiaoping era, British Hong Kong’s public governance system affected Guangdong Province. It implemented the ‘open door’ policy and local innovations in public management. The central government encouraged other localities to learn from Guangdong. Hong Kong and Guangdong Province, including Shenzhen, have become an economic powerhouse since Hong Kong returned to China.
Since early 2019, the concept of the Greater Bay Area has been promoted to integrate these regions. Excellent social management for many years in the Pearl River Delta spread their good practices to other inland provinces. But recently, local experiments of public management have died out around the country. Guangdong is no exception. Chinese provinces and the central government have overlooked Hong Kong (and Guangdong)’s reforms in public governance.
Under ‘one country, two systems’, the central government is only responsible for foreign affairs and defence. All domestic affairs including the control of the judiciary, immigration and customs, public finance and extradition belong to the local government — the Hong Kong SAR government. This arrangement had been running smoothly since the handover in 1997.
Public confidence in the ‘one country, two systems’ was strong at the very beginning. Many people migrating to other countries such as Canada in the 1990s returned to Hong Kong after the handover and spread the good word of ‘one country, two systems’. The turning point was the legislation related to Article 23 of the Basic Law in 2003. It was withdrawn due to serious opposition and overconfident leadership.
People worried that the legislation would abolish their freedom of speech and jeopardise the rule of law. Hong Kong’s press freedom has plummeted since then. Hong Kong is now ranked 73 out of 180 countries in the 2019 World Press Freedom Index.
The central government denied the request made by the Hong Kong people in 2014 for genuine universal suffrage. Hong Kong’s people want their own ‘one person, one vote’. Promises made by the central government in the 1980s and 1990s indicated that Hong Kong would be able to decide its government according to universal suffrage and the central government would provide endorsement. The central government’s unexpected decision in August 2014 which set new limits on the process to nominate candidates for the Chief Executive of Hong Kong has resulted in the 79-day ‘Occupy Central’ movement.
The current protests were set in motion after the government of Chief Executive Carrie Lam proposed an extradition bill in February 2019. After several rounds of tough crackdowns on pro-democracy lawmakers and activities, the Hong Kong SAR government was optimistic about their political strength, but overlooked anger at the grassroots level.
Hong Kong’s public worry that local people may be kidnapped and taken to mainland China for sentencing. In the anti-extradition bill movement, both younger and older generations took to the streets. Even pro-establishment supporters quietly marched in the crowd. The latest protests have complicated the situation in Hong Kong due to violence, vandalism and attacks on the police.
Maintaining national unity and uniformity are conflicting ideas because of the diversity of preferences, voices and exit options. In terms of promoting national unity in the view of Beijing, Hong Kong has stood out as a bad example under poor central–local interactions over the past decade. The central government of China has continuously praised Macau for its loyal behaviour and has been greatly rewarded economically by the central government. Hong Kong is being viewed differently as full of troublemakers.
In a best-case scenario, the Hong Kong SAR government will have more dialogue with the general public and the anti-government movement will die out. In a worst-case scenario, the central government and the Hong Kong SAR government may stifle the anti-government movement and the violence will continue and even escalate in the city. In this event, Hong Kong will risk becoming ungovernable.
Alfred M. Wu is Associate Professor and Assistant Dean at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, the National University of Singapore.