Mon, Jun 10, 2019 - Page 6 News List

Stephen M. Young On Taiwan: What’s happening to Hong Kong? Behind the fading of ‘one country, two systems’

In a sense, I was present at the beginning of the “one country, two systems” concept. As a young diplomat, I was responsible for Hong Kong and Macau on the China Desk at the US State Department in the early eighties. The UK Ambassador used to come in to brief my boss in the East Asian Bureau, Ambassador Stapleton Roy, on their negotiations with the Chinese on the vibrant colony, which had been under British tutelage since the 1840s. The British confided to us that things weren’t going well. Their desire to extend the 99-year lease beyond 1997 was turned aside by Beijing. So the negotiations shifted to the nature of the turnover. In general, the Chinese were not giving up much.

Having given up on an extension, the UK position was to seek to extract maximum concessions as to the nature of Chinese rule following the turnover. Chinese strongman Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) had already unveiled his “one country, two systems” in the late seventies, at the time the US had severed formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan and shifted our embassy to Beijing. Deng made it clear that China would respect the political and economic system in the two territories for at least fifty years, seeking by this pledge to dispel concerns that it would seek to communize the two open and capitalist societies.

This was followed by the negotiations, between UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Chinese leader Deng, that fleshed out the terms of Hong Kong’s transfer in 1997. The agreement was finalized in 1984, and Deng boasted that China would do such a fine job gently absorbing Hong Kong that Taiwan would be anxious to accept similar terms later on. Of course Taiwan never showed the slightest interest in this offer, making the point that as a sovereign and independent entity, it had no cause to move in China’s direction.

Hong Kong lacked the political standing Taiwan had long enjoyed, and also lacked the ninety miles of water that separate Taiwan from the mainland of China. Nor did it have its own military.

Having reluctantly accepted the reality that Hong Kong must return to China in 1997, the Brits worked hard to ensure as smooth a transition as possible. The Chinese, for their part, suggested they would flesh out the “high degree of autonomy” they had pledged to Hong Kong’s people. The widespread perception abroad was that Hong Kong, with its UK-based legal system and advanced financial practices, would prove a much better asset to Beijing by being left largely alone.

Then came Tiananmen, and the resulting political crackdown in the PRC which shocked the world and sent a clear message to the people of Hong Kong that things were not likely to be smooth after 1997. Beijing continued to talk a good game, but the steady outflow of people and capital from Hong Kong as 1997 neared told a different story.

True, local elections were broadened in Hong Kong in the last years of British sovereignty, and China made grandiose promises in an attempt to allay concerns down south. There was an ambiguous promise to permit Hong Kong’s people to choose their own leaders, though it was always clear that the Chief Executive position there would require formal approval from up north. The selection of the members of the Legislative Council (Legco) was also subjected to some greater popular participation, though vested business interests with abiding loyalty to China remained in the majority.

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